Pruning 101: Thinning Cuts + Heading Cuts

Understanding the difference between thinning cuts and heading cuts will transform your pruning life. What a difference to the productivity and health of your fruit trees when you give up heading and get thinning!


types of cuts

A heading cut, also referred to as ‘heading back’, is a cut that shortens.

A trees version of a haircut. And, as a rule, it’s your happy place – to lop and snip around the outside, feeling better because height is reduced and you’ve “tamed the tree!”

Understand this: in the spring/ summer following those heading cuts will shoot into a fork. Lots of forked branch ends all over the canopy make for tangled twiggy darkness i.e. a less productive tree. If you can’t reach in to harvest your lemons without getting scratched you made way too many heading cuts last year.

All fruit trees respond better, the less heading cuts in their lives, but especially fruits like feijoas, grapes and citrus that fruit on the one year old wood, the new wood around the outer edge. 

Heading has function though, it’s not all bad. Use heading cuts to:

  • shorten laterals (the fruitful shoots that grow along the branches).
  • bring balance, if needed, at the end of your prune by heading back any tall/ wide strays to even up the tree and create a sturdy all weather withstanding shape.
  • to quickly sort a broken branch (though please come back later and tidy it up with a thinning cut)
  • fit a tree or vine onto a frame eg: espalier. There is no advantage to letting your grape go wild – head it back to fit the wires!

But otherwise, may all your cuts be thinning ones.


Thinning is the removal of a whole shoot or branch, taking it back to its point of origin.

The majority of your cuts should be thinning cuts. This makes for a lovely open tree – light pours in + air flows from which good health + cropping follows.

It takes courage, for a new pruner to reach right in and remove a shoot/ branch, but when you do, you get it – the tree can breathe! and it looks graceful, natural and feels good with its well spaced, lengthy branches. There really is no need for stubby, twiggy, inelegance.

You don’t need lots of cuts. Walk around your tree and identify the dense, dark, tangled sections. Within these, find one or two well chosen branches or shoots that when removed, will detangle and bring the light. These same cuts will inspire fresh new wood in the coming growing season. Thinning = light = new wood = your pruning holy grail.

For wood to be fruitful it must be bathed in light.
For a tree to remain steadily fruitful year on year, it must grow new wood every summer.

says Kath

Counter to inutition, if you have a tree with low vigour make a few bold cuts alongside a good spring feed of compost to boost new wood.

Whereas a vigorous tree, one you probably want to lay into, benefits from less wood removed. Tie branches down to slow growth instead of pruning them off and don’t compost, stick to mulch! Lots of pruning, whether heading or thinning, sends the tree into overdrive creating excessive amounts of big water shoots which are, quite frankly, a headache for the pruner.

Find the goldilocks moment, not too hard and not too soft. Your tree will let you know in the coming spring/ summer how well you did. If it shoots away like a maniac – you went too hard, if it barely produces any new shoots – too soft, if it produces a goodly amount of 30cm-ish lengths of pencil sized new wood – just right, my friend!


  1. Great pruning advice, time for me to buy another copy of your pruning book, I keep lending mine out and they don’t come back!

  2. I’ve heard some varying opinions about when to prune fruit trees. Some say winter, like now, when sap is down and dormancy means less stress. Others say Spring as new sap is rising and new activity will happen quicker. I trust you to give me the best advice…

    • Hey Kindra, different advice for different climates is the thing, not so much right and wrong. I’m a huge fan of summer pruning, pruning each crop as it finishes – the trees have a more gentle fruitful response to this, esp useful for vigorous growers to slow them down a tad. Spring I use to lightly head back any wickedly vigorous trees, winter pruning I use for trees with low vigor as they have a much larger vegetative growth response after a winter prune – my pruning book runs through all this if you need more help here. Your trees are your best teachers – watch them respond to your prune the following season. Also local pruning demos are worth their weight in gold. All the best K

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