January pruning of fig, peach, and nectarine.

Plants That Produce: It’s Time To Prune Your Fruit Trees.

By Richard Frost.

First published in Let’s Talk Plants! January 2009, No.172

Don’t be afraid to prune your fruit trees! It is much easier than most people think, and when done correctly will result in healthier trees with much improved harvests.

Let’s start with the simplest – white and brown figs such as Janice-Kadota, Panachee, Turkey (not Black or Mission). They bear the best fruit on current year wood. In January, cut the entire tree back to about a foot above the crotch so that 3 or 4 forks remain. One to three dozen flexible whips will then grow skyward in the spring, each one bearing loads of fruit in the summer or fall.

With the exception of citrus, most new fruit trees for home gardens (including bare root) should be immediately topped off at 32 inches – some experts recommend even shorter. This will force side branches to grow out during the spring. Keep only those between 16” and 32” up the main stalk. A year from now, select 3 to 4 of these that are equiangular and about 6 inches apart. Remove the others. That following summer, you will prune them so that from the trunk each one forks twice at approximately 8 inch intervals. If the tree fruits during this training period, you should remove all but maybe a few fruits. Each fruit equals about enough energy to grow one four-foot branch. You can also retrain old trees this way – with a chainsaw!

Summer pruning is straightforward. Measure the height from the ground up to your wrist when your arm is extended straight above your head. Now, after you have harvested all the fruit from a tree, trim it so that no branch extends above that height – a “crew cut.” Note that summer pruning does not apply to most white and brown figs.

Winter pruning is concerned with both thinning the tree and controlling the height. It is performed when the trees are dormant, which in San Diego county is typically the second week of January. First, give the tree a “crew cut” as you did in the summer, but about 1 inch shorter to remove the nodes that formed there. Then, follow the specific directions for your tree in R. Sanford Martin’s inexpensive pamphlet: How to Prune Fruit Trees. (Available online) It is simple and easy to read, with a drawing for every tree.

The general rule for citrus is not to train them by pruning. However, citrus do sprout lanky, spiny, flowerless suckers from just about anywhere on the plant. These need to be removed at the source. If you want your tree to grow to true size, also remove all fruit that forms in the first 3 years in at least the mid- and top-portion of the plant.

Finally, citrus trees planted in the ground need skirting: prune any drooping branches so that there is a 12” to 18” clearance from the ground to prevent pests and mold from coming up the tree. If you top your citrus tree to control the height, be sure to cover the spot with 50% shade cloth until new leaves sprout to protect the inner bark from sunburn.

SDHS Member Richard Frost is also member of the California Rare Fruit Growers. For more information, please see