How + When to Prune Citrus


Citrus are my favourite trees to prune. Especially thick, thorny, over grown ones – they restore so quickly and beautifully when you use mainly thinning cuts. What a difference when you give up heading cuts and get thinning!

  • Heading is to shorten a shoot, and trim around the outside – a tree’s bowl haircut! All these cuts produce forks, making for a twiggy, dense tree. Not to say, don’t use heading cuts, rather don’t to lean on this type of cut.
  • Thinning, on the other hand, is the removal of a whole shoot or branch, taking it back to its point of origin. It creates a lovely open tree – light pours in and air flows.

It’s a bold move for beginners though, but be brave – it’s exactly what citrus need. Because they fruit on new seasons wood, this style of pruning keeps trees compact, sturdy an insanely fruitful.

An annually pruned citrus only needs a small prune.

Overgrown citrus can totally take a hard prune. I’ve freaked quite a few customers out over the years with dramatic citrus tree reductions, but they shoot away the following summer, gearing up to fruit the year after that. With a compact, lovely tree and reachable fruit – alI is forgiven.

Timing it right

Citrus fruit on new growth

Timing is everything with citrus. If you live somewhere warm and mild, then prune late winter – right after harvest. If it’s frosty at yours, delay pruning until risk of frost is over – mid to late spring is fine. Beware of summer pruning though, as this is when citrus borer is out and about.

Meyer lemons bear fruit nearly year round. Pruning a tree covered in fruit can be mentally hard. Just get it done and once you settle into a rhythm of an annual prune, you’ll only be taking a small amount off each time reducing the concern regards removing fruits.


Showing the rootstock shooting away - the shoots are thorny and angular
These thorny, angular shoots are coming from the graft and need to be removed.

Choose a lovely, dry day and begin your prune by removing any dead and damaged wood. Cut back to healthy clean wood.

Remove all growth that starts from below the graft. The rootstock is a different variety which is why it looks so different and may well be thorny to boot. If you’ve never pruned these off they may have grown large, shooting up through your tree. Remove them and pull them out – wow! your tree never looked so good.

Drag out the removed wood and begin a stack. Put all successive prunings on this pile so as you can keep it real about how much you’ve removed.

Airflow + Light

Before pruning the mandarin - a bit too much clutter at the base
Before pruning, this young mandarin has a bit much clutter down below
After pruning the mandarin- lower growth pruned back for good airflow
2 very small thinning cuts later and now the tree can breathe freely

Though trimming around the outside (heading cuts) of the tree feels safer, it removes most of the fruiting sites and creates a very twiggy dense canopy. I’m repeating myself, I know but its worth it to drive it home. Thinning cuts, as well as creating airflow and light, inspire new shoots for future fruits, while leaving much of the fruitful wood intact for the forth coming season. Fresh shoots coming on each season is how you achieve a compact, yet productive tree.

  • Remove dominant, upright shoots completely. They clutter the tree and aren’t productive.
  • Lift the skirt up – pruning off all lower branches in the 1 metre (ish) space above the soil line. This airflow gap is super important to help prevent pests/ fungus.
  • Then, get right inside the canopy, removing the occasional whole branch to de-tangle and open. Where you can, remove the longest branches, the ones that are causing imbalance by being too tall or too wide. Love me a 2 for 1 deal!
  • Stand back and walk around the tree checking for balance. You may need one or two heading cuts to equalise the shape. Take it easy on those heading cuts to avoid loosing too many fruits.


Citrus restore beautifully, so if you’ve got an old, dire tree – take heart. Either follow along the process I’ve just described, and slowly restore it over a few years. If the tree is way too tall with very little lower growth (or you just want it sorted now!), lop it off to about 2m and it will sprout away again. You wont get fruit for a goodly few years while it rebuilds, but such is the quid pro quo of life.


  1. Rachel Herriott says

    Fantastic and easy to understand. Thanks, as always, for your clear explanation for those who are less experienced. I’m always a bit gentle on my citrus but not after reading this 🙂

  2. Hi Kath

    Our beautiful navel orange has borer. There must be some other tree badly infected in the neighbourhood, as it’s not the first time one of our trees has succumbed.. Is there a natural way of killing the borer in the tree. It’s presently fruiting and new buds are emerging?

    Much thanks


    • Hey Suzanne – citrus tree borer is actually a native beetle! So impossible to avoid really given that it feeds on a wide variety of trees. Trees can live alongside it nicely, so dont worry too much. There’s a few things you can do to keep it in check.
      Keeping citrus growing strongly is your first port of call – though not with artificial, pest enticing products. Go for homemade compost and a generous woody mulch.
      Good pruning helps alot when done now, the moth is on the wing looking for egg sites mid spring on so no more pruning after that! Aim to keep the tree robust and stocky so as to mitigate any holes in the wood.
      Send a fine wire up the holes and stab the larvae (satisfying!) or inject kerosene in the hole then immediately plug it with blutak.
      Neem granules, from naturally neem are well worth a shot if populations go large. Work into the soil at the base of the plant on a regular basis.

  3. I grow citrus (7 oranges, 2 lemons, 4 limes and 2 guava) in a geothermal greenhouse in Virginia. I have massive growth issues here late summer. Trees are 3 years old and tons of new growth, making the young limbs sag. I want to prune now, but read Fall prunings are bad. Isn’t letting the tree grow in the wrong directions bad too? The greenhouse never gets below 40F, so freezing isn’t a concern. What should I do? Thanks!

    • Hi John, Great to have such happy citrus!, unless the vigor is as a result of you pruning the trees back really hard winter/ early spring? Worth considering because this one change may solve the headaches. Otherwise an autumn prune may well work for you as there is a less vigorous response from the tree at this time, however you will just have to watch how the new growth fares in the colder temperatures.