Pruning fruit trees

Man pruning apple tree

Man pruning an overgrown apple tree. Photo from University of Maine-Extension

February 25, 2016 – Kenosha News

Question: Last year I bought a home with several apple and pear trees which have been neglected for years. I have no experience with pruning fruit trees but I know these badly need renovation. I would like to learn how to take care of them. Any suggestions you can provide would be greatly appreciated. S.R.

Answer: My response may sound harsh, but it is often better to remove and replace old, neglected fruit trees than to try to restore them. Check the trees for structurally stability. Any trees with trunk splitting or rotting should be removed especially if they are near buildings. Older trees may be disease prone and poor tasting or completely the opposite. The only way to know is to go through a growing season and see what happens.

The goal of pruning neglected fruit trees is to reduce the height of the tree and to remove poor quality and non-productive branches. Proper pruning will make caring for the tree easier and improve fruit quality.

It takes two to three years to renovate overgrown fruit trees. Pruning stimulates growth so can be counterproductive if you do too much at one time.

This spring – middle of February to late March is the time to prune fruit trees in southern Wisconsin – remove all dead, diseased, and broken branches by cutting to a side branch or trunk. Lower the height of the trees by pruning out upward growing branches. Cut back to outward growing or scaffold branches. You can reduce the height by four to five feet each year over a period of two to three years.

Every year in spring prune out crossing or conflicting branches. Remove slow growing, weak, or non-productive (non-flowering) branches. Prune back low growing branches or parts that touch the ground. When deciding on which major branches to keep, select ones with wide crotch angles of 40 to 90 degrees, which are structurally stronger and less likely to break from wind, snow or heavy fruit load.

In early summer remove watersprouts and suckers by cutting flush against the branch or root. (Spring pruning of watersprouts and suckers stimulates re-growth.) Watersprouts are fast growing shoots that grow straight up from the branch and rarely flower. Suckers are sprouts coming from the roots or lower trunk at or below the ground line.

University of Wisconsin Extension has several great publications on growing fruit trees that you can download for free at


Kenosha County UW-Extension LogoBarb Larson is horticulture educator for the Kenosha County University of Wisconsin Extension. She holds a master’s of science in horticulture from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you have a plant or gardening question, email her at or call 262-857-1942.