A Pre Prune Ponder

Hang out with your deciduous fruit trees this month to consider your winter pruning.

What a difference this virtual run through makes on pruning day! Regardless of whether you are full of confidence or a beginner, we all prune better by far when we are connected to our trees.

Each tree is different, you see. Some grow loads of shoots and some do not. Some grow straight up and some fling their arms wide. Some fruit steadily, year in and out and some are erratic.

Different also, because they are all planted in different places.

Trees are malleable and happy as to work with your needs, as long as you support them in theirs.

  • In shady places, they need to be shaped taller to find the light.
  • In windy places they need to be low and wide, to duck down out of the wind.
  • Some need to elevate away from hungry mouths (stock I’m thinking here), or rise above mowers or pathways or lower growing shrubs.

You’re a team, you see – therein lies the joy, and because of the joy, your feet will take you more and more often to be with your trees. The more time you spend with your trees the more you understand them, ergo the better you prune. Around we go.

Mastery comes with practice and plenty of time spent together.

Go for a tool free wander, perhaps with a pruner friend. My Back to Basics pruning videos are down below, and there’s always my little pruning book.

Apple in June prepruning
An upright grower, wouldn’t you say!

As you visit with each tree, notice it’s natural shape (upright, wide, leggy, compact), and consider how you’d like to gently shape it to best fit your environment.

Think also, about what this tree needs.

  • Is it poorly and needs more vigour – in this case a strong, bold prune will promote strong growth next year.
  • Is it way too vigorous? Then tread carefully my friend and focus more on training than pruning – tie upright branches to the horizontal. Do the bare essentials this winter (the following checklist will help) and wait until spring for height reduction. All these things help steady growth.

Pruning Checklist

Mayflower apple tree in spring - you can see the central leader and scaffold branches clearly before the leaves come inleader
This apple is trained as a central leader. The leader runs from the ground to the top – its not straight, but they never are! The scaffold branches hang off the leader. We want these widely spaced for light. From the scaffold branches spring the shoots (laterals) that bear the flowers and fruits.

Start by finding the main leader and scaffold branches. Don’t worry just yet about all the smaller shoots, look beneath them to the structure. It takes a while for your eyes to get used to looking this way, but keep on it and you’ll develop tree vision. The photo above shows an apple trained as a central leader and below shows a plum in a vase shape. These are the 2 basic shapes.

This young plum is pruned in a vase shape. The scaffold branches spread out from the trunk leaving an open centre.
  • Let there be light! Light is key – it inspires flowering, fresh shoots and of course ripening. Prune for good light distribution throughout the tree and you wont go wrong.
Mayflower Apple tree has too many upright shoots - will need thinning out this winter to let light in
This Mayflower Apple has loads of upward shoots blocking the light – I’ll be thinning this winter and tying branches down in spring!
  • Are there any low branches beneath the first scaffold, therefore in the dark, that need to come off?
well spaced scaffold branches on this plum
This Tamaki plum catches some shading from the bush across the road, so I’ve removed lower shaded branches and let it reach higher to catch the light
  • Is your tree leaning heavily in one direction, or has more branches on one side than the other? What branches can you remove to bring better alignment + balance? Be bold and thin!
  • Do you need to reduce height? Take the full grown height of the tree into consideration here. A tree that wants to be 5m isn’t going to be happy being pruned hard back to 2.5m. Allow the tree to express itself as fully as possible and it’ll be less likely to shoot vigorously next year.
2 year old plum in spring only needed one cut in winter to open the centre
This 2 year old plum only needed one small cut – removing the shoot that was going up the centre. Can you see where it was removed? Otherwise, its shaping up nicely into a vase shape.
  • How are your young trees shaping up? Years 1 – 4 are the years to develop a balanced, compact framework. I prefer training – tying branches down into place – over pruning in the first few years. Though there will always be a small cut or two.


  1. Ephraim Smith says

    Hi Kath,
    I bought your pruning book – great read!!
    Hey one thing I was unsure about is pruning fairly new plum trees – they are not looking a great shape from the nursery with pretty much just a 2.5mtr tall leader & a few sprouts at the top where they have lopped it of at some point, & a few Randomly spaced spindly branches below.
    Could I just start again & lop the whole lot off at 1 Mtr this winter? Will it create a new leader from there or do I have to train a leader from the new branches that sprout out?

    • When you say fairly new does that mean you’ve just bought them and are about to plant – in that case yes! Lop it off to a strong bud at your hip height or there abouts. Far better to remove all branches and start afresh. Its a full on cut to make so make it in good spirit sending the positive vibe to your tree, not the fear one 🙂

      • Ephraim Smith says

        Thanks Kath, will do!!!
        I am keen to understand- does one of the new sprouting branches automatically become a new leader? Do I have to train a new leader or does it just happen? Thanks so much 🙂

        • Yes a new leader will sprout. That bud that you cut to back to contains within it enough energy to burst forth into a new shoot. Trust the process and take each step as it comes. Have faith e hoa 🙂

  2. Hi Kath, I have around an acre set aside for a food forest and already had bananas, sugar cane, babaco in the centre with nasturtiums and canna lillies in patches, and then surrounded by natives on sou west and a range of fruit trees spread around. I was getting ready to mulch and plant this autumn. The Kikuyu & twitch was proving difficult but kunekune pigs have helped cearing ouit a whole corner so where I would start. Yay! I didn’t want to ring them and thrilled they are dealing with the grass, but they have completely demolished the bananas! If I plant there now I know they will dig it up. I feel like I’m one step forward and twenty steps back. How do you keep your pigs at bay?

    • I hear ya! Pigs are awesome for weeding up runner roots – convulvulus too but dynamite for plants you want to keep. A few ideas – rotational type runs giving pigs controlled entry when you want them to clean up after annual cropping and prepare for the next plantings. Or for perennial areas use the pigs as the initial clean up and then deep mulch and dense plantings and no more pigs, move them to the next bit needing cleanup and use a more gentle weeding animal like chooks on a needs basis once perennials are established to help keep kikuyu down.

  3. Hi Kath
    We have an old plum tree on our property in the Coromandel. It has developed a furry fungus all over the branches. Should we prune the tree back? Why has it developed this fungus?

  4. Hi Kath
    I live in the humid Horowhenua and plan to do a copper spray on my Hiawatha peach tree soon. Should I wait until all the leaves have fallen? Should I help them off?

    • Hey Jane. My preference is to let them drop naturally. The tree doesn’t need to be completely leaf free to spray copper, though the more gone the better.

  5. Hi Kath, I was wondering how you recommend pruning a partial tip-bearing apple tree (Sir Prize)? I have your pruning book but can’t find anything about tip-bearing apples. I googled but didn’t find much either. Thanks for your advice.

    • Hi Julie, partial tips prune the same – thats why you wont find too much written – just be conscious of leaving more tips. Lean on thinning rather than heading. You can see the fruit spurs clearly now with all the leaves off – this will help you choose what to prune off and what to keep. Don’t think too too hard about it – have a go and watch how the tree responds to your cuts next year – this is the one and only best way to learn your tree. Pruning inspires shooting remember, so its not the end when you chop shoots off! Hope this helps.