How to Prune Peach Trees

Two peaches hanging from a peach tree branch.

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Peach trees are one of the least demanding fruit trees you can grow. There are a handful of diseases and pests that plague them, but since the fruits ripen early in the season, problems generally do not get out of hand.

The one maintenance task that should not be overlooked is pruning. Your peach trees will be healthier, more productive, and easier to work with if you set up an annual pruning routine and stick to it.

Peach trees are pruned into an open "V" or vase shape, with three to five well-spaced, main branches forming the vase. This differs from other fruit trees that have one central trunk, or leader. The main branches should angle out and upward at about a 45-degree angle, leaving the center open to sun and air.

Why You Should Prune Fruit Trees

Pruning any fruit tree basically comes down to two advantages: the health of the tree and the quality of the fruit. The main reasons for annually pruning peach trees include:

  • To remove older, non-fruiting wood as well as dead, diseased and damaged branches
  • To open the center of the tree to sunlight and air
  • To keep the tree at a workable height for harvesting, pruning, and pest control

When to Prune Peach Trees

Unlike many other fruiting plants, peach trees should not be pruned while they are dormant. Pruning them while the weather is still cold makes them susceptible to dieback and less cold-hardy overall.

Ideally, you should prune peaches just as the buds swell enough for you to start to see pink. It's better to prune a little late than a little early. You don't want the tree oozing sap.

What to Prune

Peach trees fruit on one-year-old wood, so they can be pruned rather hard. Remove about 40 percent of the tree each year to encourage new growth after pruning, so that there will be fruiting branches every year. In general, remove older, gray shoots; these will not fruit. Also, leave one-year-old shoots, which will be reddish in appearance.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: About three hours to prune a moderate-sized tree
  • Total Time: Prune diligently once each year
  • Material Cost: None

What You'll Need

Equipment/Tools

  • Bypass shears
  • Long-handled pruners
  • Pruning saw (optional)
  • Stepladder (if needed)
  • Thick gloves
  • A shirt with heavy, long sleeves (to protect your arms)

Instructions

  1. Prune Out Dead, Damaged, and Diseased Branches

    Use long-handled pruners or a pruning saw to remove all branches in poor condition. Such branches should be removed whenever you see them. This is true of all trees, but especially for trees that fruit on new wood, such as peach trees.

  2. Top Off All Branches

    Using a pruner to top off all branches. The goal here is to keep the tree at a harvestable height. If you prune without a ladder, this will mean to cut the branches to a height that you can reach from the ground.

  3. Choose Main Branches and Prune Out the Others

    Select three to five main upward growing branches found along the outside of the tree, then remove any remaining competing large branches, using a pruner or pruning saw. Pay attention especially to removing any branches in the center of the tree and those growing downward or horizontal. The goal is to create a tree that has an overall V-shaped, vase-like profile with an open center.

  4. Remove Spindly Branches Growing Toward the Interior

    Remove any small, spindly branches growing from the main branches inward. Make sure to remove any shoots that point straight up or down, as they won't allow the peach tree to properly grow into the desired V-shape.

  5. Cut Back Remaining Red Shoots

    Use pruners to cut back the new, red shoots to a length of about 18 inches. Make the cuts at an outward-facing bud. Don't forget to prune the suckers at the base of the tree. Ideally, pull them off with your hand if they are small enough. They will be less likely to regrow if they are pulled instead of cut.

  6. Conduct Regular Pruning

If your tree is overgrown and there is no new growth within reach on a tall branch, remove the whole branch. Regular pruning in the following years will ensure there is plenty of new growth lower on the tree, where you can reach it.

If you do not have enough upward curving main branches, find one that has new growth growing in the right direction, and cut back to the new growth—this will be among the main branches next season.

You can remove shoots developing in the center of the tree at any time. They will block sun and air from getting to the fruits and taking them out during the summer usually means less to remove in the spring.

Peach Growing Tips

  • Plant peach trees in a sunny, well-draining spot where there is some protection from wind.
  • Most peaches require a cold dormancy, but there are varieties labeled "low chill," such as 'Tropic Snow' and 'Earligrande,' both of which do better where winters are mild.
  • Make sure your peach tree gets at least three inches of water each month; feed your trees after the petals fall.
  • Thin fruits to six to eight inches apart. You can do this while the tree is in bloom or after its June drop. Thinning will produce larger fruits.
  • Don't pick the fruits until they are fully ripe. Ripe fruits will easily pull off the tree with a slight twist. They should be starting to soften, but still somewhat firm, and have reached their full color (which will vary depending on variety).
  • A few days at room temperature seems to sweeten the flavor of peaches. If they are not fully ripe, place them in a brown paper bag, which will trap ethylene gas and cause them to quickly come to full ripeness.
  • Peach trees are not long-lived. Planting a new tree every five to six years will ensure you are never without a peach tree.
  • Patio peach trees only grow to about three feet tall and can be kept in containers. Gardeners in USDA Zones 4 and colder will need to give these winter protection.