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Pruning a newly-planted fruit tree

As soon as you have planted a new fruit tree (see guide on how to plant a fruit tree), you may need to carry out a one-time initial pruning. The tree may not establish successfully if you do not prune it.

The following table shows all the types of fruit trees we supply, and the initial pruning required after planting (if any). Find the entry in the first column that most closely matches your tree, and then review the pruning requirements in the second column.

Your new tree Initial pruning straight after planting
Bare-root 1-year tree on dwarf or semi-vigorous or interstem rootstock with no or very few side-branches Pruning required.
See instructions (A) below.
Bare-root 1-year tree on dwarf or semi-vigorous or interstem rootstock with 3-4 or more side-branches Pruning required.
See instructions (B) below.
Bare-root 1-year tree on vigorous rootstock to be trained as a standard Pruning optional.

If you need to do an initial prune, the following sections tell you how.

(A) Initial pruning of bare-root fruit trees with no side-branches ("feathers") or just 1-2 side-branches

After planting or during the first winter before the tree breaks from dormancy in spring you must cut back the 1-year tree, a process known as "heading" or "topping". This has two benefits. Firstly it restores the balance of the tree between the top part and the roots, since the roots naturally get disturbed during the transplanting process. Secondly, it encourages side-branches to form at the correct height for the growing tree the following spring. It may feel counter-intuitive to do this, since in effect you are cutting a brand-new tree in half and throwing most of it away - but it is the best thing to do. If you do not prune the tree back the chances of it establishing successfully are greatly reduced.

The height at which you make the cut is determined by how you want the tree to grow. Here are some guidelines, the height being measured from the soil level:

  • 8" / 20cm for a step-over (usually on the M27 or G65 rootstock)
  • 16" / 40cm for a fan or espalier
  • 36" / 80cm for a bush or cordon
  • 40" / 1m for a central leader or spindlebush
  • 4ft / 1.2m for half-standard on MM106 rootstock

If you are not sure, then a height of about 3ft / 1m (36-40 inches) is a good compromise for most rootstocks, or just under 30" / 0.75m for very dwarfing rootstocks such as M27 or G65.

When making the cut, use sharp secateurs, locate a bud at the approximate height, and make a slanting cut away from the bud. Practice first higher up the tree or on a thin branch from another tree if necessary.

If there 1-2 side-branches, cut them right back to about 1" / 2cm.

If you need any help, send us a photograph of the tree and we can advise further.

(B) Initial pruning of bare-root fruit trees with 3 or more side branches ("feathers")

The simple rule of thumb for this pruning step is to cut back the main shoots by 1/2 of their length.

If your tree is a 1-year tree (and is not being trained as a "standard") you must also prune the leading stem (if there is one) back to about 1m / 36-40". This might sound drastic, but it makes all the difference in helping the tree to continue growing when it comes out of dormancy in the spring. Note that in some cases we may have done this at the nursery just prior to shipping, in which case you will not need to prune again - the fresh pruning cuts will be quite obvious.

You can also remove any side-branches below 18" - 24" / 0.5m, as these are too low to be usable.

Other tasks when planting a new fruit tree.


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