Fruit tree training offers host of benefits

The end of February is traditionally fruit-tree pruning time. This activity is as ingrained in the psyche of the home orchardist as dormant spraying and the protection of the blossoms and fruit from frost.

In recent years there has begun a new philosophy of fruit-tree training in place of fruit-tree pruning that not only can lessen the amount of time you spend cutting on your trees, but can improve the quantity and quality of fruit you harvest.

At first glance, there may not seem to be much difference between the two methods until you understand the nuances of each approach. After all, wasn't the aim of pruning to train the tree? Well, yes, but the training was limited to cutting off wood. Gradually, and perhaps begrudgingly, we have come to recognize that a tree's response to losing wood during the dormant season is to replace that wood as quickly as possible by growing new wood. During the fall, a tree stores energy primarily in its trunk and root system. If a substantial pruning is performed in winter, the tree will put out vigorous upright shoots, because its energy reserve is unchanged, resulting in growth that doesn't bear fruit and will most likely be pruned again next dormant season, resulting in a vicious cycle and less than optimum fruit production.

While pruning involves the removal of a portion of a tree to correct or maintain tree structure, training involves directing tree growth into a desired shape and form. Training young fruit trees is essential for proper tree development. It is better to direct tree growth with training rather than with pruning. Training includes summer training and summer pruning, as well as dormant pruning. The goal of tree training is to direct tree growth and minimize cutting. Training involves the techniques of using limb spreaders to establish branch angles and tying laterals to produce horizontal branches that will produce more fruit.

Summer pruning can be defined as removing growth any time after it has reached 3 to 4 inches long. Summer pruning eliminates an energy or food-producing portion of the tree and results in reduced tree growth. For most purposes, summer pruning should be limited to removing the upright and vigorous current-season's growth; only thinning cuts should be used. To minimize the potential for winter injury, summer pruning should not be done after the end of July. That will give wounds time to compartmentalize before freezing weather.

In order to be successful in training a tree it is imperative to understand the shape of the tree that you are striving to achieve. Different types of fruit trees may require different shapes. A fruit tree may be trained to any shape you desire, given enough work. I find that two basic shapes cover most trees, and you can branch out into as many variations on those themes as you desire.

A central leader tree is characterized by one main, upright trunk, referred to as the leader. The shape of a properly trained central leader tree is like that of a Christmas tree. The lowest scaffold branches will be the longest and the higher scaffold branches will be progressively shorter to allow maximum light penetration into the entire tree. This shape is particularly well suited to apple, cherry, pear and plum trees.

With the open center, or vase system, the leader is removed, leaving an open center. Instead of having a central leader, the open center tree has 3 to 5 major limbs, called scaffolds, coming out from the trunk. This training system allows for adequate light penetration into the tree, which minimizes the shading problem prevalent in higher vigor trees such as peach. Nectarines and plums also respond well to this training.

Once the basic shape of the tree is established, it becomes easier with each succeeding season to maintain the shape and productivity you desire. A healthy, balanced tree results from these principles. Apply them to your orchard this season and see the difference.

Stan Mapolski, aka The Rogue Gardener, can be heard from 9-10 a.m. Saturday mornings on KMED 1440 AM and seen in periodic gardening segments for KTVL Channel 10 News. Reach him at

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