Training Trees

Our exposure to dwarf apple trees came rather suddenly. We pushed out an old peach orchard and were planning to let the land sit fallow for two years as part of a crop rotation plan. However, after the first season, Montgomery County wanted to reassess our farm land as residential for tax purposes, as we had no crop growing. We planted twelve hundred dwarf apple trees in two days.

We were already growing apples elsewhere, but they were standard trees—the kind you plant far apart and let grow. After all, my grandfather’s reasoning to get into the fruit business was that you just had to plant ‘em and pick ‘em. It never really worked that way.

Part of the educational process of being a fruit grower is being exposed to what other fruit growers are doing. And, through the years, a lot of other growers, especially in Europe, were planting semi-dwarf and dwarf trees. It looked and sounded like the thing to do for several reasons. First of all, the trees were smaller and you spent very little time on a ladder. Secondly, more trees are planted per acre, resulting in a greater bearing surface per acre and therefore more fruit per acre. Also, dwarf trees bear earlier, beginning in their second or third year as opposed to standard which can sometimes take up to six years to produce a crop. Of course, the drawback was that dwarf trees were more labor intensive with much more care having to be given to the growing and training of the trees. But this was okay for us because we love taking care of fruit trees.

Of course we, the Heysers, always think we can do things a little better than anyone else.

We decided on M26 as our dwarfing root stock. It was said that trees on this rootstock, if grown on good soils, could be free standing. We have good deep soil. We also decided to train them to a central leader – slender spindle system. This basically consists of a strong central trunk with branches coming out almost horizontally spiraling upward around the trunk, with the largest branches on the bottom and smaller branches as they go up the trunk – a Christmas tree shape.

We tried hard, but we couldn’t keep all these trees standing straight. In the fall, with a full crop, wet soggy ground and the right amount of wind a lot of these trees started leaning. This experience has led us to look at other training systems.

For the past two years, at planting time, we have driven half inch electrical conduit into the ground next to our trees and have tied the central leader to it. The initial pruning of the young tree consists of selecting the straightest, strongest part of the tree for the central leader, heading it back by less than a third, removing any strong competing limbs, and leaving the weaker branches that come out to the side. For the next few years we come back to the tree when we are doing our dormant pruning, retie the central leader to the conduit, or whatever support structure there is, again pick the strongest, straightest new growth to continue the leader, head it back, remove large competing branches and prune to position the lateral branches we want to keep. When the tree reaches the desired height, we choose to keep the weakest new growth at the top of the tree and to cut it back to just two or three buds to slow the growth of the tree. (A pressure treated 2×2 would be stronger than the conduit.)

One of the most exciting things about dwarf apple trees is that they can be trained to grow many different ways. They can be trained to grow along a fence, up a trellis, in a Y shape, in a T shape, just about anyway one can imagine.

There are some important things to remember. Branches that are not cut stay more flexible and grow less than those that are cut. When limbs or trees are tied, be sure they are not girdled, leave room for the tree to grow. Limbs growing horizontally will produce more fruit, vertically, more vegetative growth.

Also, while February is a good time to prune apples, pears, grapes and raspberries, it is still too early to prune peach, apricot and plum trees.

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