Fruit Tree Pruning Time – Or is it?

Some couples disagree about when to turn on the furnace in fall, others about the proper time to ask for directions or –– if partnered, you can no doubt fill the blank. With us, it’s a long-standing difference of opinion about when to prune the rescued old fruit trees in the New York yard. Bill wants to do it in late winter, when farmers have always pruned their trees. I want it done in summer, because I know there will be more flowers, less regrowth and fewer water sprouts.

He has the weight of tradition on his side; I have nothing except being right. And as “want it done” suggests, I have ( and should have) zero say, because he’s the one who does it.


If you’re serious about summer pruning, trying to produce good fruit or a well-behaved espalier, you follow some modified form of the Lorette system, developed in the early 20th century by Louis Lorette, a professor at the Lycee Agricole in Wagnonville, France. The process is briefly described by NAFEX member Mark Lee, gone into more deeply by a publication from New Mexico State University. M. Lorette’s book itself is out of print, but there are copies – both English and French – available through Bookfinder.

The climate of the Northern US having little in common with that of the Department du Nord, modified is the operative word; you can get into trouble treating your trees as though they were in France. But assuming you’re managing mature trees, not encouraging young ones, there’s much to be said for pruning that tends to stay put.

See all those useless, non-flowering water sprouts sticking straight up? That’s a present from last year’s dormant pruning. It’s not so bad on trees that have been kept in check from infancy, but it can still be a pain in the pruner.

The Argument, Short Version:

Advantages of dormant pruning:

Leafless branch structure is clear; you can see what you’re doing

Fungus diseases are dormant too, so there’s less danger of transmission

Tree is just about to start the active growth that promotes wound-healing

You are not doing the 30,000 other agricultural things that claim your time in midsummer

Advantages of summer pruning

Vegetative growth is restricted. Tree stays smaller.

Tree does not send up a gazillion water sprouts that must in their turn be pruned.

Fruiting spurs develop closer to main branches, and there are often more of them.

It’s ( usually) more pleasant to be working outdoors

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  • My take – late autumn.

    One older lady never let me do it earlier than January. Then 4 years later, she said she read something similar to my plan to prune earlier. So we did it late November, and she got just as many apples.

    I don’t prune the major pruning in summer, as it can expose bark to a bit of sunburn, not allowing acclimating like cool season pruning.

    But I thin a second time in summer, about 5 to 10 percent.

    Pruning apple trees is sort of an art, probably one of the most challenging things to learn, if the tree is to remain in contol, and evolve over the decades.


    M. D. Vaden

  • leslie Said,

    Welcome, M.D.

    and thanks for your take on things – both the wisdom of autumn pruning AND, very importantly, the art part.

    I’m beginning to think (fear) every tree has different needs, and now that the weather is so unpredictable that’s another factor to consider.

    You don’t say you’re a professional tree person, but it sure sounds like you’ve done a lot of pruning. Any advice for us on plums and pears?

  • Hello to Leslie.

    Yes, trees are my work. I’m using the website box for your blog. My name is linked if you mouse-over it and click.

    Not much more to offer about pear and plum, except I prune those too from late autumn to winter. With those two, like apple, I don’t remove every sprout anymore. Just my style, but it works. I remove 3/4 of the largest sprouts, and leave the smallest 1/4. After the growth season, those then become the biggest, and a new 1/4 will be left. I like the more feathery natural look. And in the long-run, the tree seems to come out about the same by September’s end.

    Also, I spend quite a bit of time looking for water sprouts to train into fruit spurs, rather than leaving it all up to random chance. There is a tree care photos album at my site, showing a before and after on a fruit spur, labeled to show where the cuts were made.

    Autumn is here, and I’m loving it. My favorite season, and favorite weather to work in, and hike in.



    • Leslie Said,

      Hi M.D.

      and welcome. It’s interesting to hear about fruit tree pruning on the opposite side of the country, where conditions are very different even if the trees are the same. Maine, France, Oregon…

      Guess the takeaway may be that just about anything works, as long as you keep ’em under control and don’t cut off all the fruiting wood!

  • We may have double conditions for fruit tree here. in Oregon. Portland has mild, wet and blustery winters. A couple of clear weeks near Jan. & Fer. and warm with very little rain in July and Aug. Not really humid like Georgia or something of that like. Plenty of apple is grown at homes around Portland and the comparable Willamette Valley to the south. Willamette Valley soils were deposited from the Missoula Floods ages ago, which you may know about.

    The bulk of the commercial apple growing in Oregon is east on the other side of Mt. Hood, where winters are much colder and the summer a bit drier yet.

    MDV / Oregon

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