While family was visiting for Christmas I invited my niece to prune a fruit tree with me. Is pruning your fruit trees a little intimidating? What to cut? Where to cut? You can’t reverse it after you’ve cut.

There can be a lot to think about when a deciduous fruit tree loses its leaves and you think about pruning it: Do I want an “open center” shape for this tree? Where do the flowers form on a peach again? How close together can the branches be? Should I cut this branch in half or all the way off?

This post is narrowly focused. Let’s only talk about where to make a cut. Not which branches to cut, not how many, just where.

Cutting a branch all the way off

There are two kinds of cuts we can make. Either you cut a branch to shorten it, or you cut it all the way off.

While my niece and I were doing our pruning, discussing cutting a branch all the way off, I hadn’t realized that my brother was filming, but he was, and he captured this:

Anyway, I was saying that when you want to cut a branch all the way off the best place to make the cut is just above the collar. The branch collar is the swollen ring at the base of the branch where it connects to another branch.

This collar is capable of healing over your pruning wound. It takes a year or two or more, but if the collar is left intact and heals over the cut then there is no longer an opening into which disease-causing micro-organisms have easy entry.

Here is a cut that is in the processs of being healed over:

Branch collar in process of sealing pruning wound on pluot tree.

And here is an older cut that has been completely sealed up by the collar:

Branch collar callused over pruning cut on apple tree.

But what if? I love to play the What if? game. What if you cut far above the collar? In that case, the leftover branch above the collar usually dies back to the collar, leaving a dead stub.

Big problem? No, but it doesn’t look so good and the stub will catch on your shirtsleeve or arm as you harvest fruit or prune again next time. And imagine the compounded annoyance if you leave a lot of these stubs throughout a tree. So there’s no benefit to leaving a stub.

On the other hand, what if you cut low and cut into the collar?

Old pruning wound that hasn’t callused over, perhaps because the cut damaged the collar.

You kill the collar’s ability to callus and seal up that wound. Big problem? Often not, but it is dangerous, and it is more dangerous than leaving a stub because this wound is bigger and can end up rotting and giving a welcome entry to pathogens into the larger branch or trunk behind.

So if you err, err on the side of cutting too far above the collar rather than damaging the collar.

Shortening a branch

As for shortening a branch, well, here’s video of me and my niece (and my daughter on my back):

So, to shorten a branch you want to cut just above a bud. The buds along a branch are the points where the branch is capable of growing from. If you cut just above a bud, what usually happens is that bud then starts growing.

Cut made just above a bud.

Here is the result of a branch cut back to a bud one year ago, last winter:

Bud grown out behind pruning cut on apricot branch.

(Sometimes a bud or two below that highest bud also start growing.)

The reasons for cutting just above a bud are similar to the reasons for cutting just above a collar. If you cut too far above the bud, the bud will grow but the branch will die back to the bud and leave a dead stub.

Dead stub on peach branch from pruning too far above a bud.

If you cut too close to the bud and damage it, it won’t grow well or possibly be killed. So here again, we want to err on the side of cutting too far above rather than too close.

But what was that talk in the video about “outward-facing” buds? When you choose which bud to cut to, it’s best to choose a bud that is facing the side of the branch that you want the new growth to aim toward. Usually, you don’t want a branch to grow in toward the center of the tree because it can get too crowded there, so you choose a bud that is facing away from the center of the tree (or another uncrowded direction).

Likewise, you can shorten a branch by cutting it back to a smaller branch that is growing in a desired direction. Here you want to cut to just above the little branch, not damaging its little collar.

Branch cut back to smaller branch.

Note that if the smaller branch is too small, however, it will not become the new growing point and may die back. A rule of thumb is that the smaller branch must be at least one third the size of the larger branch.

That’s it, that’s where to cut a branch on a deciduous fruit tree: cut just above — not into — the collar or a bud, or another branch, leaving no stubs. If you do, you get a graceful, healthy, and harvest-friendly branch architecture.

Branch architecture of Snow Queen nectarine trained in open center style, before winter pruning.

Have a look at your trees and note their reactions to the cuts you have made in the past. I’ve tried to be clear and accurate in what I said and showed here, but nothing beats personal observation. I really encourage you to take a few minutes to do this. Whenever I do I gain more confidence for future pruning.

Other posts and resources about pruning deciduous fruit trees

Here are a few posts I’ve written about other aspects of pruning deciduous fruit trees that you may like to check out:

Don’t cut off the fruiting wood: Pruning lesson number one

Think about sunshine when pruning deciduous fruit trees

My best advice on pruning deciduous fruit trees: Keep them small

Should you prune a bare-root fruit tree?

Summer pruning deciduous fruit trees

And here are some links to my favorite resources about the topic of pruning deciduous fruit trees in general:

The Home Orchard is the best book with a chapter on the subject. Find it at your library. See it here on Amazon. Read my review here.

This document is essentially a summary of the pruning chapter of The Home Orchard.

— An excellent video of Chuck Ingels talking pruning is here. Skip to 36 minutes in for the pruning section.

— Chuck Ingels, an advisor with the University of California, also has a slideshow full of helpful photos about training and pruning fruit trees here.

Happy pruning!

You might also like to read:

When and how to prune citrus trees

Pruning avocado trees

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