Pruning (and thinning) is essential to getting a good crop each year and keeping your trees healthy for a long time.
*Please note that not all fruit trees are pruned the same. We are using an "open center" method which works great for stone fruits like peaches, plums, cherries, and nectarine. Apples, for example, produce fruit differently. They produce from spurs on second year growth. So find a specific guide for the tree you have.
Trees put out new seeds through their fruit. So to get the best chances of starting the next generations, they try to put out a lot of fruit! And if left on their own, they will grow thousands of tiny, bitter fruit instead of fewer, juicier, fleshier ones.
Pruning is helping the tree to focus it's energy in the right places. It seems counter-intuitive because you are cutting and removing so many branches. But in the end, you end up with more good fruits. The quantity may be lower, but the quality is much higher. Plus your tree will last much longer because it will have better overall circulation.
Pruning is especially important for peaches because the fruit only grows on new branches (not older scaffolding). You will find buds all along the vibrantly-colored new growth. These will become flowers which will become peaches. But leaves and new shoots (branches) will also come from these areas. So you will help this year's fruit and next year's fruit by pruning.
Think of your tree like a satellite dish. To properly ripen the fruit, the tree's solar panel leaves need their own space for sunlight and air should move through all areas of the tree equally. The base should be low, branches should come out at 45 degree angles, & the middle should be clear and open.
Some decisions you make will be for the short-term, like keeping a smaller branch because you want that extra peach or the tree needs more filler. And you may end up cutting that same branch off next year. Some decisions will be for the long-term, like major structure cuts that limit the fruit for the present time but help a tree grow stronger.
1. Pick Scaffolding Branches
Because we want the center to be open, we need to pick the best 3-5 branches that curve to fill out each area of the dish. A bird's eye view of a tree with 4 scaffolding branches is shown below.
The area where these scaffolding branches separate is the base of your bowl shape, you want this to be low to ground. *When you have a very young tree that is growing straight up, you may have to make a more drastic cut.
2. Dead Wood
To start your cuts, remove branches that are dead or damaged. New peach tree branches are usually reddish, pinkish in color and dead wood is usually very grey. You can see in the left image below where the tip of this branch is dying and you could cut where we put the white line.
The right image below shows damage from deer who rub antlers on the bark and sometimes chew them. Careful not to cut too much off in this case since the tree is already trying to heal. Just take away broken branches.
3. Straight up & Straight Down
Another easy cut is the branches that are curving straight up towards the center or straight down towards the ground.
The branches growing in and towards the center will block light and air from reaching everything equally. The branches pointing down can't carry the weight of the peach and are more likely to tear off and ripe the bark. If you are unsure, put a little downward pressure on these branches and see if they bend down immediately or can withstand some weight.
4. Conflicting Branches
You also need to make some choices between branches that are rubbing or growing in the same direction. Once your tree gets big enough, you will have sections that are getting filled up quickly. At each layer, you can begin to create mini half satellite dishes.
You will keep the same bowl shape but leave the inner half (facing the center of the tree) empty. It will almost look like little hands facing upward and holding all those beautiful peaches in place.
5. Trim the Tips
Once you have decided to keep a branch, trim the tip. This helps the branch to bulk up and put out new shoots instead of trying to grow longer and longer. If the branch is more than 14 inches long, trim it in half. This will help with next year's growth. You want the branches you keep to be 5-10 inches long. If you find smaller shoots that are 3 inches or less, you can keep them for this year's leaf production, but you may end up cutting them next year.