The best time to prune a fruit tree varies from one state to another, depending on the severity of the winters, the hardiness of the tree and the kind of fruit tree you have. Most often, trees are pruned when they're dormant, in winter. In warmer areas, however, fall pruning may be best. Consult your local extension service for advice on best times. Occasionally, however, you need to prune a tree out of season, to shape it or to control its growth more severely.
The Right Kind of Pruning
Find out when the recommended pruning time for your tree is in your area and why. If you choose to take off growth at another time, be sure you understand the risks involved. Is it the possibility of winter damage to remaining shoots? Do you have enough remaining growth to take that risk? Or is the tree so small that you may lose it?
Prune new growth in early summer wherever you live. You can either cut new shoots off at the base when they are 6 to 10 inches long or, if you wish to make the tree more bushy, cut them off at the second bud above the base. The two buds remaining will then grow into new branches.
Long straight shoots that grow vertically are called "water sprouts" and produce no fruit. Most are best pruned back to two buds to force out new growth, though you can cut some out completely by removing them at the base.
Any new growth that is crossing another branch or pointed back toward the trunk needed to be cut out, either in summer or in the regular spring pruning. Since there's no point in leaving it, cut it at the base as soon as you notice it.
In mild winter areas, continue pruning through late summer and fall, taking off crossing sprouts, cutting off water sprouts and pruning back new growth to two buds wherever you wish to promote bushiness. This may stimulate new growth, but these shoots are unlikely to be damaged by low temperatures.
In northern areas where winters are severe, prune only if you're willing to risk frost damage to the tree.
Remove major branches only in early spring or early summer, cutting them back to the trunk or another major branch. Remove only smaller branches or twigs at other times unless winter damage is not a concern.