Building the Fruit Tree Foundation

We're going to do something extremely drastic, but before we do, a short recap for the benefit of late-comers who found their way to only this page. We're establishing a mini orchard in a back yard, in a space that's normally taken up by one regular standard fruit tree. We're planting several varieties of fruit trees very closely together and keeping them pruned so that every part can be reached from the ground. The fruit matures successively and our objective is a few pounds of fruit each week during the growing season, rather than a truckload of fruit all at once in mid-September. 

Establishing the Framework of Your Fruit Trees

It's the fruiting and leafy branches that get pruned every year. The scaffold and side branches are built at the very beginning and they're usually not pruned again. That's what we're going to do next.

Doing Something Drastic

Take a deep breath...

Grab your pruning shears or your lopper and cut through the trunk of your newly-planted tree eighteen inches above the ground.

Yikes! That's drastic, all right. I paid good money for this tree and now you want me to just cut the thing in half? Just like that? And that low?

You bet. Just like your house, a bridge, or even a tractor, all things need a structure to build on. Fruit trees are no different. A trunk supports the main (scaffold) branches, which in turn support the side branches, which in turn support the fruiting branches. But there's no need to have the scaffold branches start at five or more feet of height above the ground. We do it that way because we've always done it that way, and because that's the way it used to be done in the commercial orchards so the machinery would fit underneath them. We're not going to have that machinery in our back yard, so there's no reason the entire leafy and fruiting part of the tree has to start up there. It can start just as easily a foot above the ground.

Time out for a very important qualification. This low cut is done only on standard fruit trees that have only one graft union just above the roots. This technique will not work on multiple-in-1 types of fruit trees where several varieties are budded or grafted on one trunk. Never cut below those grafts. Another thing to watch for: some nursery trees have an 'interstem,' which usually is dwarfing material grafted between the producing top and the vigorous rootstock. Those three-part kinds of trees are expensive and you can tell them apart because they have multiple graft unions at the trunk. You can not cut below that topmost graft union. 

Mike in the treetopsHere's a picture we've borrowed from Dave Wilson Nursery to help explain our fractured prose. That's Mike, tending to his tree. If you were to add a five foot trunk between the ground and the start of the canopy, Mike would have to add five feet to his legs to manage his ten-foot-high tree. Neither you nor the tree needs that extra five feet of trunk, and a tree this low is so much easier to prune, will need less spray, is easier to wrap netting around, and still easier to harvest, and all without having to climb around on ladders. Notice also that the canopy is maybe eight feet wide. That means that you can plant these trees five or six feet apart and let them intermingle a bit.

Tom with pluotsHere's another picture from Dave Wilson Nursery, and that's Tom with his orchard. Looks like he's got a bunch of trees in the same space as a single standard tree.

"Yeah," I hear you say, "but you don't get much fruit off these things if they're kept that small." Yes! Exactly! We never wanted a truckload of fruit all at once! Keeping the trees this small and low to the ground does not affect the size or quality of the fruit, only the quantity. We use the space of a standard fruit tree, and plant instead a half dozen trees whose harvest matures at different times, and we can keep the family in fruit from August through December, put up some applesauce and maybe even put some apples in storage for January.

Planting Time

Tree pruningAfter lopping off the top of the tree (Figure 2A), encourage the growth of side branches (Figure 2B) by rubbing off those that wander off in the wrong direction. After the new side branches are a couple of inches long, place wooden spring clothespins at the trunk/branch junction to force these branches to extend horizontally instead of upwards (Figure 2C).

After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half. In late summer cut the new growth back again by half.

Not to worry if there are no branches when you cut the trunk, they automatically show up anytime a tree is beheaded. Don't like the way it's turning out? Behead the tree again next year and start over.

First Winter After Planting

First Winter PruningChop off everything that's going in the wrong direction and take out the leader. You are building a scaffold for the side branches and shouldn't worry about fruiting branches yet.

Prune the ends of the scaffold branches, especially if they try to reach for the sky. Let the side branches develop.

Just like the first year, cut back new growth by half in spring and again in late summer (if you have a very vigorous variety, pruning three times may be the easiest, once in the spring, again in early summer and last in late summer.)

Beginning the second season, thin to an open center. Prune trees to the shape of a vase.

Winter pruning is for removing undesirable branches and cutting the ends off branches to encourage branching. Early June is meant for summer pruning. Read on!

NEXT: Summer Pruning? What's up with that? Won't that kill the tree?