Frequently we get calls from people who have recently purchased a home and on the property are existing fruit trees. The new homeowners are very excited about them and the prospect of growing and harvesting their own fruit is appealing. It sometimes proves to have been a deciding factor as to why they purchased the property; however, these existing trees often have not been maintained for several years.
Many of them find themselves scouring the internet for information on how to prune a fruit tree or how to prune fruit trees to keep them small. This usually stems from a desire to make fruit trees easier to harvest or in some cases wonder how to prune and renovate an old fruit tree ensuring its future viability.
These answers are as varied as the questions. Many times viability depends on how old the trees are, the current health and vigor of the trees, and how long they have gone unpruned.
Photo Credit: Illinois.edu
Pruning Older Fruit Trees
If a fruit tree can be renovated and brought lower in height, it is usually a process that should be done a little each year. More often than not, older or severely unpruned fruit trees should be treated more as ornamental trees rather than trying to force them to respond to severe reduction pruning. Let me explain it this way; I would not go a retirement home to recruit participants for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman Triathlon. The same consideration should be given to old fruit trees.
Begin by very carefully structuring, thinning, and deadwood pruning them to improve their overall health, and avoid major reduction cuts such as to branches over 4-5 inches in diameter. It takes a lot of energy to compartmentalize that size of cut while also contending with such a significant loss of foliage. An ornamental prune will still produce fruit but will also be less stressful, improve tree health, and will often end up resulting in an improvement in the size and quality of the fruit.
Yes, the fruit will unavoidably be higher and require a ladder to be used for harvest but is ultimately what is best for the tree’s vitality and thus best for the fruit it produces. My suggested alternative is to purchase and plant new fruit trees near the mature ornamentally pruned fruit trees. Both will benefit in the spring during pollination.
Photo Credit: orangepippintrees.com
Fruit Tree Planting Depth
If you’re considering planting new fruit trees in the spring, a critical first step in the process is making sure they are planted at the right depth. So many young fruit trees never reach maturity due to being too deeply planted. This mistake is often made when people plant trees all the way up the bud graft. The bud graft is the spot where a bud, cut from a mature tree bearing the desired fruit, is “T-Grafted” down low and into the side of the trunk of a sapling tree called the rootstock. You can identify the bud graft as the swelling of the trunk close to the dirt that looks similar to the root flare.
The root flare, by contrast, is usually 3-6 inches below the bud graft. It is very important when you purchase your tree to identify both parts and not plant the tree above the root flare. The root flare should be even with the surrounding soil level. When purchasing a new fruit tree, do not assume that the depth in the pot is the correct depth when you bring it home. Often young fruit trees get put deeper in their pots in order to help keep their slender trunks stable.
Photo Credit: Arborday.org
Where to Plant a Fruit Tree
Proper placement or planting location is another critical consideration with fruit trees. Fruit trees need lots of sun, so don’t plant them in shady parts of your yard. Make sure they have room to spread and grow and as much all-day sun as possible. Protect them well if you are not in a fenced yard. Consider a wire cage to protect them even if they are in a fenced yard. I have repeatedly seen young trees pulled up, snapped off or chewed on by bored pets and toddlers. Their small size just simply seems like a perfect stick for dogs and whip for kids.
Pruning Young Fruit Trees
It’s never too early to start pruning. I like the young child analogy. It is never too early to begin correcting a child to form a healthy and functioning adolescent. The same applies to young trees, especially fruit trees. Formative pruning can begin as soon as the fall if the tree has shown good vigor and growth through the summer.
With fruit tree pruning, it is important to understand the basic formative pruning concept. Fruit tree pruning is not done to create a “nice” or “pretty” appearance, but rather for functionality. As arborists, we are interested in how the tree responds to our pruning and our goal is to gain a positive response from the pruning which lays the foundation for the tree’s proper shape, branch structure, and fruit.
There are many misconceptions about what to prune, where to prune, and how much to prune. This greatly varies with the tree’s age, shape, and vigor. You really have to pair (pun intended) how the tree is forming naturally with how you want it to form in the future. For instance, on a brand new tree with very few and spindly branches, I may prune each branch end back 6-8 inches or more. This will force it to respond by producing two or more forks that will grow into branches the following year, resulting in more branches to work with next season.
On a more established tree with plenty of branching limbs, I may actually remove some to force the tree’s energy down into the core where fruiting wood develops. As I have mentioned before, this is easier to demonstrate than to describe, so consider having us out to provide a fruit tree pruning lesson. It is worth getting a young tree started in the right direction.
Thank you for following this series and as always, for further questions, quotes, or consultations, give us a call today!