How to Prune or How Not to Prune, That Should Be the Question

Mary Fitch, Extension Master Gardener, Anoka County


A number of years ago, I planted several varieties of plum trees and they all had a different idea of how they were going to develop. One tree was tucked in between a long row of Norway pines, a raspberry briar and next to a horse arena where rain water brought significant amounts of diluted manure. It’s not exaggerating to say that this plum tree grew like a weed. The healthy tree turned into a real mess, bent over, twisted up, and had no fruit production.

A friend who had worked for us a number of years on our small farm, offered to help prune the tree. I thought that this was within his ability, with some proper direction on pruning. Unfortunately, I dropped the ball. Instead of spending the necessary time researching the right way to prune fruit trees and give him directions, we “planned the attack” based on what we thought we wanted the result to look like when the pruning was completed. Wrong! It did not go well for the tree. As it grew, it became more bent over, crisscrossed and still had no fruit production.

Two years have passed since that lesson. The tree was a mess, plus it was a headache to mow around. I knew it was time to take action. I did what should have been done the first time; I researched and found reliable information concerning pruning fruit trees, educated myself and my friend on how to properly prune fruit trees. I printed several how to pictures for making the cuts, then we went down to my plum tree and started pruning. We went on to prune several more of the fruit trees.

Here are the steps we followed. Keep these things in mind as you prune your trees:

  1. Prune trees while they are in dormancy is the healthiest option.
  2. Pruning near the end of the dormant season has several advantages, including a) Limited time before spring growth and the healing process, b) Avoiding disease and pests, c) Easier access to pruning sites.
  3. Proper tools are critical. Make sure they are sharp. Know the limitations of each tool.
  4. To avoid bacteria from spreading in spring, sterilize tools between cuts with a 1:10 dilution of household bleach in water.
  5. Our first attempts were primarily topping/blunt cuts. A top cut removes the part of a branch that promotes vigorous sprouting and involves a blunt cut across a branch. This created the “flat top” look. Here is an explanation of how to remove overgrowth:

The following link from the University of Minnesota Extension website has more information that you may find helpful. “Pruning Trees and Shrubs” by Beth Berlin, Extension Educator, Horticulture:

It is April as I write this and with what seems like a never-ending winter season, it will be a while before we get to see the results of our efforts. Shop our upcoming plant sale May 15th & 16th: