How to prune trained fruit trees

Firstly, what do we mean by trained fruit trees? 

We’re not talking about a tree that has grown fairly naturally which you have pruned and cared for.  A trained fruit tree is one that has been deliberately grown and tied into a particular shape.  The two most traditional training types are a fan (which looks like a fan!) and an espalier (where the branches are trained to grow almost horizontally).  These will often be grown against a wall but they can look striking when free-standing too.

So what types of fruit are suitable for training? 

Fan training is most commonly used for stone fruits, such as nectarines, peaches and plums, but it also works for cherries, redcurrants, pears, almonds and many other fruit too.  Espalier training is most often used for pears and apples, which respond well to having their shoots and branches trained horizontally.


What are the advantages of a trained fruit tree?

There are lots of good reasons you might want to train a fruit tree, besides it looking attractive in your garden.  Training has benefits for the tree and the fruit, by allowing fresh air to circulate well, helping prevent pests and diseases, and allowing sunlight in to help ripen the fruit.  A trained tree is potentially space-saving compared to an untrained one.  And, depending on how it is trained, fruits grown on a trained tree may also be much easier to pick!

When to prune a trained fruit tree?

This varies depending on the fruit and the style in which it has been trained so check the needs of your specific tree. We give some examples below but please ask our experts if you need more advice. 

How to prune a fan-trained tree

Depending on the fruit tree you have, it will require pruning at different times of the year.  For example, stone fruits should be pruned in early to mid-spring to minimise the risk of fungal diseases whereas apples and pears can be pruned in late winter or early spring, before they come into bud.  Figs should be pruned after the last frost.

We are assuming that you have a tree which already has several branches to its fan: if you have a young tree with only a central stem and no branches, that requires training to shape.  We don’t cover that in this article but please ask our plant experts in store.

To prune, start by removing the vertical, leading shoot: it feels drastic but it encourages the side branches to fan out.  Remove the leading shoot right back to the next strong, 45 degree branch. 

Now, look at the side branches and assess which are the strongest and already branching themselves.  Choose between 2 and 4 branches on each side of the tree, reduce them by about a third of their length.  Snip off any buds which will grow ‘backwards’ towards the wall and tie the branches into your fan wires.

Remove any of the branches you have decided not to keep, cutting them back to a junction with a stronger branch.

You may need to tie in new growing tips during the year and prune annually to keep your tree in shape.

How to prune an espaliered tree

Again, we assume you have a tree which already has several branches to its espalier shape: if you have a young tree with only a central stem and no branches, that will require training to shape.  We don’t cover that in this article but please ask our plant experts in store.

Unlike ‘normal’ tree pruning, pruning an established espalier should happen during the summer, after the lower third of any new branches has turned woody and after terminal buds have formed on new growth.  That’s typically from late-July for pears and mid-to late August for apples. 

If your espalier tree has reached the number of tiers or rows you want, the first thing to prune out is any central shoot(s) which may be growing upwards of that top tier.  (If you want to add another tier, you will need to train that shoot horizontally).

Then remove any overly vigorous upright shoots, particularly if they are growing from the horizontal branches or the main trunk.  Otherwise, you can cut back any new shoots growing from the horizontal branches of your tiers, leaving them just three or four leaves long.   Any existing shoots, that you pruned in previous years, can be reduced to just one leaf long.

Tie in any new growth during the year and prune annually to maintain a strong shape.  A similar technique to espaliering is applied to ‘stepover’ fruit trees, to keep them low and horizontal.

Training a fruit tree is a commitment and you can’t expect results over night.  It will take several seasons to see the fruits of your efforts (pun intended!).
Learn how to espalier train or fan train a fruit tree with this advice from the RHS.