Prune, Prune, Prune: Tree Butchering and Backyard Orchard Culture

The central feature of backyard orchard culture is that you manage the size of your fruit trees through zealous pruning. After our fruit trees have spent the last year becoming acquainted with our garden, I’ve been so pleased with their verdant happiness this spring (with the exception of the dead fig trees). Still, I knew I’d have to lop off a bunch of that greenery, and tree butchering day was today. I definitely feel like a butcher.

I recently read Grow a Little Fruit Tree, which was perfect timing. I needed its assurances that I could lop and lop and lop, and I wouldn’t mess up. If I regretted a prune or a cut, the tree would still survive and grow a gazillion more branches for me to cut and prune and like better or similarly regret. Trees are forgiving that way, or maddening depending on what you want to be doing with that tree. Although the author had recommended pruning around the summer solstice to maintain tree height, I needed to do the massive lop off the Seckel pear and Baldwin apple I purchased, so I decided that tree butchering should occur en masse. The summer solstice isn’t far off, and I had a grouping of cherries that was giving me some headaches. More on them later.

I started with the new fruit trees. The established Morello and Montmorency cherries were fairly straightforward prunes to help air circulation and grow outwardly. The drastic curtailing to the apple and the pear were definitely straightforward. Identify outward facing bud at approximate desired height: cut there. Huzzah!


I took a gander at our grouping of four cherries next, and I was not impressed. Our Kansas Sweet has always lagged behind the others, and the Black Republican, Black Tartarian, and Napoleon cherries have really taken off. Sure, they’re mostly growing up instead of out, but that growth has been dynamic. Except, of course, for my Kansas Sweet. So, I either have to let the Kansas Sweet be overpowered or cut, cut, cut back three healthy trees to the size of the weaker. I made a few initial obvious cuts (clearing out the center, overgrowing sides), and then I honestly fled this task for awhile. I moved onto the peaches, then the apples, then back to the peaches, before returning to cut down the cherries to the size of the Kansas Sweet. I was not pleased. I am still not pleased. I am a tree butcher.

The Kansas Sweet is on the left. I forgot to take a before picture; it was that distracting of a problem.

I had been dreading the peaches because the grouping looked like an alien peach shrub with four legs. I felt overwhelmed tackling them, so I started with just trying to separate the overgrowth between the trees. That still felt too overwhelming, so I stopped working on the peaches and jumped over to my apple and lone plum groupings. They were pretty straightforward too; I didn’t like a few branches that grew in unfortunate directions, and I cleaned out overlap and growth toward the center. The plum was a little overenthusiastic, so I trimmed it back to a height I could reach. According to the book, plums can tend to be overenthusiastic. Good to know. I wish it were enthusiastic about growing out, not up, but maybe with time!


I finally went back to my peaches and stared at them. I tried to recall the book’s helpful encouragement that I wasn’t going to maim my trees or kill them. I started looking for branches that were growing toward the center. Then, I began chanting what became my mantra of the day:  wrong direction. The peaches just had so many branches that it was genuinely overwhelming to know where to start. So, I picked a place to start and slowly and methodically moved through the tree. Whenever a branch was growing clearly in the wrong direction (down – toward the center – overlapping another), I said aloud “wrong direction!” and lopped it off. I kept muttering “wrong direction” each time I made a cut, and I  wondered whether Wrong Direction or Tree Butcher would be a better band name. I didn’t ever decide, but eventually enough wrong directions were pruned that I could start to see the shape of the tree. Once I could identify the shape of the tree, I could more easily see branches that should be pruned back. Maybe the pruned peaches still look too much like a four-legged shrub from Dr. Seuss, but I love them all the same. We made a lot of progress in the right direction today even if I was their butcher.


I probably spent more time staring at my trees with my pruners in hand feeling a little uncertain, but I think the efforts were well rewarded. The garden continues to bring me much joy, the fruit trees look great, and I might, just might, get a small handful of cherries, an apple, and a couple of peaches as my second-year crop. Wish me luck!


2 thoughts on “Prune, Prune, Prune: Tree Butchering and Backyard Orchard Culture

  1. Thanks for posting about this. I have peach and apple trees and I agree that it’s an art to prune correctly. I was convinced I’d killed an apple tree but it’s perfectly happy now.

    Do you have trouble with Asian fruit moths in the peaches? They’re my biggest worry.


    1. I have problems with Japanese beetles, but they’re so slow and clunky, they’re easy to handpick. I just go out with a large bowl of soapy water and chuck them in. They mostly go after the cherries, but I think I read they could go after peaches too. The peaches have been pretty easy keepers for me. I have more problems with the cherries and the apples (rust).


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