How to Keep Fruit Trees Small: Pruning Methods for Compact Trees

Opinions on how to prune deciduous fruit trees are innumerable. I have just one: Keep your tree small.

If you want your tree to bear fruit and you want to pick and eat that fruit, I think this is the best thing you can do.

A small tree’s fruit is easy to pick. In fact, when I say “small,” I mean “within reach,” which means between six and ten feet tall for most people. The fruit on such a tree is in your face — you just reach out and grab it. Even my two-year-old son can reach out and grab some of the fruit from my trees because it’s so low to the ground. (That’s good and bad. He has a hard time not grabbing it before it’s ripe. ).

But if you let a tree grow tall, the fruit will mostly be high up and out of reach. Most trees bear their fruit in the part of their canopy that gets the most sunlight, which is usually near the top and edges of the canopy. I had a 15-foot-tall plum tree once. Some of the fruit was reachable, but most of it was out of sight and could only be reached by a ladder, pole, squirrels, birds, or people. In the end, most of that fruit was lost to the critters. The plum tree I have now is about eight feet tall, and I have never lost a single piece of fruit to animals. Even though it is smaller, it can still produce more fruit than we can eat.

A small tree can be protected if necessary. When birds found her fruit and started pecking at it this summer, my aunt quickly put a net over her small peach tree to keep them out. Try covering a 15-foot tall peach with a net!.

Yet I haven’t even found the need to net my own small trees. My Blenheim apricots attract scrub jays as soon as the fruit begins to sweeten. The birds peck some of the ripe fruit but don’t ruin it. That fruit is at head height on my tree, so I immediately notice it and pick it. I take their peckings as a sign of ripeness. “Eat this fruit, Greg. It’s ready. ” There’s still so much more fruit on that little tree that the birds never touch.

I don’t like the idea of telling you how you should grow your fruit trees. Truly, do whatever you want. But after having many trees both big and small, I’ve found that small is better. I’m in good company, by the way. Many people who have a lot of experience with deciduous fruit trees no longer let their trees get too big.

Here’s how to get this small tree you want: you can learn all your life about pruning, but you don’t have to learn much or do much to get a small fruit tree that produces fruit. Each of my trees gets pruned once in the winter (I just finished yesterday) and once or twice in the summer. The total time involved is around an hour per year per tree.

It’s a tough question because it goes without saying that the more you know, the better you’ll be at pruning. On the other hand, you could cut your fruit tree down to size like a shrub and still get good results. Shearing a fruit tree is actually a thing, the “fruit bush” style it is called sometimes. Try it, or dive deeper into the resources below, which are the best ones I know of.

Also, if you want to keep your fruit tree small, don’t let fertilizer work against your pruning by putting it on the tree. I give my trees no fertilizer; I only keep a thick mulch under them. I don’t want to encourage them to grow too vigorously, which would only create more pruning work.

You can buy The Home Orchard from Amazon (this is a link to Amazon), but your local library may also have it. I borrowed this book from the library a lot before I bought my own copy.

Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery prunes fruit trees and explains why he does it in this video called “Winter Pruning.” One of the best things about this video is that you can watch Spellman cut the tree down. If you want, you can then go out and do the same thing on your own tree. You might also find it helpful to watch some of the other pruning videos Spellman has made.

Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees by Chuck Ingels (again), Pam Geisel, and Carolyn Unruh. The information is dense, but it’s all there, and it’s freely available as a pdf. It’s kind of like the condensed version of the book The Home Orchard.

Fruit trees provide abundant harvests of delicious homegrown produce, but many standard varieties can grow quite large, taking up considerable garden space. Fortunately, with proper pruning techniques, it’s possible to manage the size of fruit trees and keep them under control even in small yard settings.

This article covers simple methods for keeping both newly planted and established fruit trees compact through pruning. With a little regular care, you can maintain fruit trees at whatever height is most convenient for easy picking and care.

Why Keep Fruit Trees Small?

There are several advantages to intentionally limiting the size of fruit trees

  • Easy harvesting – Fruit on compact trees is within arm’s reach so picking is simple. No ladders needed!

  • Good light exposure – Smaller trees allow more sunlight to penetrate for ripening fruit

  • Higher yields – Less shading and better light exposure result in more abundant harvests.

  • Pest management – Compact growth makes monitoring and controlling pests much simpler.

  • Earlier bearing – Young dwarf trees start fruiting 1-2 years sooner than full standards.

  • Space efficiency – Small trees maximize variety and production in tight spaces like small yards,

How to Limit Fruit Tree Size Through Pruning

The key to controlling fruit tree size lies in pruning. Follow these basic steps:

At Planting Time

  • Start with a young whip about 1⁄2-3⁄4 inch thick.

  • Cut the whip back by 2/3 its height, leaving just 1/3 of top growth. Aim for 18-24 inches tall.

  • Choose a strong outward facing bud for the first scaffold branch.

First Spring

  • In early spring, select your lowest scaffold branch from the buds that sprout.

  • Pinch off other buds to leave just one shoot per node.

Early Summer

  • In June, prune new shoots back by at least half their length to stunt growth.

  • Remove inward growing shoots and overly vertical branches.

Following Winters

  • Open up center by removing inward and vertical wood.

  • Head branches back to just above fat buds to limit extending growth.

Pruning Mature Fruit Trees to Reduce Size

You can also prune established, overgrown fruit trees back to a smaller size:

  • Identify several well-spaced scaffold branches to retain as the main structure.

  • Cut off all other branches, leaving just the key scaffolds.

  • Head the scaffold branches back by 1/3 to 1/2 their length.

  • New shoots will emerge closer to the trunk – keep those you want for regrowth.

  • Maintain the compact shape with regular summer pruning.

Techniques for Specific Fruit Tree Types

Certain pruning approaches work especially well to control size in particular fruit trees:

Apples and Pears

  • Start by cutting spring whips back to 18-24 inches at planting.

  • In summer, tip back shoot growth by half and thin crowded branches.

  • Head main branches in winter to control height and develop fruit spurs.


  • Cut spring whips back to just above a side shoot to force low branching.

  • Prune established trees to open centers to improve light exposure and fruit quality.

  • Remove excessive vertical shoots in summer to maintain compact shape.


  • At planting, head whip just above a bud 18-24 inches up to force low branching.

  • Establish scaffolds in first year, and tip back shoots by half in summer.

  • Keep mature tree open and minimize height with summer tip pruning.


  • Cut plum whips back by at least half when planting to encourage branching low on the trunk.

-Remove strong vertical shoots in summer to encourage spreading growth habit.

  • Prune established trees in winter to open shape and improve light penetration.


  • Prune first year whips back to 20-24 inches above ground to force low scaffolds.

  • Remove all but 3-4 well-spaced branches as the basic framework.

  • Head branches by at least half their new growth in early summer to slow growth.

Maintaining Small Fruit Trees Long Term

Here are some tips for keeping compact fruit trees at a controlled size long term:

  • Prune every year – regular pruning is key to restricting size.

  • Be more aggressive – don’t be afraid to remove a lot of excess growth.

  • Get pruning done at the right times – especially summer tipping.

  • Use heading cuts to remove vertical shoots and discourage upward growth.

  • Think open shape – improve light and air penetration by thinning interior branches.

  • Remove suckers – prune out vigorous shoots from the base and rootstock.

  • Stay on top of it – frequent light pruning is more effective than infrequent heavy pruning.

Enjoying Productive Dwarf Fruit Trees

With a commitment to regular pruning and training, it’s possible to grow a wide variety of fruit trees in compact form. The rewards are plentiful fruit from conveniently sized trees that deliver easy harvests. Careful pruning lets you keep fruit trees manageable so you can reap abundant harvests, even with limited space.

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2 Tricks for Keeping Fruit Trees Small (Do this right now!)


How do you stop a tree from growing taller?

Pruning. If the crown of your tree is stretching too tall or wide, corrective pruning can help rein it in and size it down for the space available. It’s crucial to prune a tree before it becomes a problem because taking away too many branches could cause unnecessary stress.

Can you prune trees to keep them small?

Pruning to reduce tree height is possible, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle (literally). The absolute best way to handle this issue is to avoid it altogether by planting the right tree in the right place. Look at a tree’s height at maturity and make sure you have space for it before planting.

How do you dwarf a fruit tree?

After planting, limit pruning to when the tree is dormant, usually in winter or early spring. In most cases, remove about 1/3 of new growth to thin out branches, leaving the strongest growth. You can also keep the tree to a manageable size by trimming branches at the height you desire.

How to keep fruit trees to a desired height?

The secret to keeping fruit trees to a height that is convenient for you is by pruning. Think of a height you want to keep it at and don’t let it go beyond that goal, if it does, you prune it off. You can keep fruit trees to any desired height whether it is a semi-dwarf or standard size tree by size management.

How to keep fruit trees small?

The only way to keep them small is by pruning. Pruning is critical in developing a smaller size. As intimidating as it may be, do not let the ultimate size of the tree discourage you from not keeping it small to suit your needs. Keeping your trees small has many advantages: It is easier to harvest the fruit because it is at a lower picking height.

How do you grow a fruit tree with a shear?

Keep this cycle in mind when wielding your shears. The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to make a hard heading cut (a cut that removes the growing tip) when planting. While such a cut may seem extreme, your planting job will only be complete when you’ve lopped off the top two-thirds of your new tree.

Do dwarf fruit trees take over your yard?

We found a book, Fruit Trees in Small Spacesby Colby Eierman that’s all about fruit trees and how to grow them, care for them and—the most important part—how to reap the rewards. Best of all, these dwarf fruit trees won’t take over your yard. Options are endless, and some will even flourish in containers.

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