Growing citrus trees is a process with its own challenges. However, you can prevent a lot of them by maintaining and pruning your orange tree properly!
In general, it’s best to prune your orange tree either before the blossoms appear or before the fruit begins to show.
You will need to take off suckers, damaged branches, and branches that interfere with growth. Pruning your orange tree is not just for superficial purposes—it’s also crucial to keep it healthy.
If you’re not sure where to start, keep reading this simple guide to pruning orange trees!
Why Do You Even Need To Prune Your Orange Tree?
When you prune your orange tree, you need to make sure you know how to do it properly. If you take off too many branches (or don’t take enough), the health of your orange tree will suffer.
While there are general guidelines to follow when pruning trees in general, citrus trees also have certain requirements that other trees don’t.
A lot of people prune their trees to keep them looking nice and from becoming a neighborhood burden. While pruning your orange tree will accomplish that, there are many other reasons it’s a necessary task.
Pruning Will Enhance Your Orange Tree’s Longevity
While it’s not the first thing that might come to mind, pruning your orange tree will actually help it live longer.
If you’re going to put forth the time and effort to even have a citrus tree in the first place, it’s essential to take care of your investment!
Another thing that will help prolong your orange tree’s longevity is making sure that you plant it in the best possible place.
Pruning Helps Manage Sunlight Distribution
Carefully selecting which branches to remove helps your tree receive light equally throughout. Otherwise, some branches might not ever see the sun!
Remember, plants use the sunlight that reaches their leaves to convert nutrients into usable food. Ensuring the leaves on your citrus tree get enough light helps your tree stay healthy.
Here’s a bit more detail on why orange trees need full sun if you’d like more info on that.
Prevent Problems In Your Orange Tree By Pruning
If you notice problematic branches, removing them allows the rest of your tree to continue
growing healthily. That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true!
Otherwise, your tree will spend unnecessary energy trying to repair and send resources to these damaged branches!
Pruning Gives You Bigger, Better Fruit Harvests
You might think that removing branches from orange trees results in less fruit. However, the opposite is actually true.
By pruning extra branches, you give your orange tree the opportunity to spend its energy growing more oranges. Not only that, your orange tree produces bigger, better fruit.
In short, if you want to get more oranges, better quality fruit, and want to keep your tree growing a long, healthy life, you need to prune it.
But what’s the best way to do this?
1. Choose The Right Time To Prune
If your tree is growing outdoors, you have a tighter timeline in which to prune your orange tree. This will also depend on where you live, and the climate in your area.
The short answer is you should prune your orange tree between February and April.
The more accurate answer is that orange trees in cool climates are best pruned when the weather starts to warm around the end of February, or even late March. If you live in a hotter climate, you can often start pruning earlier if the weather is right.
If you really have to prune in winter, only take off small branches. However, it really depends on your specific orange tree.
You can choose between two options: prune just after you see fruit beginning to appear or prior to seeing blooms on your tree.
For a deeper dive into timing, check out our full article on the absolute best time to prune large trees.
2. Get The Right Pruning Supplies
Once the time is right, you need to make sure you have the right supplies on hand. Most
gardeners have at least one set of pruning shears on.
However, to properly prune your orange tree, you should have a few different tools.
(Remember, you’ll be trimming branches of various sizes, and the shears you use for your rose bush can’t hope to take on a thick tree branch.)
You will need:
- Hand shears (for smaller branches under 1” thick)
- Pole pruning shears (these are necessary to remove branches higher in the canopy)
- Pruning saw (for use when removing much larger, thicker branches)
- Loppers (these are for moderately thick branches that need more force to remove)
- Safety glasses (you might not see this on every supply list, but they are crucial to
keeping flying wood shards off the most sensitive parts of your face
While it may sound like a large investment, high-quality tools can last you throughout the lifespan of your tree (and are equally useful throughout your garden).
3. Clean Your Tools
Even if you purchase brand-new tools to prune orange trees, it’s still important to give them a good clean before you start.
Sure, you might think they’re clean because you don’t see any gunk or dirt on them. Unfortunately, microbes and other small pests can linger and go unnoticed.
If you do see some build-up on your shears, carefully wipe it off with a damp cloth, and dry
thoroughly. To sterilize your shears, isopropyl alcohol is the tried and true solution to use.
If you need further proof, the University of Florida touts this as the recommended method to sterilize gardening tools.
Note: While alcohol is useful for sterilizing gardening tools, it’s important to keep your tools well lubricated and treated to avoid rust. This not only keeps your pruning shears in good shape, but it also helps them smoothly slice through branches (preventing unnecessary damage to your tree).
It’s also a good idea to use clean protective gloves before you prune orange trees. This serves two purposes. First, it protects your hands from splinters, flying debris, and other accidents.
Second, it also helps prevent the potential spread of bacteria or pests to your tree. (This means, don’t use the same gloves you used for weeding last week to prune your orange tree today).
4. Assess Your Tree’s Pruning Needs
This is the part where a lot of gardeners struggle, and for good reason.
Now, there are some circumstances where you’ll know that certain branches need to be pruned off. For example, if you see a broken branch, you need to remove it before it causes further issues.
Or, if the tree is struggling to support the weight of a certain branch (and it is, therefore, likely to splinter or break in the future), pruning it can prevent damage before it happens.
In other cases, you may notice a sickly-looking branch. Again, that’s a branch that needs to go before it spreads damage to the rest of the tree.
Don’t Be A “Sucker”
Another part of your tree that needs tending? Suckers.
Because most orange trees (and citrus trees in general) are grafted from another plant (the rootstock), they often develop suckers, which are branches that often grow from the lower parts of the main stem of a tree.
It’s important to remove these as soon as you see them, lest they take essential resources from the main tree.
Remove branches that cross into the space of other main branches. Not only are these extra branches taking up sunlight from productive branches, but they can also run against or damage otherwise healthy branches!
Of course, there are also different steps you’ll take when pruning mature orange trees, versus pruning sapling orange trees.
Pruning A Mature Tree
Mature trees don’t often need pruning. In fact, pruning your mature orange try should be more of a rarity than a regular practice.
However, if you notice problematic branches or suckers, you still need to prune them to maintain your tree’s health.
It’s important to inspect your orange tree, even if it isn’t currently producing fruit.
Even if your tree is fully grown, you’ll still need to water it correctly. For a detailed guide on how, read our article on how often you should actually water an orange tree.
Pruning Saplings And Nursery Trees
These young citrus trees are where you really need to focus more on shaping and pruning.
The younger the tree, the less incidence of scarring and permanent damage from pruning and making large cuts.
When you prune a young orange tree, you’re removing extra, unnecessary branches that stray from the main branch of the bulk of the canopy. This is also a crucial time to inspect your tree and thin out weaker or sickly-looking branches.
There are a few other pruning tasks you’ll need to put on your checklist for a juvenile orange tree.
If you’re getting your orange tree from a nursery, this next part may, in fact, already be done for you. If not, you’re going to need to cut back the branches significantly. (Yes, it sounds harsh, but it’s best for the overall longevity of orange trees!)
Try to cut the branches as close to one-half and one foot as possible. Next is a guideline most new orange tree growers really struggle with. Cut off the first fruits.
You’re surely thinking, “but aren’t the oranges the reason I’m growing this tree?” And, of course, they are. However, if your young tree is focused on producing fruit, it’s spending its limited resources on creating a few oranges, rather than on vegetative growth.
Vegetative growth is the stage before plants begin flowering, fruiting, and reproductive stages. If any plant does not have enough vegetative growth, it ultimately won’t be able to produce as good of a harvest as a plant that has had time to fully develop through the vegetative stage.
5. Start Removing Branches!
Once your gear is ready and you’ve inspected your tree for areas that need maintenance, it’s time to get down to the real work: removing branches from your orange tree.
Before you get started, there are a few things you need to know. We’re going to discuss not only the different types and widths of branches you remove but also the tools you need to handle each.
There are a few categories of branches, according to diameter, that you need to consider.
We will consider branches that are thinner than one inch (about two and a half centimeters) in diameter to be “little”.
These can typically undergo pruning with a set of sharp, well-maintained, hand shears.
Once stems and branches are thicker (up to a few inches in diameter) long-handled shears, often called loppers, are the tool to use.
Loppers often have larger blades, and the elongated handle makes it easier to gain the leverage you need to cut through woody growth.
To remove even larger branches, you will likely need to use a pruning saw. You can choose different lengths and shapes to best suit the needs of the branches you need to remove.
If you don’t feel comfortable using a pruning saw or climbing high on a ladder, remember that there is no shame in hiring an arborist!
6. Get Rid Of Suckers And Small Branches
You will want to start pruning the branches of your orange tree in an orderly manner. To keep track of where you are in the pruning process, many people choose to work from smallest to largest.
We will also follow the steps of pruning from the smallest branches to the largest. We will begin with the suckers.
Suckers are small shoots of growth that often appear near the base of your tree. Because many citrus trees are cultivated through grafting, it’s very common to see suckers on your orange tree.
Remove suckers as soon as you notice them. You can usually use a small pair of hand shears to snip them off near the base. If you allow them to grow, they often end up taking away nutrients from the rest of the orange tree.
When pruning a young tree, you will also remove smaller branches to help shape the tree.
However, when dealing with an older tree, removing smaller branches, especially those that emerge from larger branches, keeps your tree’s resources going to the most important parts.
7. Remove Larger Branches
There are multiple reasons to remove larger branches. One major reason is to keep other
branches and limbs healthy. As branches grow, they tend to damage, rub against, or even steal sunlight and other resources from the other branches.
Removing medium to large branches from the lower parts of the main trunk is often done to keep the orange tree looking good. In mature trees, these branches often don’t come back after pruning.
As you move to prune the canopy, you won’t often cut off an entire branch. The only
reason you would do this is the case of significant damage or illness.
Canopy branches can be harder to reach (and are often more established branches) so you’ll need to use your tools for big branches (many of these may be too big even for loppers, so a pruning saw or a pole saw may be necessary).
Special Considerations For Cutting Large Branches
If you’re pruning the canopy for maintenance, you only need to remove the last third of the branch. This keeps the shape of your tree intact and often frees up enough space to prevent issues with other canopy branches.
However, if you’re removing a branch that causes a lot of issues because it’s too overgrown,
you can remove the entire branch. You simply won’t have that branch available to produce fruit in the next growing season.
If you do need to remove the entire branch, make your cut just at the collar of the branch.
What is the collar? It’s simply the spot where the branch raises out from the main stem. The
reason to cut here is to encourage better healing and prevent issues that can result from
making drastic cuts.
8. Remove Damaged Or Dying Orange Tree Branches
When you remove damaged or diseased branches from your orange tree, you’re likely to be getting rid of larger branches. So you can keep the same tools at hand. Removing large,
damaged branches is a bit different than removing big branches to maintain the canopy.
You’ll also cut the branch differently. Rather than removing the outer third of the branch, you’ll take off the entire thing. And, rather than cutting the branch at the collar, you’ll remove the branch flush with the collar.
Basically, you’re cutting the entire branch off, and from the origin. When you cut off the branch, you should be able to see healthy wood from the main trunk or stem on the other side of your cut.
Because this is a very drastic cut, you may need to cover the remaining area with protective tree paint to allow your orange tree time to heal and prevent infection. You can also use a spray like the Tanglefoot Tree Pruning Sealer for convenience.
9. Remove Orange Fruit
There are two different instances in which you’ll remove the fruit: thinning out and harvesting.
Harvests can happen all at once, or a couple of times throughout the season, depending on the maturity of your oranges.
Don’t rely on color alone to determine when to pick an orange. Oranges are rarely the same perfect shade of orange you might imagine. Not only that, but different varieties of orange trees also produce fruits that have different coloring.
If you know how large your oranges should grow, you can use that as one indicator. Another way to tell if your oranges are ripe is by smell. Ripe oranges have a sweet smell that you can pick up as you walk around your tree.
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking there’s one specific month in which you’ll harvest. Just as different varieties of oranges produce different fruit, they also have different timelines for a typical harvest.
For example, Valencia oranges may be ready in March, while Clementines are often ready around October. When your oranges are ready, you can easily pull the fruit from the tree by hand.
Of course, for fruits higher in the canopy, you may need a ladder or a tool like the Achort Fruit Picker Tool to help you grab oranges from the high branches.
Thinning Out Fruit Can Bring A Better Harvest
Thinning out oranges is just as important as pruning if you want a bountiful harvest. Those that are new to growing orange trees may find themselves aghast at the thought of removing fruit before it goes to harvest.
However, by sacrificing a few fruits early on, you do get a better harvest later.
Too many underdeveloped fruits put strain on the branches (which can also lead to damage). Not only that, but when you thin out fruit, you allow your tree the resources it needs to grow better oranges this season.
Simply remove some of the oranges when you notice them beginning to grow, and target those on branches if they seem to sag with too much weight. In the next growing season, you’ll notice a higher yield and better quality oranges.
The one exception to this rule is when you grow orange trees in containers. If growing orange trees indoors, only remove fruit as needed, and when ready to harvest.
If you’re thinking of growing a tree indoors, first read up with our article on the 7 easiest fruits to grow indoors.
Bonus: How To Prune An Orange Hedge!
Not all oranges come from the typical orange tree often we think of. While still technically orange trees, they can be grown as hedges!
Essentially, it comes down to selective shaping and pruning. You can prune your orange hedge in much the same way you prune an orange tree. However, you also use some of the techniques you do for pruning hedges.
With orange hedges, the goal is to allow sunlight to reach as many parts of the plant as possible. Keep branches near the bottom longer, and decrease their length as you near the top. This allows lower branches to continue receiving enough light to keep growing quality fruit.
We have all the info on the most common places where orange trees grow. Is your home located in one of these places?
Pruning Orange Trees—It Really Is That Simple
If you correctly prune orange trees, as we’ve shown in this guide, you can look forward to a tree with many good harvests to come. Remember, always use the right safety gear and clean tools. Then, just follow the simple steps above and enjoy your orange tree for all the years to come.
Burns, R. M., Boswell, S. B., & Atkin, D. R. (1970). Influences of skirt pruning on orange tree
yield. Citrograph, 55, 413-14.
Kallsen, C. E. (2005). Topping and manual pruning effects on the production of commercially valuable fruit in a midseason Navel Orange variety. HortTechnology, 15(2), 335-341.
Kumar, E. V., Srivenkataramana, T., & Sundararaj, N. (1985). Branch sampling for estimating
the number of fruit on a tree. Journal of the American Society for Horticultural Science, 110(3), 451-454.
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