Summer pruning is monkey work. I love its simplicity. There is joyously little thought or skill involved. But it is necessary monkey work.
If you want to keep a deciduous fruit tree small and you skip a summer pruning, you start to lose hold on the size and productivity of that tree. So no skipping this summer.
(Why keep a fruit tree small? See my post, “My best advice on pruning deciduous fruit trees: Keep them small.”)
I just gave a couple of my deciduous fruit trees a haircut, and here’s how and why.
How to summer prune
First I pruned the Snow Queen nectarine. Before pruning, it looked like this:
And ten minutes later, it looked like this:
What did I spend ten minutes doing? I simply cut back some side branches so the tree wasn’t crowding the path and other trees nearby, and so I could reach the top of the tree better. There at the top, I cut every branch that was higher than the reach of my loppers. Nothing else to it: just put the loppers over my head and cut, cut, cut.
Summer pruning is like trimming a hedge, and in fact, in commercial orchards summer pruning is often done by machines using buzzsaws.
Why summer prune
What’s the purpose of this simple summer pruning? All you are aiming to do is make sure that the new branches and leaves that have grown in spring don’t shade the lower branches too much — because if they do, then those lower branches won’t make as many flowers as possible next spring. Flowers, of course, become fruit.
If shaded too much for too long, the lower branches will also eventually die.
That would be a shame! Then your one-year old daughter wouldn’t be able to forage her own snacks.
Globe or “open center” tree shapes like my nectarine shown above work well for small fruit trees and so do pyramid or “central leader” tree shapes, like my Flavor King pluot here:
With both tree shapes, your summer pruning has the same aim, which is to make sure enough light is getting to the lower branches. For the globe-shaped tree it is the height of the top growth that intercepts the sunlight and that you must control (in addition to removing some branches from the center, hence “open” center). But for the pyramid-shaped tree it is the width of the top growth that you must control.
So in practice, for a pyramid-shaped tree, you don’t just buzzsaw the top growth flat. You need to make sure the top growth stays pointy and narrower than the bottom.
Here is the Flavor King pluot tree after a light summer pruning:
When to summer prune
These trees I pruned here in early July. What determines the timing?
A rule of thumb is to summer prune once the tree has put on approximately two feet of growth. Two feet of new branches and leaves is enough to cause quite a bit of shading to lower branches.
This can happen much earlier than summer, however. One of my fruit trees grew so fast and early this year that I had to “summer” prune it back in May.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, my Blenheim apricot tree still hasn’t grown enough foliage to need pruning. In fact, pruning it now would risk harm. The apricots at the top and outer edges of the canopy would get sunburned if a heatwave hit and there weren’t enough leaves protecting them. It looks like I may not summer prune this tree until well after harvest, sometime in August. It all depends on the pace of growth.
Rewards of summer pruning
The apricot tree has fruit up top, but of course, it also has fruit down low.
This is the reward for summer pruning: You get fruit up high for mom and dad and fruit down low for the kids.
End note: Summer pruning is for keeping small trees small; it is not the time to cut a 15-foot tree down to eight. Drastic size reduction like that should be done in winter. (If done in summer, sunburn on the branches is likely and overall tree decline is possible, in my experience.)
You might also like to read my other posts about pruning deciduous fruit trees:
Or some posts about pruning avocados and citrus:
And here are a couple of useful posts for here in July: