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I recently moved into a house with lots of horticultural learning opportunities :)

This semi-dwarf cherry was planted at least two years ago and (as far as I can tell) has never been pruned. The picture shows two different angles. For scale, the lowest branches are about knee level:

tree

My goal is to have it eventually develop into a healthy, fruit-bearing, backyard-type tree. I don't need to get a harvest any time soon.

How should I proceed to get this tree into shape? I've done a lot of reading, but haven't actually done any tree pruning. Also, when should I do this initial pruning?

  • How sure are you that this cherry is a fruit bearing one and not just an ornamental flowering cherry? – Bamboo Apr 16 '17 at 9:54
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    You want the first crotch at a reasonable height, say 3-4 feet (a meter or so). Using the rule of not cutting more than a third of the foliage a year, it looks like you've got 2-3 years of just lopping off the lowest branches ahead of you. After that, cherries tend to get crowded crowns, avoid that by pruning as possible. If the plant is an ornamental, first crotch likely belongs at more like 6 feet (2 meters). I prune in early spring. That might be wrong, but I haven't killed my cherry yet. – Wayfaring Stranger Apr 16 '17 at 14:20
  • Good thought, @Bamboo. It's a montmorency tart cherry. – bitsmack Apr 16 '17 at 17:39
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    @WayfaringStranger Thanks! You may want to post that as an answer so I can upvote it :) – bitsmack Apr 16 '17 at 17:41
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    You might also want to apply some weights to the branches (you'll keep) to get them to spread to more reasonable angles while they are still tractable. You can use something like a stone in a sock/stocking tied to a branch to help pull it down without restricting overall movement. I'm personally not a fan of pointy "spreader sticks" but those are a product for the same job. – Ecnerwal Apr 17 '17 at 1:54
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SFGATEadvises:

Prune approximately 10 percent of the limbs each winter to increase sunlight to the center of the tree and to encourage new growth, which in turn will produce more fruit. Cut damaged, older and the least-productive stems back from where they originate, using pruning shears, loppers or a pruning saw. Thin crowded areas as well. Evenly distribute pruned branches to maintain a nicely shaped tree.

In your case ~10% at present seems to mean at most two (whole) branches. The level at which low branches near the trunk will be an obstruction will rise with age but since planted in grass you presumably will be mowing and so may appreciate reasonable headroom, so might want to end up with about 4' of bare trunk. Unless ease of protecting the fruit from birds and harvesting is more important for you (assuming you do not have access to the equipment Woodyatt Cherry Farms has!) in which case you would presumably prefer the canopy as low as possible – see for instance How do I prune a cherry tree to keep it short?.

For timing, Stark Bro's advises (about pruning in general):

Plan to prune your fruit trees during every dormant season. In Zone 6 and farther north, you should wait until late winter.

though also mentions You can have confidence in knowing that not everyone will prune the exact same way (including the “experts”) and with their video (which shows some relevant practical details, like aiming to allow light and air into the centre) offer late winter and early spring, while they are dormant and before their buds break. Pruning is never normally a good idea in a growing season as when the tree is most active the flow of sap is greater, so more energy to waste from leaks and more to attract pests.

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