Do you long for a citrus tree with fat, juicy fruits? Pruning may be the secret weapon to achieving this. It doesn’t just encourage bountiful harvests but also helps trees become healthier, more vibrant, and overflow with fruits.

Your dream can become a reality if you know how to prune citrus trees, which is what this guide is for. Today, you’ll learn about the transformative power of pruning from start to finish.

What Is Pruning and Why Does It Matter?

Growing a fruit salad tree in Queensland

A citrus tree laden with plump fruits isn’t just something commercial farms can achieve. This picture of abundance can become a reality for your backyard garden with regular pruning. But what exactly is pruning and—more importantly—why does it matter?

The Art of Pruning

Pruning is selectively removing specific growths on your plants, whether they’re branches, stems, or shoots. This horticultural practice has been traced back to the folks of Neolithic Palestine. Since then, farmers have utilized this practice to keep their farms profitable.

Here’s a quick demonstration of what might happen when you don’t prune a tree:

  • A tree has 50 limbs, all of which have fruit-bearing potential.
  • Some of those limbs may be dying or developing poorly.
  • Due to their poor quality, those limbs may not develop as well as neighboring limbs.
  • Any fruit growing on low-quality limbs may fall prematurely due to their fragility.

Basically, pruning gets rid of ‘dead weight.’ And if you want to start a backyard citrus tree garden, it’s a necessary process to enjoy the juiciest yields after harvest.

Why you Should Prune Your Citrus Trees

So, pruning has been around for thousands of years, but what advantages does it have? You may be surprised!

  • Better Fruit Yield: By removing unhealthy limbs, you’re redirecting the tree’s energy to other limbs to develop fruit. The leftover limbs will receive more nutrients, which promotes enhanced fruit production.
  • Improved Tree Health: Cutting off limbs from a citrus tree may sound counterintuitive to its health, but it’s a necessary process. When branches are crowded together, dead or otherwise, they produce shade where pests can thrive. Removing some of these limbs and allowing sunlight to penetrate more easily may ward off certain pests.
  • Stronger Branch Structure: As the tree grows healthier, the leftover limbs grow larger and stronger. This is important for fruit-bearing trees, like citrus trees, to handle the weight of its yield. Imagine growing a grapefruit tree bearing 500 1-kilogram grapefruits per season. That’s a lot of weight those branches need to hold!
  • Manageable Size and Shape: Contrary to the beliefs of some, pruning isn’t done to maintain the small stature of dwarf trees. But what it does for the tree is maintain a manageable shape and size, which is crucial if you’re planting a citrus tree on a small piece of real estate—say, your backyard.

Step-by-Step Guide for Pruning Citrus Trees

Step-by-Step Guide to Pruning Citrus Trees for Better Growth

So, with the basics out of the way, how do we prune citrus trees? As I said earlier, it’s not a hack-job where every limb is a target!

1. Tools and Supplies for Pruning Citrus Trees

Before we begin, let’s make sure we have the right tools for the job. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Pruning sheers (small limbs)
  • Loppers (thick limbs)
  • Pruning saw (large limbs)
  • Bucket of sterilizing solution (10% bleach)
  • Bucket of clean water
  • Ladder (for tall trees)
  • PPE (gloves, goggles, head protection, etc.)

2. Sterilizing Your Pruning Tools

From the list of tools and supplies, you probably noticed that you’ll need sterilizing solution. This is to keep your cutting tools free from diseases, which could spread to the tree’s branches via physical contact.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how to sterilize your pruning tools:

  • Disassemble your tools if possible.
  • Submerge the tools in the bucket of sterilizing solution for 30 minutes.
  • Rinse the tools in clean water.
  • Allow the tools to air-dry.

If you’re planning on removing diseased limbs, you will need to sterilize your pruning tools after each cut. Otherwise, the initial sterilization process as described above should suffice.

3. Identifying Which Branches to Prune

Got everything in order? Good! But before we begin sawing or snipping away, we first need to figure out which limbs need to go.

  • Suckers: These are classified as fast-growing shoots that appear from the base of the tree or rootstock.
  • Dead, Diseased, or Damaged Branches: You can usually tell when a tree branch is dead, diseased, or damaged by visual or textural cues. Limbs with discoloration, cankers, leaf damage, soft bark, and oozing sap are all candidates for removal.
  • Look for branches that are brown, brittle, or show signs of disease (fungus, insects). Prune these branches back to a healthy section of wood.
  • Crossed or Rubbing Branches: Some contact between branches is normal, but if they rub up against each other, one or all of those limbs need to be removed. Damage due to rubbing can create an entry point for disease.
  • Crowded Branches: Take a look at the tree’s canopy. If it’s overly dense, some of the branches need to go to promote air circulation and light penetration. Your focus should be on inward-growing or unproductive branches.

4. Making the Right Cuts

We’re finally ready to prune our citrus trees! All that’s left is to figure out how to cut the branches.

a. Cutting Location

There are 2 types of cuts based on where the cut is made: thinning and heading.

Thinning cuts remove entire branches back to their point of origin on a larger branch or the main trunk. This is done primarily to remove diseased limbs and overcrowded interior branches.

Heading cuts shortens the branch by removing a section between the tip of the branch and an outward facing bud. This helps control the length of the branch and the shape of the tree’s canopy.

b. 3-Cut method

When dealing with half-inch-thick (1.5 centimeters) limbs, you can employ the 3-cut method as described below:

  • Undercut: Make the first cut 12 centimeters from the main branch or trunk on the underside about halfway through.
  • Overcut: Make the second cut a few centimeters beyond the undercut from above the branch.
  • Final Cut: Use a hand saw to finish the cut and completely sever the branch.

c. Cutting Tips

  • Angled cuts: The cut should always be at a 45° angle. As water runs off the tree and coats the surface of the cut, the new growth can sprout in the desired direction.
  • No flush cuts: If you’re removing an entire branch, do not saw at its origin point with the main trunk. Damaging the branch collar—i.e., the slightly swollen area where the branch meets the trunk—may negatively impact the tree’s ability to heal the wound.

5. Post-Pruning Care

Newly planted fruit tree care

It’s not time to pack up and leave just yet! Your citrus need needs love and care after pruning to ensure improved health.

  • Following pruning, maintain regular watering procedures. Pruning can cause small stress to the tree, thus maintaining appropriate moisture is critical for recovery. Water deeply and frequently, attempting to saturate the root zone without causing waterlogging.
  • Consider feeding your citrus tree after trimming, depending on the time of year and the vigor with which you prune. Avoid fertilizing during high summer heat or immediately after heavy trimming. A well-balanced fertilizer designed for citrus trees can give nutrients to promote healthy growth.
  • For larger cuts (more than 1.5 centimeters in diameter), use a commercial pruning sealant or fungicide. This can assist to limit disease spread and promote speedier healing. This is not entirely necessary since trees are known to heal after heavy pruning without commercial sealant.
  • In the coming weeks, observe how your tree responds to pruning. If any new shoots appear in unsuitable spots, you can undertake mild follow-up pruning to keep the ideal shape and canopy structure.
  • Regularly inspect your tree for symptoms of pests or illnesses. Pruning can occasionally provide new channels for pest infestation or disease transmission. The earlier you detect problems, the sooner you can manage them and keep your tree healthy.

FAQs

1. When is the best time to prune citrus trees?

When you prune your citrus tree is just as important as how you do it. The ideal window is during the cooler months, immediately following the end of the fruiting season. This should fall somewhere between August and September.

Basically, you want to avoid pruning your citrus tree during active growth, when the tree is focusing its energy on growing its fruits. Any stress you cause the citrus tree via pruning may redirect its nutrients to the wound site, thereby limiting resource allocation to growing fruits.

2. How frequently should citrus trees be pruned?

Citrus trees don’t need consistent trims to be happy and productive. The frequency of pruning depends on the tree’s age and your end goal.

For citrus trees 3 years and younger, you can gauge it by eye. Check for dead, diseased, or crossed branches and remove them when possible. This creates a strong structure for future growth.

For older citrus trees, heavy pruning jobs can be done when its canopy becomes too dense or when you notice a lack of fruit production. Remember: only prune your trees during the colder months and after you’ve harvested the fruit!

3. Citrus tree pruning vs. cutting: What’s the difference?

For new gardeners, ‘cutting’ and ‘pruning’ might seem interchangeable, but there are subtle differences.

‘Cutting’ refers to removing a growth on your tree for any reason, such as getting rid of a dead limb.

On the other hand, ‘pruning’ is a deliberate strategy that involves removing specific branches to achieve a goal—e.g., enhancing the trees appearance, improving fruit production, promoting air circulation.

4. Can pruning my citrus tree make it produce more flowers?

Absolutely! Citrus trees tend to flower on new growth. By pruning, you encourage the tree to put its energy into sprouting fresh branches, which are prime real estate for those beautiful blooms.

Furthermore, removing crossed or excessive branches allows more sunlight to reach the interior of the tree, and sunlight is a key trigger for flower development. So, a well-timed pruning session can be like a encourages a vibrant display of flowers and potentially leading to a bountiful fruit harvest later.

5. Will pruning my citrus tree make it bushier?

Citrus trees tend to grow taller with fewer branches if left unpruned. Pruning encourages branching by stimulating new growth from buds on existing branches. Removing some branches redirects the tree’s energy towards these buds, causing them to sprout and fill out the canopy.

6. Do dwarf citrus trees need to be pruned?

Planning on growing dwarf orange Washingtons or blood oranges? Regardless of what type of dwarf citrus tree you want to grow, pruning will benefit its growth and fruit production!

But what pruning won’t do is transform regular-sized trees into dwarf trees. These trees are made by grafting a scion from a fruit-bearing tree onto a dwarf rootstock.