The best time to prune fruit trees is in late winter when the trees are fully dormant. The open wounds from clipping have plenty of time to heal before buds set and long before pests and disease come out in droves. There's a few things to keep in mind when pruning, specifically as a permaculture grower. Since we're trying to mimic Mother Nature (who prunes barely at all), we're going for a minimalist approach.
Look for the 3Ds
Diseased, Decayed and Dead wood should all be removed from the tree. This is simply speeding up the act of abscission, or when a plant naturally would drop infected tissue to focus its energy on the rest of the plant. These removed pieces should ideally be burned so any disease or mold spores don't spread.
The 5-foot Rule
We find most fruit and nut trees in nature without low hanging branches. Deer are responsible for this low-level pruning job. While deer can absolutely be destructive in orchards with young trees, more established trees can benefit from having deer remove low, flimsy wood. Additionally, the trees are providing a food source for the great ecosystem. If deer aren't allowed into your orchard, prune any branches that hang below 5-feet off the ground. This will open up an understory for companion plantings.
Thinning and the "Cardinal vs. Cat Rule"
When pruning, it's a good idea to remove any small, vertical branching that threatens to grow into one another. Branches rubbing can cause friction for the tree, which may result in bark peeling and can invite pests and disease into the wood. However, removing too much can be a bad thing. There's an old adage I learned from author Mark Shepard. When pruning, you've done well "if a cardinal can fly through the branches without its wings touching a branch. But if a cat can be thrown through the branches without hitting anything, that's too much." Basically, don't over-prune. :)
Suckers are the side shoots that branch out from the trunk of the tree, towards the bottom near the soil line. These should be removed.
Angela is the farmer and content creator behind Axe & Root Homestead LLC. This historic six-acre farm is home to two Clydesdale horses, ten honeybee hives, three Hampshire sheep, a guardian dog, barn cats and a flock of 40 geese and ducks. The farm produces maple syrup, fruit from a small orchard and loads of garden produce for consumption, preservation and donation to the local food pantry.