Tree Care: Pruning Citrus Trees

7.31.17 – An introduction to pruning your citrus fruit tree. Tips compiled by Occidental College intern, Nora Killian.

Pruning Citrus Trees

I sat down with one of our resident fruit tree experts, San Gabriel Valley Harvest Coordinator Gunther, to get his advice on pruning citrus trees. While Food Forward does not do any pruning, we can offer some advice to homeowners who wish to prune on their own.




Citrus trees require less pruning trees than most other fruit trees. Pruning on citrus trees is almost always done for the grower/person and not the tree.


A little bit of vocabulary:

  • Deadwood – These are easy to spot branches because they won’t have any green leaves on them and are usually very dry. If you bend them they should snap off because they are dry and no longer living.
  • Basal shoots – Basal shoots grow from a plant’s roots and can become autonomous from the parent plant. See photo (A) at the bottom.
  • Branch Collar – This is often visible swelling that forms at the base where it is attached to the parent plant or trunk. The wrinkling around this area is part of the tree’s defense mechanism against microorganisms. See photo (B) at the bottom.
  • Gourmands – Long, thick, very vigorous branches that seem to suddenly appear in the canopy.
  • Water Sprouts – Shoots that arise from the trunk of the tree (or older branches) from latent buds. Water sprouts are not as strong as natural tree growth and produce very little fruit, usually of poor quality. See photo (C) at the bottom
  • Suckers– Many citrus trees are grafted onto another tree species’ rootstock. The point where the rootstock and citrus tree stock are grafted is called the bud union. If any stems grow below the bud union or from the rootstock, they are called suckers. See photo (D) at the bottom


Why you would prune a citrus tree:

Make it easier to harvest. Reducing a tree’s height through pruning will make it easier to pick the fruit. Sometimes citrus trees can get so tall that even with a ladder, there is still some fruit that is out of reach.

Keep the tree within your personal space confines. Whether the tree is starting to hang over your roof, is now blocking a path or is blocking sunlight for other plants, sometimes you just want the tree to stay in its place.

There is a lot of deadwood. You can prune these branches because it will make it easier to reach the fruit when picking.

Growth of Basal Shoots or Suckers. These should be removed as soon as they appear on your citrus tree because they will not be productive and will take away the trees nutrients.

Growth of Gourmands or Water Sprouts. These branches use large amounts of water and nutrients. If they ever do produce fruit it is often of poor quality. Gourmands contribute little to the tree and should be removed at their base.

To skirt up the tree. This is the act of pruning the lowest hanging branches on a tree. Some citrus trees, including Satsuma mandarins, tend to have long branches that hang to the ground, known as skirt branches. Skirt branches can impede weeding, fertilizer and compost application, and provide pathways for ants. Fruit that touches the ground is also susceptible to soil borne pathogens. You can skirt up the tree until the bottom branches hang about two feet off the ground

What not to do:

-Over-prune! Citrus trees are “closed canopy trees” which means the outside of the tree should have foliage all the way around. Citrus bark is very susceptible to sunburn so it should have little to no direct sunlight exposure. This is especially important in SoCal’s hot sun.

-Pruning all of the low level branches beyond the ones touching the ground. This is where many citrus trees grow the best fruit so, by removing those branches, you are going to significantly reduce your fruit yield.




  • Secateurs or hand pruners
  • Loppers for branches larger than ½” diameter
  • Pruning Saw
  • A pole pruner may be useful for larger trees


About 6 inches from the branch collar, make the first cut from the bottom, about ⅓ of the way through the branch. Then move another inch or so along the branch and cut from the top down until the branch comes off. Make the third cut just after the branch collar. These first cuts are done so that a clean cut can be made at the branch collar and there is no tearing from the weight of the branch.



Time of Year to Prune: 

Major pruning should take place after the risk of freeze has passed and before the summer heat (March-end of April in SoCal). Any winter maintenance should only be done on branches that are less than ¼” in diameter.




Disclaimer: This is just an introduction to citrus pruning to get you started. Please consult a professional before doing any large scale pruning especially pruning that involves very heavy branches or very tall trees.


Further reading:

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8 thoughts on “Tree Care: Pruning Citrus Trees”

  1. Cherry Godwin says:

    My kumquat tree Y-ed close to the bottom. The little side 4 feet grows fruit, but big side 10 feet does not. I have to keep it inside in the winter. Can I cut the big side off and not kill my tree. I’ve had it 4 years, that side has never had fruit.

  2. R Hamilton says:

    Very informative. Easy to understand. Thanks for get info……..have to go prune.? ?

  3. Luzy Davila says:

    Great info!!! thank you:)

  4. Patty says:

    We have a fruit cocktail tree that is having some problems When it blooms it has wonderful blooms. The fruit starts to grow. As they start maturing some of them just stop growing and fall off then the ones that are left seem to get to a larger size they develop a blackish coating an quit growing again. I tried washing them with a mild soap and water like someone told me to do but nit hasn’t helped Any ideas?

  5. JOSEPH SITKIN says:

    My citrus trees need professional pruning, They are many years old and quite large. Do you have any listing for tree pruners whose specialty is citrus. I am on your list for trees to be picked.

  6. Brenda Haag says:

    I have a young pondarosa lemon and the fruit is pulling the limbs down to the ground. Should I pull the fruit off and allow the tree to grow larger or just leave them alone. I recently got 4 large lemons off and the second bloom fruits are starting to get larger. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  7. Geneva Taylor says:

    I live in south Georgia. I was given a Myers lemon and a satsuma orange tree when my husband died. The trees are almost 4 years old and I have had an abundance of fruit this year. The problem is that they are taking over the apace in which they were planted, side by side. I never knew they would grow so big. I love the fruit but I can not even reach the tops to collect the fruit, I have tried to read all of the information you have provided, but I’m overwhelmed. Do you advise me to try shaping it up all over so I can live with it. You mentioned ants and I am seeing ant mounds all around the trees. I have also been told that I should not have planted the trees next each other that they are cross-pollinating. Some of the lemons are as large as naval oranges and some rather runty. Thank you for your interest. Happy New Year. Geneva.

  8. Susan Ashcraft says:

    We moved into a home in Arizona last November that has an orange tree. I would say this is more of an orange bush in that it has at least 10-12 trunks! It’s tall and full and bore fruit last fall. It has little green oranges all over it now, but was pruned on the bottom (about 3 feet up from the ground) exposing all these trunks! Is there a variety of orange tree that grows this way or is this just because it was never tended to for the many years that it grew?

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