Newly planted fruit trees require pruning to develop the scaffold of the tree. The way the young fruit tree is pruned will determine the basic characteristics of the mature tree. Fruit trees need an open center to allow light and air circulation, and they need strong branches that are well-spaced and angled away from the trunk. Different kinds of fruit trees differ in their ultimate shaping needs, and pruning recommendations vary in different parts of the country, but the basic framework of any fruit tree is developed by early pruning.
Allow a young fruit tree that was planted as a whip (a small unbranched tree) to grow into its first summer without pruning. It should, however, have a header cut made to the growing tip at planting time. To make a header cut, remove a few inches from the tip of the whip; this will encourage root growth. By mid-summer, branches will have begun to grow, and you can prune them to begin developing the framework of the tree. Select a few well-spaced branches and trim out the rest. The tree’s energy for the rest of the summer will go into these branches.
A two or three year old fruit tree from the nursery should already have this initial shaping done.
Study the young fruit tree, and visualize the conformation you want it to develop as it matures. Find a leader, a central, strong-growing upright limb in the center of the tree. Build a lateral framework of branches from it.
Prune off low growing branches from young fruit trees. The first lateral branching should be no lower than 20 inches from the ground on a newly planted fruit tree. Keep the branches balanced, shaping the tree somewhat like a candelabra. Nip off suckers and water sprouts; these will not produce fruit and will sap strength from the tree.
Space the limbs evenly around the tree so it will be well-balanced. An unbalanced tree will be heavy and one-sided when it carries fruit. This makes it susceptible to leaning, and the branches are more likely to split or break off. Lop-sided trees often topple over in a storm.
Tie and stake a young fruit tree if it is leaning. Use a rubber tie or strip of cloth loosely around the trunk and gently pull it so the tree is vertical, then tie it to a stake. Do this before pruning, so it will be easier to shape the tree correctly.