Coffee Farming: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees

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Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam

Coffee Farming: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees – Whole Farming is a special column from Helena Coffee Vietnam that provides an overview of what you can and/or can’t control, as well as how to exercise what controls you can to create a sustainable crop and a good cup of coffee.

Pruning is the selective removal of part of a coffee plant, including branches, shoots, flowers, and fruits. Pruning can control the size of the canopy to make harvesting easier, encourage yield growth, protect against drought and disease, and ultimately improve yields.

Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam
Shaping & pruning is considered mandatory technical measure with the aim of giving coffee trees a balanced canopy, fully exploiting the unique space of each tree |Photo: heavenlyhawaiian

Pruning is one of the most important farming measures to achieve yields and keep plants healthy. The majority of existing research suggests the pruning comes from Kona, Hawaii — probably the highest yield of Arabica coffee per acre anywhere in the world.

This comes in part from ideal growing conditions, as well as applied farming methods, including strict and regular pruning standards.

This post is made to help you understand the basic tenets of shaping and pruning as well as basic pruning purposes & methods.

To be able to apply shaping and pruning techniques for coffee trees in production practices, you can refer to the guidance “Shaping & Pruning Branches for Coffee Trees” in the “Guide to Sustainable Coffee Production” issued by the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development.

Why prune?

Coffee berries usually grow only on new branches. As coffee plants age, growth slows down with more branches. The branches that each fruited become fibrous and obstruct the light.

As a result, the plant becomes less and less productive as it ages. Pruning encourages new growth, reduces self-shading, and thus increases productivity.

Coffee is a hardworking crop and it will even focus entirely on yielding for a single crop – or “overbearing”. Simply put, this means that the tree will bear as much fruit as possible in any given year.

When the fruit begins to bloom and ripen, it uses up the carbohydrate reserves from the plant and needs a large amount of nitrogen from the soil.

If there are not enough carbohydrate reserves or enough nitrogen to support growth, then the leaves and branches will begin to die when their food supply is used up. This is called dieback, and next year there will be a very poor crop.

Purpose and methods of pruning branches for coffee trees

Even if the branches do not die completely, the limited amount of carbohydrates accumulated at the time of flowering can affect the number of flowers, and the ability to bear fruit and still affect the yield in the following year – so a crop with high yields in one year, will cause the plant to use up its carbohydrate reserves, and leads to crops with lower yields the following year.

This cyclical model has the term – “Biennial bearing”, which refers to crops with irregular yields from year to yearGood pruning can eliminate this, resulting in more stable yields from year to year and healthier plants.

Horizontal branches

Grows obliquely relative to the main stem, capable of fruit, there are two different types of branches:

Basal branches (level 1 branches): At each axillary leaf on the main stem there are many sleeping sprouts but only the top sprouts are capable of developing into horizontal branches called basal branches or level 1 branches.

If a level 1 branch is shed or cut off, then never at that location can another level 1 branch arise.

Secondary branches (2nd, 3rd level branches …): At each axillary of the 1st level branch, there are many sleeping sprouts capable of developing into level 2 branches, or differentiating into flower sprouts when there are suitable conditions such as dry weather, and low temperature.

In the axils of leaves on level 2 branches there are many similar dormant sprouts that are capable of developing into level 3 branches.

Horizontal branches from level 2 onwards are collectively referred to as secondary branches and these branches are capable of regeneration, so they should be removed during shaping sessions if they are too many.

Vertical branches (overtaking branches or overshoot shoots)

Are branches arising from the sprouts sleeping in the axils of the leaves on the main stem. Excess shoots have characteristics: erect growth, fast growth, consume a lot of nutrients but are not capable of producing fruit.

During shaping, excess shoots need to be removed regularly and promptly to avoid nutrient consumption, except for the following cases: use excess shoots to form new stems, and supplement the canopy when the plant is defective.

Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam
Overshoots can be used to form new stems, supplementing the canopy when the plant has a canopy defect | Photo: heavenlyhawaiian

Flowering behavior

Coffee flowers only grow on the branches formed from the previous year, very rarely the flowers come back on the vertebrae that have carried the fruit, so on a coffee branch there are usually 3 different branches: the branch segment that is carrying the fruit, the branch segment that is carrying the fruit and the newly formed silk branch segment (reserve branch).

If not cut annually, the fruiting position on the branch tends to be farther away from the main trunk axis, and the transport of nutrients is limited, affecting the quality and quantity of fruits in these locations.

The purpose of annual cutting and shaping is to facilitate the development of reserve branches and bring the fruiting position closer to the main stem axis for high yields and improved grain qualities.


The coffee tree creates an upright stem, with evenly spaced nodes.” Each node will produce a pair of leaves and a pair of sub-branches (or side branches). As the plant ages, the growth rate begins to slow down and the nodes will retract closer together.

Along the side branches, each node produces flowers and fruits, usually only a year after it grows.

As the lateral branch grows, it produces new nodes that will bear fruit and sometimes another branch, also known as the “secondary branch”. Secondary branches also produce fruit but are often less productive.

Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam
Many overgrown branches grow from the center of the old root, so they must be pruned periodically, and the retained shoots must be evenly distributed around the stump |Image: heavenlyhawaiian

When the main trunk of the plant is cut off or damaged, longitudinal branches (overpasses) grow out of the trunk, thereby creating their side branches.

This can be harnessed to generate new growth from older trees. However, because excess branches do not produce fruit, too many excess branches can limit yields.

So with a healthy coffee tree, the branches are considered nutritional competitors and need to be removed.

On the coffee tree, the branches that have given fruit will hardly bear fruit in the next year. These branches will stretch out to continue fruiting at the tips of the branches or die dry, or create new secondary branches.

Therefore, after each harvest, farmers have to prune branches and reshape coffee trees. Otherwise, coffee trees will have messy foliage, reduce yield in the next year, and quickly age.

Usually, pruning can be carried out twice a year as follows:

  • The first time: Immediately after harvesting, the plant needs to prune useless branches, dead dry branches, pests, and weak small, overgrown secondary branches in the upper part of the canopy. Shorten the old branches to focus on nourishment that feeds the secondary branches inside.
  • Second time: In the middle of the rainy season (May 6, 7), when the branches have grown lushly again, thin out the secondary branches that grow in an unfavorable position (ingrown into the trunk) so that the canopy grows well and choose to leave strong branches, reserve for the next crop.
  • In addition to the two main prunes, the secondary branches (also called “toothpicks”, and “viscous” branches) grow very thickly at the same place on the main branch, not contributing to the yield but also competing nutritionally with the branches that will bear fruit, so they should be removed simultaneously with the pruning of the branches from the trunk, root.

Video showing how to distinguish secondary and toothpick branches on a coffee tree

The goal of the various pruning systems being used is to encourage new branch growth, produce yields, and allow the canopy to receive light more evenly.

In summary, the general rule of thumb is to cut off old branches, and pests, and limit unnecessary secondary branches that will greatly improve yields and should be carried out annually after harvest.

Addition of defective canopy

During care, for various reasons such as pest infestation, dry branches due to lack of water, or wind damage, many plants have an inappropriate shape. These trees will be additionally shaped as follows:

  • In the case of a tree with a canopy underneath (parachute canopy), the canopy is supplemented by raising a bud that crosses the ground and this shoot is pinned at a height where the canopy is defective. In order for the overshoot to grow healthy and develop normally, it is necessary to thin out some secondary branches just above the location of the overshoot (Figure 9).
  • If the plant has a defect in the canopy above, it is necessary to see off the old, underdeveloped stem above and raise a new shoot to supplement the upper canopy. The above shaping technique has helped the plant effectively exploit other intensive elements such as fertilizer, and watering at a high level. At the same time, this measure also contributes to maintaining the stability of the yield of coffee gardens.

Improved shaping system (hand shaping from limb hump)

“Hand shaping technique with branch hump” meets the urgent requirements of practice, consulting on transferring technical advances in sustainable coffee production programs, certified coffee, and landscape coffee,…

This helps to reduce the technical pressure and labor of coffee shaping, reconcile the technical conflict between single-body and multi-body shaping; integrate the advantages, and overcome the disadvantages of these two shaping methods.

Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam
The technique of “shaping the hand with the hump” | Photo: Pham Cong Tri, 2017

In the system of level branches (2, 3, 4,…), the lower the branch, the stronger the higher the branch, usually the level 2 branch always shows the strongest The formation and maintenance of level 2 (low-level) bio-tumors will facilitate shaping, enhancing and stabilizing yields. Farmers need to prioritize the creation of level 2 birth humps.

Pruning tops

“Top pruning” refers to the complete cutting of the top of the plant – from the root to about 1.5 – 1.8m, to limit the height of the plant to make harvesting easier.

Once the Arabica tree grows to full height, it will not create any more lateral branches, no primary branches mean growth & yield, which must come from the secondary branches – the secondary branches.

This pruning system is relatively simple and only needs the farmer to cut off the excess branches, thin the fruit-bearing branches, and remove the old stems.

As the vertical branches age and become no longer effective, they can be cut off completely to allow new overshoot shoots to grow, keeping 2 or 3 overgrown shoots growing on the root tree at the same time.

Because it is simple and does not require heavy equipment, this is the technique recommended by the FAO in pruning.

However, in countries with more inputs to farming such as fertilizers and irrigation, and especially where agriculture is mechanized, more selective rigorous pruning techniques may be appropriate.

Tree cutting

‘Tree cutting’ usually refers to completely cutting the tree & retaining only the root. In the next year, the plant will produce new overtaking shoots, which grow very quickly but do not bear fruit.

The fruit will be born on its lateral shoots in the following years. Although this will result in a loss of productivity in the first year, a production that often increases in subsequent years can compensate again.

In addition to batch cutting, there is a method of cutting roots in rows, in which a row is retained alternately with an original cutting row called the Beaumont-Fukunaga system, developed in the 1950s.

This can be done on a 3- or 4-year annual cycle, or every two years on a 6-year cycle. This system is in common use in Hawaii and much of Latin America.

Farming 09: Pruning Techniques, Shaping Coffee Trees - Helena Coffee Vietnam
A coffee tree in Hawaii, a few months after the Beaumont Pruning Method – Fukunaga | Photo: heavenlyhawaiian

Initially, the Beaumont-Fukunaga Method was called ‘stumping’ because it was customary to cut everything on the tree, all the way to the root. Over time, about 5% – 10% of coffee plants will die, needing to be replaced with a new plant.

Some farmers claim that the number could be less than 1% if they are properly fertilized and cared for. Later, to limit the number of coffee plants that die, it is common to leave a ‘vertical bud’ to ensure they can live, stay healthy, and continue photosynthesis to produce more shoots.



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