What Not To Do When Pruning Fruit Trees (12 Mistakes to Avoid)

Want to maximise your fruit harvest and keep your trees healthy? Learn the main pruning mistakes to avoid and master the techniques that will ensure your fruit trees flourish year after year.

Pruning fruit trees is an essential gardening task that ensures healthy growth and bountiful harvests.

However, mistakes made during pruning can lead to poor fruit production, disease, and even the death of your trees. 

In this guide, we’ll explore the common pitfalls and provide you with the dos and don’ts to keep your fruit trees thriving.

1. Ignoring the Season: Pruning at the Wrong Time

One of the biggest mistakes gardeners make is pruning their fruit trees at the wrong time. The timing of pruning is crucial for the health of your trees and the quality of your fruit yield.

Why Timing Matters

Pruning during the wrong season can stress your tree, making it vulnerable to diseases and pests. For instance, pruning stone fruit trees like nectarines and peaches in late winter, after they’ve lost all their leaves, is ideal. This period allows you to see the tree’s structure clearly and promotes vigorous growth in spring.

When to Prune

  • Nectarines and Peaches: Late winter after leaf fall.
  • Apple Trees: Late winter to early spring.
  • Citrus Trees: Late winter or early spring before the new growth starts.
  • Grapevines: Winter, after leaves have fallen.

2. Over-Pruning: Less is Often More

It’s tempting to give your tree a drastic haircut, especially if it looks overgrown. However, over-pruning can do more harm than good.

The Dangers of Over-Pruning

Removing too much foliage at once can shock the tree, reducing its ability to photosynthesize effectively. This leads to weak growth and poor fruit production. Moreover, over-pruning can expose the tree to sunburn, damaging the bark and increasing susceptibility to pests and diseases.

How Much to Prune

A general rule of thumb is to remove no more than 20-30% of the tree’s canopy in a single year. Focus on removing dead, damaged, or diseased wood, as well as any branches that cross or rub against each other.

3. Using Dull or Dirty Tools

Your tools are an extension of your gardening prowess. Using dull or dirty tools can make pruning more difficult and can harm your trees.

The Importance of Sharp and Clean Tools

Dull tools make jagged cuts that don’t heal well, leaving the tree susceptible to disease. Dirty tools can spread infections from one tree to another. Always clean and sharpen your tools before use.

Recommended Tools

  • Pruning Shears: For small branches and twigs.
  • Loppers: For medium-sized branches.
  • Pruning Saw: For larger branches.
  • Cleaning Solution: A mixture of bleach and water (1:10 ratio) to disinfect tools.

4. Ignoring the Tree’s Natural Shape

Each fruit tree has a natural shape that it grows into, and ignoring this can lead to poor structure and reduced fruiting.

Respecting Natural Growth Patterns

Pruning should enhance the tree’s natural form, not fight against it. For example, peach and nectarine trees benefit from a vase shape that allows light to penetrate the centre, while apple trees are best pruned to an open centre or central leader shape.

5. Neglecting to Remove Suckers and Water Sprouts

Suckers and water sprouts are vigorous, upright shoots that can drain energy from your tree.

Why They Should Be Removed

These shoots often grow at the base of the tree or from the main branches. They don’t produce fruit and can crowd the tree, reducing airflow and light penetration. Removing them directs the tree’s energy to fruit-producing branches.

6. Cutting Branches at the Wrong Angle

One of the subtler but significant mistakes gardeners make is cutting branches at the wrong angle. The angle of your cut can influence how well the tree heals and its overall health.

The Science of Angles

When you make a pruning cut, it should be at a 45-degree angle. This angle helps the tree heal quickly and prevents water from sitting on the cut surface, which can lead to rot and disease. A cut that’s too flat can hold water, while a cut that’s too steep can cause unnecessary damage to the tree.

Practical Tips

Always cut just above a bud that faces outward. This encourages new growth to develop away from the centre of the tree, promoting better air circulation and sunlight penetration.

7. Leaving Stubs

Stubs are the remnants of branches left too long after pruning. They don’t heal properly and can become entry points for disease and pests.

Why Stubs are Harmful

When you leave a stub, the tree struggles to heal the cut. The stub can die back, creating dead wood that invites disease and pests. This dead wood can eventually spread decay into the healthy parts of the tree.

Proper Cutting Techniques

To avoid stubs, cut close to the branch collar—the swollen area where the branch meets the trunk or another branch. This area contains healing tissues that help the tree close the wound effectively.

8. Pruning Too Close to the Bud

While it’s important not to leave stubs, pruning too close to the bud can also cause problems.

Risks of Close Cuts

If you cut too close to the bud, you risk damaging it and the branch it’s attached to. This can hinder new growth and leave the bud vulnerable to infections.

Ideal Cut Position

Leave a small amount of wood (about 0.5 cm) above the bud. This allows the bud to grow healthily and ensures the cut heals properly.

9. Forgetting to Thin Out the Canopy

A dense canopy can block sunlight and air from reaching the inner parts of the tree, creating an environment ripe for disease.

Importance of Thinning

Thinning the canopy helps improve air circulation and light penetration. This reduces the risk of fungal infections and helps fruits ripen evenly.

How to Thin Properly

Focus on removing smaller, weaker branches that crowd the canopy. Aim for a balance that allows sunlight to reach the inner branches while maintaining the tree’s overall shape.

10. Not Considering Future Growth

Pruning is not just about the immediate shape and health of the tree; it’s also about planning for future growth.

Forward-Thinking Pruning

Consider how the tree will grow in the coming seasons. Avoid cuts that will encourage growth in undesirable directions. Think about the tree’s mature size and shape and prune to guide it accordingly.

Strategic Planning

Visualise how branches will grow over the next year. Make cuts that will encourage a strong structure and healthy fruiting branches.

11. Ignoring the Impact on Fruit Production

Pruning affects not just the tree’s health, but also its fruit production. Cutting the wrong branches can lead to fewer fruits.

Understanding Fruiting Wood

Different fruit trees produce fruit on different types of wood. For example, stone fruits like nectarines and peaches produce fruit on new wood, while apples and pears produce on older wood.

Targeted Pruning

Identify the fruiting wood on your trees and prune to enhance their productivity. Remove non-fruiting branches and focus on those that will bear fruit.

12. Misjudging the Tree’s Health

Pruning a tree that is already stressed or unhealthy can exacerbate its problems.

Assessing Tree Health

Before you prune, evaluate the overall health of your tree. Look for signs of stress, disease, or pest infestations. If the tree is struggling, it might be best to give it some time to recover before making any cuts.

Supporting Tree Health

Ensure your tree is well-watered and nourished before and after pruning. This helps it cope with the stress of pruning and promotes quicker recovery.


Pruning fruit trees is a delicate balance of art and science. Avoiding these common mistakes can help you maintain healthy, productive trees that enhance the beauty and bounty of your garden.

Remember, each cut you make should be thoughtful and strategic, ensuring the long-term health and productivity of your fruit trees. Happy gardening!

Photo of author

Linda Jones

Based in sunny Brisbane, Linda has a keen interest in ornamental plants. She firmly believes that gardens are as much about aesthetics as they are about functionality. Despite being a life-long gardener, she still enjoys learning about new plants and gardening techniques and sharing her discoveries with the Ultimate Backyard community. When she's not immersed in her garden, Linda loves reading and walking.


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