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How to Prune an Orange Tree: Tips for Getting Your Best Fruit Harvest

Pruning an orange tree is an important part of its maintenance. Pruning will give you the best out of your tree in terms of health and aesthetics. Different rules apply depending on your location and how mature your tree is. You’ve got to know the best times and methods.

Closeup of clusters of oranges on a tree.  A healthy crop of fruit is the reward when you know how to prune an orange tree.
Beautiful oranges are the reward for knowing how to prune an orange tree!

Keep reading to learn more about how to prune an orange tree so that you get the best crops of oranges!

Why Prune an Orange Tree?

Pruning an orange tree is necessary for maintaining your tree’s overall health. It helps provide room for the tree’s growth. Branches of orange trees can often time cross and grow improperly, which can crowd the main branches of the tree and make your tree unappealing.

Pruning orange trees is also essential for great fruit production. Damaged and overcrowded branches result in less light for the oranges as well as cramped quarters. The results are undersized fruit and a smaller harvest.

When it comes to young fruit trees, pruning is what gives the tree its shape and helps strengthen the main branches. It’s when you’ll be pruning an orange tree the most often, but it lays the building blocks for your tree’s success in years to come.

An orange tree with fruit on it.

When to Prune an Orange Tree

Pruning is important, but knowing when to prune is almost as critical. Deciding when to prune an orange tree depends on two factors: your geographic location and the age of the tree.

Where You Live

Depending on your zone, tropical or subtropical, orange trees need to be pruned at different times of the year. If you live in a subtropical zone, which is true for most of the Southeastern United States, your summers are usually hot and humid, but there’s a risk for frost during the winter. It’s recommended for subtropical zones to prune orange trees in the fall to prevent new growth from being damaged by frost.

If you live in a tropical zone, like South Florida, or simply have a milder climate, pruning can be done at almost any time of the year. It’s recommended to prune in the spring, between February and April, before blooming to ensure the citrus tree is not stunted by pruning off new growth. There is a risk of the sun damaging your orange tree if you prune during the warm growing season.

A mature orange tree with an attractive canopy shape.
Giving a tree its shape is one reason for pruning an orange tree.

The Age of the Tree

If your orange tree is a young sapling, pruning time is more flexible since you will only be removing sprouts. Just make sure not to prune the tree around the danger of frost.

Mature trees need to be pruned along the above recommendations for where you live, during fall or early spring. Make sure not to prune during any extreme temperatures of winter or mid-summer. This will ensure that your tree does not experience either frost or sun damage.

Mature trees can often go two to three years between pruning. Just keep an eye on your fruit tree, and prune as necessary.

What Tools You’ll Need

Having the right gear will ensure the job gets done safer and easier!

Protective Gear

When picking out your clothing, opt for a long-sleeved shirt that will protect your arms from getting scratched while pruning. Pants and closed-toe shoes will also be a good idea in case a branch falls near you.

A woman wearing long sleeves and gardening gloves while pruning.

Grab a pair of work gloves to protect your hands. Thorns and splinters are no fun!

The last thing we recommend is a pair of safety glasses. Most of the time, you’ll be looking up at the tree as you prune, so you need a barrier to protect anything from falling and getting into your eye.

Pruning Shears

Pruning shears, or hand shears, are good to have for trimming small shoots and suckers. Having a good, sharp pair is important.

Closeup of a person using pruning shears on a tree or shrub.

Ratchet Lopper

Ratchet loppers are similar to pruning shears, but they have much longer handles. You can even find some pairs that have telescoping handles to adjust to the height you need. These make easy work of reaching branches higher up in the tree. They also cut thicker branches than pruning shears, which is great for woody stems.

A woman using ratchet loppers to prune around the base of a tree.

Pruning Saw

Instead of making a scissor-like cut, pruning saws have a serrated, outward-facing blade that is either curved or straight. Pruning saws make large branches easy to cut, using a back and forth motion to saw at the limb.

Person using a pruning hand saw on a tree.

Pole Saw

Pole saws have a long pole with a saw attached to the end. These are often battery-powered and can be used to trim any thick limbs that you can’t reach with your regular pruning saw, and they don’t require you to bring out the ladder. Imagine a small chainsaw on a pole.

A man holding a motorized pole saw.

You can also purchase pole saws that are manual and look very similar to a pruning saw with a pole attached.

Take Precaution Not to Spread Disease!

Make sure to keep all tools sharp and clean. Using dirty or dull blades runs the risk of spreading disease to your orange trees.

A man sharpening the blades of pruning tools.

How to Prune a Mature Orange Tree

What to Prune

When pruning a mature orange tree, first look for overgrown branches. Next, look for any dead or damaged branches, crisscrossed branches, or any branches rubbing against one another.

If you want to skirt your orange tree, you can remove any of the low-hanging branches to reveal the main trunk. This process is usually done by anyone wanting to make their orange tree aesthetically pleasing.

Just remember that once you skirt an orange tree, branches usually will not grow back on the bottom half of the tree. These low-hanging branches are often considered some of the best-producing limbs on the tree because they are not exposed to too much sun.

A man using a small chainsaw to cut a tree branch.

How to Prune

Choosing your tool will depend on the size of the branch. For smaller limbs and shoots, use the small pruning shears or ratchet loppers. If the limb is larger, use the pruning saw. Using the incorrect tool usually results in a poor cut, which will open your orange tree up to the possibility of damage and disease.

When pruning the top of the canopy, remove no more than one-third of the limb to avoid losing future blooms. If you want to totally remove an overgrown branch, trace the limb back to the collar of the tree to make your cut. The collar is the raised area where the branch meets the trunk or main stem. When you leave the collar of the branch intact, the cut will be able to heal itself naturally without protective tree paint.

Any damaged or diseased limbs should be cut flush with the collar as well to completely remove them from the tree. The cut should be made into healthy wood, which usually has a light whitish-yellow color. No diseased wood should remain.

If a branch is larger than 1.5 inches, Arizona Cooperative Extension recommends making a three-part cut.

  1. Pick a spot on the limb that is six to twelve inches from the collar. Using your saw, saw through a third of the limb from the underside. This is called an undercut, and its main purpose is to prevent the bark from tearing off the tree once the limb falls.
  2. Reduce the weight of the limb by making a second cut three inches further out from the collar on the top side of the limb. This cut should go completely through the limb or until the limb falls.
  3. The last cut should remove the remnants of the branch by making a cut flush at the collar.

Thinning Out Fruit

Not only should branches be thinned out, but the actual fruit on the tree should be thinned out as well. Thinning fruit helps alleviate some of the weight on the branches of the tree. It also helps the oranges that remain become large, healthy fruit.

Person using pruning shears to cut small oranges from a tree.

Thinning helps give the tree enough energy to create a prolific harvest for the next growing season by removing some of the fruit from this year’s harvest. The more energy your tree uses on this year’s fruit, the less energy it will have to make next year’s.

Oklahoma Gardening provides a good demonstration of thinning fruit trees, removing fruit about every four to six inches.

How to Prune an Orange Tree Sapling

What to Prune

Nursery orange trees or saplings need different types of pruning than mature orange trees. You will want to pay most attention to any sprouts, or suckers, that are coming from the base or lower part of the tree. Removing sprouts encourages the main branches to grow healthy and strong.

How to Prune

You can use your hand to remove these sprouts if they are small enough to snap off. If not, use pruning shears to make a healthy cut on the tree. Remember to leave the collar of the limb, even for sprouts, so it can self-heal.

Try to prune any sprouts before they get large enough to require loppers to cut.

A man using pruning shears to trim citrus branches.

How to Prune an Orange Tree in a Container

Pruning orange trees in a container is all about helping the orange tree maintain a size that is healthy for whatever size container it is in. If you don’t want to move up container sizes, you can trim the roots of the orange tree about two to three inches. You also need to thin out any overpopulated fruits, so that the small tree is not weighed down and other fruits have enough room to grow.

Similar to saplings, remove any shoots from the base of the tree. Try not to make your container tree dense and bushy, as the fruits will need enough light from the top to grow healthily.

A potted orange tree on a patio.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can my orange tree get a sunburn?

Unfortunately, yes. That’s why it is very important not to remove too many limbs from the canopy of the orange tree. If the limbs are not used to that much sun, the sudden change can cause a sunburn or sunscald. Once orange trees get sunburns, it often takes them years to recover, if they recover at all.

It’s also good practice to cover any exposed trunk or stem with tree paint. Use water-based tree paint instead of oil.

How can I prevent sprouts from shooting up so often?

Pruning sprouts is vital for an orange tree sapling. Unfortunately, they pop up quickly and often, and you may not have the time to prune them as often as they need to be.

One trick is to wrap white cardboard around the base of the trunk about 10 to 12 inches up to prevent sprouting.

Can I make a hedge with my orange trees?

You sure can! Orange trees can be pruned and trained to form a hedge. Not only do you have added privacy, but beautiful fruits will adorn your hedge, as well! Of course, don’t expect a good harvest of fruits within the hedge as it will be very shady, but the fruits should grow well on the outside of the hedge given proper maintenance. Use a pole saw or hedge trimmer to shape the limbs where needed.

Orange trees planted closely together.

What diseases should I keep an eye out for when pruning?

You’ll be spending a lot of time with your orange tree while pruning. It’s good practice to inspect the tree while pruning for any potential disease or pests.

Things to look out for include excessively peeling bark. The bark of your orange tree should not be peeling, so that’s often a sign of a common citrus tree disease such as Sooty Canker or Psorosis.

Orange trees are also subject to root rot. Keep an eye out for wilting, yellowing leaves, and watch your roots for any signs of rot.

Aphids, a common pest, like to take residence in orange trees on the underside of leaves. Look for small green or black, pear-shaped bugs. A good practice is to keep any debris cleaned up that will give them a place to hide. To remove aphids, spray the leaves with a garden hose to knock them off.

Prune Orange Trees Like a Pro!

To get the prettiest shape and healthiest fruit harvests, pruning orange trees is a must. It’s a standard part of the care your orange tree needs. But if you make time for it, you’ll thank yourself later!

Closeup of a cluster of oranges on a tree.

To read more about how to prune other types of fruit trees, such as grapefruits and pomegranates, visit our other posts.