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How to Prune Fruit Trees for a Healthier Home Orchard

Up close image of pruning blades cutting a stem.

DECATUR, Ill. — Pruning a fruit tree is like the tale of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It’s easy to be too tentative and end up with branches that later break. While a heavy-handed pruning can result in a tree that grows few apples. But when you prune just right, your fruit trees can be healthy producers for years to come.

One of the secrets to getting fruit out of your home orchard year after year is annual pruning during the dormant season. This early-spring task can increase fruit quality, reduce the occurrence of diseases and improve tree health in the long-term.

“Pruning balances tree and fruit growth,” said Doug Gucker, University of Illinois Extension Local Foods educator. “Shaping young trees gives keeps them strong as they grow and pruning removes extra vegetation keeping trees smaller and easier to manage.”

The easiest branches to remove will be the water sprouts. Water sprouts grow vertically from horizontally trained scaffold branches – the tree’s main limbs. Once the water sprouts are gone, additional pruning and shaping is easier.

Before you get clipper happy, take a peek at your tree’s main limbs. You might need to use branch spreaders to gently nudge old and new scaffold branches in the right direction.

Basic Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do: Use sharp, clean tools; Cut a branch as close as possible to the tree; Remove diseased or broken branches.
  • Don’t: Allow scaffold limbs to have a narrow crotch; Leave stubs; Treat cuts.

To learn more about how to effectively prune your home orchard, read this month’s Know How Know More blog post.

University of Illinois Extension is the flagship outreach effort of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, offering educational programs to residents of all of Illinois’ 102 counties and far beyond. Extension provides practical education you can trust to help people, businesses, and communities solve problems, develop skills and build a better future. Extension offers educational programs in five broad areas: energy and environmental stewardship, food safety and security, economic development and workforce preparedness, family health, financial security and wellness and youth development. Find us on Facebook or Twitter.


Source: Doug Gucker, University of Illinois Extension, Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator serving DeWitt, Macon and Piatt Counties, (217) 877-6042 or Doug is a Certified Crop Advisor and works to help producers improve their profitability and sustainability with programs and feedback on farm management, soil health, nutrient management, integrated pest management and grazing.

News Writer: Emily Steele, Publicity Promotion Associate




Doug Gucker
Extension Educator, Local Food Systems and Small Farms
Macon Extension Office
3351 N. President Howard Brown Blvd., Decatur, IL 62521
(217) 877-6042