A Pre Prune Ponder

pre prune ponder

A pre prune ponder is oh so helpful, especially if you are new to pruning or feeling a bit wobbly about it. Hang out with your fruit trees this month to make a bit of a plan. When it comes to pruning day, you’ll feel stronger and more confident from your virtual run through.

Take some twine or rags or pegs with you and use these to mark any branches you decide to remove.

Wait until all the leaves have fallen before pruning.

Thinning Cut + Heading Cut

Understanding the difference between these 2 types of cut will instantly make you a better pruner and what a difference to your fruit trees when you give up heading and get thinning! Though you aren’t cutting yet, knowing this will help you plan your prune.

To thin is to completely remove. To head back is to shorten. Thinning takes courage, especially when a whole branch needs to come off.

Make the majority of your cuts thinning cuts for a beautiful tree that’s open to receive the light and the breeze. Read more about this here.

Off With The Dead

Start by removing the broken, dead stuff. Plan to prune back behind the damage, maybe even right back to the trunk, for a clean slate. Mark the spot with a tie.

Let There Be Light

Leader and scaffold on Mayflower Apples
These generous gaps between the scaffold branches feel so good don’t they! They’re created with courageous thinning cuts.

Light is our secret weapon in the bid to grow fruit – wood bathed in light is productive wood. The two for one deal here is that with light comes airflow, a major player in tree health.

If light is the only thing you shoot for you wont go wrong! Work out where your tree needs light and remove branches that are cluttering the tree. Be brave! Open up dark, cluttered spaces. Often times the removal of one branch does it.

  • Remove up to a quarter of the wood. Any more than this and you risk stimulating vigorous shooting next year which clutters the tree and is a headache for the pruner. Stack prunings by the tree to keep it real about how much you’ve pruned.
  • Plan to remove everything beneath the first set of branches. Good airflow through here is super important. I go for about a 1m gap between the ground and the first branches for good air circulation in our high rainfall and vigorous grass. Make the height of the first set of branches work for your situation eg mowing, animals, gardens.
  • Mature trees can have one scaffold branch removed per year. Removing it will keep fresh new growth coming on. Choose the tallest, or the one that’s clogging up the middle or one that’s over shadowed by another. If there is more than one, leave the others for next year.

Take a few steps back and circumnavigate your tree to work these cuts out. Mark them with a tie.

Balance = Strength

Prune for a balanced shape ediblebackyard nz
Mayflower apple tree pre pruning. A strong balanced shape.

Lopsided trees are heading for breakage or a fall. If your tree is on a dangerous lean, or one branch is way longer than the others, do whatever you need to do to bring balance. Mark the place you’ll be cutting with a tie.

Plan to always keep your tree in a strong balanced shape by keeping the length of branches even-ish. Use the shorter branches as your measure. Keep the core of the tree strong and centred.

Rethink Ties and Stakes

tie a branch down in spring to train it into shape ediblebackyard nz
This tie was put in place last spring. Instead of going up, this shoot is now on the horizontal for more fruit + more light. Its time to remove the tie.

While you’re with your trees, check in on ties and stakes. Remove any training ties you put in place last spring. They’ve done their job, the wood’s insistent and if left on will only bite into the wood and disrupt the nutrient flow. How easy it is to train young branches!

Rethink any trees that are tied to stakes. Dwarf rootstocks need a permanent stake, so refresh these ties and check the stakes while you’re at it. Be sure they aren’t rubbing on any part of the tree and that they are solid.

Medium to large trees only need a stake for the first couple of years. If they are big enough and sturdy enough, set them free.

Tree Shapes: A Central Leader + A Vase

plum trees coming into blossom

These descriptions will help you create a sturdy, fruitful shape. Bear in mind line drawings don’t reflect natures ways! Adapt the spacings and ideas to your tree – don’t try and force it into a linear shape.

A Central Leader For Apples + Pears

A central leader is defined by the single stem (trunk or leader) that runs from the ground to the top of the tree. From this one leader, 3 scaffolds (tiers or layers) of branches spring. Each scaffold consists of 3 to 5 branches coming from the trunk within 300mm of each other.

Central leader
Trees are rarely this linear, but you get the idea!

The space between each scaffold should be 400mm (for a small rootstock) to 900mm (for a large rootstock). From these branches laterals (shoots) arise. On these laterals come the spurs (buds) that grow the flowers and fruits.

Make Central Leaders A Pyramid Shape

Sculpting central leaders into a triangle or pyramid shape achieves great light penetration. The first scaffold (at hip height) is long and flat, the second (about shoulder height) shorter,  the third (about head height) shorter still.

There are so many advantages here – light gets to every nook and cranny, you can reach in with ease to thin and pick, and the low centre of gravity makes for a robust, strong tree.

A Vase Shaped Tree For Stone Fruit


A vase shape suits the spreading tendencies of stone fruit trees (and vigorous apples that wont behave – hello Montys Surprise!)

Evenly spaced scaffold branches come off the trunk at about hip height, within 300mm of each other. From these scaffolds, secondary branches spring.

Spread the spacings of these secondary branches so they don’t get tangled in each other. Keep the centre of the tree completely open for good light distribution – hello thinning cuts!


  1. How soon after rain is it okay to prune?

  2. Hi Kath, I’m about to plant 3 double grafted trees – 2x apples and a pear. How do I do the first prune?

    • Exactly the same as any fruit tree except leave two leaders – one for each graft. Pull the stronger one back to meet the weaker one – not to be exactly the same but in the ball park – this creates balance + strength in the end shape. Either not prune the weak side at all, just bring the bigger graft back to meet it ish, or perhaps if both are even just leave them to grow on. Remove all branches is my preference or you could keep them and head them back if that feels better.
      Keep that goal of balance + strength with every prune, keep pulling the stronger side back to align with the weaker side and of course let light penetration be your guide and if it all goes belly up in 3 years time … no stress, just chop of the weak side and let the other one have its way 🙂
      happy pruning Kath

  3. Eleanor Knox says

    Hi Kath, I have got 2 plum trees, a wilsons early planted last year and a black doris planted a month ago. Both are central leaders. In your book you recommend vase shape and I’m wondering if I can shape them at this early stage into a vase shape.
    Many thanks