Fruit Tree Pruning And Training 101
(Peach, Nectarine, Apricot, Cherry and Plum)
Malus And Pyrus
(Apples and Pears)
Shaping the branch structure of fruit trees is much easier if you start the process soon after you plant the orchard. The goal of pruning apple and pear trees is to create a central leader tree with several whorls of scaffold branches growing from the trunk in tiers about every 24 to 30 inches. A central leader tree looks like the classic Christmas tree with a central trunk and side branches (called scaffold branches) growing at regular intervals from the trunk. The lower branches are longer and stronger than the branches higher on the trunk.
Cut newly planted apple trees 30 inches above the ground. The vegetative buds close to the cut will break first. Select a vigorous, upright growing shoot to be the new central leader. This shoot should be near the top of the tree. Below the new leader, select four to six shoots to become the lowest set of scaffold branches. The best shoots for scaffold branches will come from the trunk at a wide angle rather than a sharp angle. Scaffold branches rising at a sharp angle from the trunk will break off of the trunk more easily than those at a flatter angle. These shoots should be equally spaced vertically (up and down the trunk) and horizontally (around the trunk).
The lowest branches should be no lower than 20 inches above the ground. At the end of the first season of growth, reduce the number of lateral branches to 3 or 4, spaced about 6 inches apart vertically and distributed evenly around the tree trunk. Choose branches of equal vigor. It is best to have the scaffold branches growing at a 50 to 60° angle from the trunk of the tree. If the angle is less than 40°, the branch will be more vegetative than fruitful. If the branch grows at an angle more than 70° from the trunk, it may lack sufficient vigor to be a useful scaffold branch. Commercial apple growers often put spacers in the branch crotch or tie the branches to position them at a 50 to 60° angle during the first year or two of growth in the orchard. Branches growing at this angle will have side branches and come into bearing sooner than branches growing in a more upright angle. The best time to prune fruit trees is late winter or early spring.
First Year After Planting Dormant Pruning
The goal after the first growing season is to insure that the central leader and the first set of scaffold branches are established. Do not allow the scaffolds to become stronger than the central leader. Head the scaffolds back, if needed, so they are shorter than the leader to prevent competition with the leader. Scaffold branches growing at the top of the tree will generally grow more vigorously than those at the bottom. That is why it is important to insure the first tier of scaffolds is strongly established before initiating the second tier of scaffolds. Prune the central leader 30 to 36 inches above the first scaffolds. This is where the new central leader and the next tier of scaffolds will arise in the second growing season. If the tree did not grow well the first growing season or did not produce satisfactory scaffolds, prune the tree in the same way as at planting and start over again. This will delay fruit production but over a lifespan of 25 years will produce a stronger, more productive tree.
Second and Third Year Pruning
Repeat the process of scaffold selection and central leader renewal until the tree reaches the desired height. A 12-foot tall tree will usually have 3 or 4 sets of scaffolds. Do not allow the bottom scaffolds to be overshadowed by the upper scaffolds. The lower scaffolds should be the longest, most vigorous scaffold branches. The uppermost scaffolds will be the shortest and least vigorous. In the dormant pruning after the second and third seasons of growth, continue to train the scaffold branches so they grow at a 50 to 60° angle. Do not allow the scaffolds to grow flatter than this, or vegetative growth will slow or cease and reduce the production of the tree. Strong sprouts that are growing straight up should be removed. This is the time to build the framework of the tree for the future. The scaffold branches will support the foliage and fruit in future years. Arrange the scaffold branches so that sunlight can penetrate the tree canopy to maintain fruitwood throughout the canopy, rather than only at the top.
Mature Tree Pruning
After the primary scaffolds and main framework of the tree are established, the goal of annual dormant pruning is to maintain an optimum amount of fruiting wood distributed evenly through the tree canopy. The fruit buds of apple and pear trees are formed on spurs or branch tips, depending on the cultivar. Fruiting spurs will be productive for many years if they get enough sunlight during the growing season. A balance between enough sunlight on the fruit spurs and enough shade to protect maturing fruit from late summer sunburn is desirable.
Scaffold branches at the top of the tree should have relatively weak vigor compared to lower scaffolds. Do not allow the upper scaffolds to shade the lower scaffolds. If necessary, remove vigorous upper scaffolds and replace with weaker branches. Remove vigorous sprouts arising in the canopy that could disrupt the central leader/scaffold structure. Remove any sprouts below the bud union; these are the rootstock and probably will not produce desirable fruit.
See the images for more notes!