It takes a strong gardener to ‘go hard’ on their first attempt at pruning citrus.
I was horrified when my neighbour took one look at my pathetic try at clipping the orange tree that I’d inherited in my backyard and told me to start again, “And be brutal. It’ll love you for it!” The man’s own garden produced so many oranges, lemons, mandarins and grapefruit each year that I took him at his word, returned to my lightly trimmed tree and let rip. After all, I reasoned, I was unlikely to actually kill it as long as I left something sticking out of the ground!
My neighbour, of course, was absolutely right. The next year my straggly orange tree was transformed into a lush, compact plant and the follow season gave me a bumper crop of sweet, juicy fruit. And whilst indiscriminately lopping healthy branches off of a citrus isn’t the best idea, it is often quite shocking how severe an experienced citrus grower can be with a pruning saw.
The key thing is to know why you are pruning your citrus and let that inform you on what and how much you remove.
Unlike many deciduous fruit trees that need regular lopping to keep them fruiting, citrus are comparatively low maintenance. In fact, many orange and lemon varieties will carry on growing and producing fruit whether you clip them or not.
But just because you can get away without doing something doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile. And though pruning citrus has a lot to do with controlling the shape and size of the plant, it’s still a good thing to master.
Pruning citrus trees invariably results in a healthier plant and better quality of fruit. And it’s this fruiting aspect that is the important thing.
Yes, a grapefruit left to do its own thing will continue spread it branches and set fruit, but as the seasons pass, more and more of those branches will become deadwood and the fruit will dwindle in size and quantity.
In pruning citrus trees it is as if you are giving the plant a plan on how to grow. Uncut, they will throw out limbs and leaves in all directions. Cut, it’s as if they refocus their efforts on producing the best fruit – their seed carrier and key to future generations of trees.
And it pays to be patient, rather than rush to get fruit. A young tree can be damaged by the weight of too much fruit.
Smart pruning should also lead to a tree with a nice even distribution of leaves and fruit, rather than patches of intense growth and stark limbs. You want sunlight to reach as much of the tree as possible for the best growth and fruiting. Good air circulation also reduces the risk of fungus attacking your plant.
Equipment for Pruning Citrus Trees
The most important thing is safety.
When pruning, there is a high chance of wood dust or even fragments finding their way into your eyes and you really don’t want that to happen. A good pair of safety goggles is a must.
Similarly, a quality pair of gardening gloves with protect your hands against everything from splinters to sap from the tree getting into any cuts you may have.
Pruning Citrus Trees
The age and development of your plant will play in a big part in deciding on how to prune it.
When pruning citrus that are young, start with any rogue shoots at the base of the shrub. Remember that young citrus trees are sensitive things and need a bit of extra love and attention to get them established. Rushing them to produce fruit can be detrimental to them in the long run.
A good example of this is lemon trees, which benefit from being cut to enhance their structure and shape when they are young, so that they can bear fruit with ease when older. A great way to do this is pruning the tips of new shoots to give the tree a nice tight shape. When you tip prune, the growth hormones that were causing that tip to sprout are sent back into the sapling where they will stimulate other buds and promote a bushier growth.
First up, as your citrus grows and ages it will naturally produce deadwood. This can be removed anytime you like and is a good place to start when first tackling a tree.
Similarly, lop any straggly branches – especially ones at the top of your tree that are reaching for the sky.
Another thing to look for is crossed branches. Often these have damage to their bark where they have rubbed against one another. Cutting them out will thin the congested nature of the plant and help to prevent any optimistic fungus or pest from taking hold.
A Skeleton Prune
If you have a gnarly old tree in your garden, it may be time to give it a skeleton prune.
As the name implies, this is taking the tree right back to its bare bones and can seems overly brutal the first time you do it.
Again, start by removing the deadwood, cross branches and spindly limbs. Then go in hard and clear out all the smaller branches and any bits that are damaged and focus on the shape that you’d like to achieve. If you need some encouragement and visual advice on how to do this, see this excellent clip on pruning citrus.
As the YouTube clip shows, being brave with when pruning citrus yields great results – but not immediately. A good skeleton prune is unlikely to produce fruit until 18-24months later. But when your tree does begin producing oranges or lemons, they will be better quality and more abundant.
When is the Best Time for Pruning Citrus?
The rule of thumb is when the harvest is over in early winter, or in early spring before the trees begin putting out buds.
Having said that, I recommend talking to local home gardeners in your area and see what they advise.