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How to Prune Cherry Trees

A flourishing cherry tree is nothing short of breath-taking. With their showy blossoms in the spring and generous harvests in the summer, it’s easy to see why gardeners worldwide grow these gorgeous trees right in their own backyards.

The best part is that cherry trees are also easy to care for, even though they require a bit of pruning now and then to ensure their maximum health. While this might seem like a daunting task, there are a few easy guidelines you can follow to set you on your way.

Are you wondering how to prune cherry trees? Read on to find out everything you need to know.

Closeup of bright red cherries on a tree.  When you know how to prune cherry trees you get the maximum harvest of cherries each year.
Knowing how to prune cherry trees will help you reap the maximum harvest of healthy, ripe cherries each year.

Goals

The main reason we prune cherry trees, or any fruit trees for that matter, is to keep them as healthy as possible. A well-pruned tree will not only be aesthetically pleasing but will also yield a more robust and accessible harvest.  

When setting about pruning cherry trees, the goal is to open them up for air circulation and beneficial access to sunlight. Trimming your cherry tree will give it a better chance of fending off pests and diseases. Furthermore, getting rid of dead, damaged, or diseased branches will allow for new development to take place.

Pruning and shaping also prevent cherry trees from expending unnecessary energy during their dormant season. Instead, these methods stimulate growth and better equip them for future fruit production.

When to Prune Cherry Trees

Generally speaking, fruit trees should be pruned in winter when they are dormant. This is because many fruit tree varieties lose their foliage during this time, and it’s much easier to see where there is an overgrowth, damage, or a spread of disease. This makes it easier, by default, to navigate pruning. Heavy winter pruning also prepares fruit trees for new growth ahead of the spring season.

However, when it comes to pruning cherry trees, pruning times may differ slightly depending on the type of cherry tree and whether it is a juvenile or mature tree.

When to Prune Sweet Cherry Trees

Sweet cherry trees are more susceptible to bacterial and fungal diseases than sour varieties, so it is advisable to prune them in the late summer. This reduces the risk of diseases attacking the plant through recent cuts or wounds.

Thinning out wayward, upright, or crossing branches will keep your cherry tree happy and healthy as it ends off its harvest season. However, avoid major pruning, as your tree will continue to grow during summer and fall and will therefore require as much energy as possible.

Sweet cherry tree species include the Blackgold, the Tulare, the Lapins, the Benton, and the Bing varieties.

When to Prune Sour Cherry Trees

Sour cherry trees are hardier than their sweet counterparts when it comes to pruning. That being said, you should still hold off on pruning tart cherry trees until late winter, when most of the coldest weather and the threat of frost has passed.

Varieties include the Meteor, the Morello, and the Montmorency sour cherry tree.  

When to Prune Young Cherry Trees

Pruning a juvenile cherry tree is often referred to as training or shaping and lays the groundwork for how your tree will grow and establish itself. This should happen in early spring, after budding but before cherry blossoms form, and late enough in the season to be clear of any threat of frost.

When to Undertake Emergency Pruning

Every now and then, some tiresome creepy crawlies or a pesky disease may invade your cherry trees. If this does happen, it is okay to practice some emergency pruning and remove the infected area of the plant. While it may affect immediate growth, it will be better for the tree’s overall health in the long run.  

Similarly, trees are sometimes injured by the elements or by heavy loads of fruit. If branch breakage has caused jagged edges, make a flush cut to clean up your tree.

How to Prune Cherry Trees for Shaping and Structuring

Training your cherry trees to grow in a particular shape is the way to ensure they have a strong foundation and structure. In this regard, consistent pruning is essential, year after year, to help maintain growth and correct runaway branches.  

Central Leader Pruning

Central leader pruning is the shape most commonly associated with sweet cherry varieties. This pruning technique renders trees round in form with scaffolded branches, much like the design of a pine tree. The tree’s trunk is the central leader, while lateral branches make up the layered scaffolds.

The purpose of pruning cherry trees in this specific manner is to support the canopy while simultaneously protecting ripe fruit from the elements.

Open Center or Vase Shape Pruning

Open center or vase-shaped pruning is a popular technique employed by sour cherry tree growers. This method modifies the central trunk through the consistent shaping of the tree’s outward-facing buds. The benefits of this shape include containing the height of your trees and opening up their canopies for optimum light penetration and air circulation.

Fruit-Thinning for Cherry Trees

Fruit-thinning is a method of light springtime hand-pruning that we employ to stimulate maximum fruit production.  While chopping away at a tree preparing to yield fruit might sound counter-intuitive, the benefits far outweigh the harm.  

This pruning technique aids cherry trees by reducing or preventing limb breakage and increasing the size, color, and quality of existing fruit.  In addition, occasional thinning stimulates the initiation of fruit buds for the following year’s harvest.

Preparing Your Pruning Tools

Your tools must be clean and sterilized before you start the pruning process. Unclean pruning tools can spread fungal and bacterial diseases. Rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach and water (1:9) can be used to wipe down your devices, after which you can rinse them with warm water to remove any residual chemicals.  

In addition to this, keep your blades sharp. Clean cuts heal more quickly and efficiently than jagged cuts.  

Types of Pruning Tools

The tools you will most likely use when pruning your cherry trees are hand-pruning shears, a pruning saw, and long-handled lopping shears. If you are pruning a mature tree that is large in stature, you may also need a stepladder or stool. Bring along a rubbish bin or bag to gather up discarded tree matter once the job is complete.

You can determine which pruning tool you will need by looking at the size of the branch you are trying to cut.

Hand Pruner

Hand pruners are used for small branches and limbs that measure in at just under an inch (2 centimeters). You’ll use this tool for much of your pruning, especially when you’re dealing with younger trees.

When purchasing hand-pruning shears, make sure you invest in a quality pair that won’t rust or go blunt after one season.

Pruning Saw

A pruning saw is ideal for branches larger than 2 inches in diameter (5 centimeters). As with your hand pruner, make sure you purchase a quality pruning saw that won’t leave your branches with choppy or jagged edges.

Long-handled Lopping Shears

Lopping shears (pole pruners) are the perfect tool for those in-between branches measuring between 1 and 2 inches (2 to 5 centimeters) in diameter. Invest in a pair of these for pruning away plant growth that is just too big for hand pruners and just too small for your pruning saw.

Types of Pruning Cuts

When it comes to pruning your cherry trees, you want to familiarize yourself with different types of pruning cuts and their bearing on your cherry trees. Each particular cut serves a purpose and will impact how new growth forms.

Heading / Bud Cuts

Heading cuts are a method of shortening branches. It would be best if you aimed to remove between one-third and one-half of the length of the branch you have selected. This type of cut should be roughly one-quarter of an inch away from an outward-facing terminal bud and should be at a 45 degree angle. Restricting your pruning to buds that aim outward will shape new growth away from the center of the tree.

It is paramount that you make sharp, clean cuts to avoid stubbing or bud death.

Thinning Cuts

Removing branches at the tree’s crown (the area where a branch meets the trunk) is known as thinning. This type of cutting efficiently removes diseased or dead branches, crossed or tangled branches, or generally unruly growth.

How to Prune Young Cherry Trees

Pruning is vital in a cherry tree’s formative years. You can opt to prune them in either a central leader formation or a vase shape, depending on the type of tree and, of course, your aesthetic preference. Either way, your priority should be ensuring your cherry tree receives ample light and air circulation.

Start your pruning process by removing any shoots or suckers from the trunk of your cherry tree right at the branch collar. In addition to this, remove any limbs that are pointing downwards. If you see weak or scraggly branches, remove them too. This type of growth expends your tree’s energy, which could be better used to grow foundation branches.

Cut the central leader of your tree so that it is only 25 to 36 inches tall (64 to 91 centimeters). Then, use heading cuts to start shaping your lateral branches into a scaffold design.

The following year, you can start to prune for your desired shape in earnest. Select three or four lateral branches that are relatively equidistant and cut away any upright branches or vertical growth.

As the years go by, maintaining regular pruning will see you create a beautiful, multilayered scaffold as you grow out a second set and eventually a third. Try to space your limbs so they don’t cover other primary branches, creating an uneven appearance.

How to Prune Mature Cherry Trees

Once your cherry trees have matured, you can set about promoting outward growth rather than upward growth by pruning away the occasional vertical branch. By the time a cherry tree has reached this age, you will more than likely need to go in with your saw or loppers.

When embarking on this kind of pruning job, check your tree thoroughly for any signs of diseased branches or infections and prune away limbs at risk.

For overall maintenance, remove any shoots at your tree’s base, weak growth, or crowded branches.

In a vigorous tree, you may notice that sudden new growth is impairing its fruit yield. If you happen upon unripe but otherwise quality fruit that is dropping, you can thin out some branches to allow better air circulation and relieve the pressure of fruit weight.  

As a general note on pruning, you want to avoid narrow angles at the branch crotch of your tree’s limbs, as this can lead to splitting. Prune outwards in wide 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock v-shapes to promote robust and long-lasting growth.

How to Prune Dwarf Cherry Trees

Dwarf cherries are the perfect tree size for a smaller garden, as they tend to stay at a manageable height. They also make beautiful ornamentals. To prune dwarf cherry trees, cut the perpendicular branches back by up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) per season in a round shape, starting from the lower limbs and working your way up. This will encourage vigorous growth and an aesthetic form.

General Tips for Pruning Cherry Trees

Pruning is a huge part of looking after your cherry trees, and much of it has to do with confidence and knowing that there is no perfect way to prune. Trees are, after all, living things, and they sometimes grow in strange and interesting ways. In short, an unpruned tree is a neglected tree.

Oddly enough, the manner in which cherry trees grow naturally isn’t always the most favorable for fruit production, so a bit of pruning goes a long way. When you set about pruning your trees, it’s helpful to keep a lookout for the following types of branch growth.

Diseased, Damaged, or Dead Wood

Any significant presence of ill health on your trees should be removed as a matter of urgency. Diseases in fruit trees spread fast, and it’s better to nip them in the bud.

Also, look out for any sign of damaged, split, or cracked wood. Open wound areas on a tree are an invitation for unwanted pests.

Crowded or Overlapping Branches

Excess branches growing over or on top of one another are not ideally positioned for producing fruit, as they may get in one another’s way. Furthermore, you want your limbs to grow outwards rather than inwards so that the tree canopy remains open for air circulation. Cut away larger branches that are too close together so that you end up with healthy trees.

Upward and Downward Branches

Sometimes trees grow little branches that aren’t that useful and love to use up a plant’s energy. Remove any upright shoots on your primary scaffold limbs, or any growth springing up below your primary horizontal branches.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are ideal growing conditions for cherry trees?

A: Cherry trees flourish in areas that receive full sun, as they need at least 6 to 8 hours of direct light per day to produce a bountiful harvest. In addition to this, they should be planted in good quality, well-draining soil, and watered regularly.

Q: How big do cherry trees get?

A: Standard cherry trees can grow to be up to 35 feet tall (10.7 meters), with a canopy spread of between 20 and 25 feet (6 to 7.5 meters). Dwarf cherry trees can reach heights of about 15 feet (4.5 meters), with a spread of 12 to 14 feet (3.7 to 4.3 meters).

Q: How long do cherry trees take to mature?

A: Cherry trees generally start to produce fruit in their third or fourth years of healthy growth.

A Final Word On Pruning Cherry Trees

While it may seem like an arduous undertaking, the annual pruning of your cherry trees is just about the best thing you can do for them. Not only does it boost their health and vigor, but it also paves the way for the best possible season of growth.

What are your experiences with pruning cherry trees? Leave us a note in the comments and tell us what you think.

Do you have other kinds of fruit trees or shrubs you need to prune? Click here for our other pruning guides.