Create Small Fruit Trees with This Pruning Method

This revolutionary pruning method will give you more fruit growing options, because nearly any deciduous fruit variety can be trained to stay compact. Learn how and when to prune fruit trees so that they’ll thrive, even in small gardens.

| October/November 2015

  • Pruning Trees
    After fruit was thinned to 8 inches apart, this 5-year-old tree still produced 84 large apples.
    Photo by Saxon Holt/Photo Botanic
  • Knee-High Heading Prune
    A knee-high heading prune when planting a dormant tree is critical to size management and creating a low, sturdy scaffold.
    Photo by Marion Brenner
  • emerging scaffold
    In early spring, you may either keep your emerging scaffold as it is and manage with a little hand pruning, or cut lower to place were the orientation of the branches suits you.
    Photo by Marion Brenner
  • Duplicate Buds
    In early spring, remove any duplicate buds on the same node by gently pinching the bud with your fingers.
    Photo by Marion Brenner
  • Removing Branches
    Around the time of the solstice in late June, remove any redundant or competing branches.
    Photo by Marion Brenner
  • Pruning For Height
    During the solstice you should also prune for height. Head all scaffold branches and reduce their length by half. Apricots, plums and peaches can be pruned by two-thirds.
    Photo by Marion Brenner
  • Compact Trees
    With proper thinning, compact trees produce nicely sized fruit in manageable abundance.
    Photo by Saxon Holt/Photo Botanic
  • Strategic Pruning
    You don’t need to buy special rootstock to keep a tree small: Strategic pruning, like that used to manage this espalier apple tree, is enough.
    Photo by Marion Brenner

  • Pruning Trees
  • Knee-High Heading Prune
  • emerging scaffold
  • Duplicate Buds
  • Removing Branches
  • Pruning For Height
  • Compact Trees
  • Strategic Pruning

Many fruit trees — including semidwarf varieties — can easily grow to 15 feet and taller. Anyone who has tried to manage one of these large trees in a backyard will instantly appreciate the value of small fruit trees: They require less space, are easy to care for, and produce fruit in manageable quantities. Growing compact trees allows you to tuck more varieties of fruit into corners of your property or a small orchard, and means you can choose those varieties by flavor and climate adaptability rather than by tree size. Nearly any standard and semidwarf tree — from pears, peaches and plums to apples and apricots — can be trained to stay much more compact.

The pruning treatment outlined in this article will create an appreciably smaller fruit tree than what you’re used to — as small as most dwarf trees (see “Why Not Choose a Dwarf Fruit Tree?”). Here’s the key to this little-known technique: Fruit trees’ reaction to pruning is dependent on the season in which the cuts are made. The trees’ response is determined by whether the tree is actively growing (spring), gathering nutrients (early summer), preparing for dormancy (late summer), or fully dormant (fall and winter). Keep this cycle in mind when wielding your shears.

Prune Fruit Trees for Small Gardens: The First Cut

The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to make a hard heading cut (a cut that removes the growing tip) when planting. While such a cut may seem extreme, your planting job will only be complete when you’ve lopped off the top two-thirds of your new tree. This pruning cut is critical because it will create a low scaffold (the primary limbs that make up the canopy of a tree), and making this cut during dormancy will give the tree strength and resilience, which is especially crucial for heavy stone fruits. Most importantly, it will help keep the canopy of the mature tree within arm’s reach.

Here’s how to handle the first cut. As winter comes to an end, and the ground is workable for planting, buy a dormant bareroot tree that’s about as big around as your thumb. Plant the tree as soon as possible. Choose a bud at knee-height (about 18 inches from the ground), and make a clean, 45-degree cut that angles away from the bud. Cut close enough to the bud so it can heal cleanly in a natural line, but not so close that you cut into the bud itself. Several buds should remain between the cut and the graft — the knobby place low on the trunk where the scion (the graft that determines fruit variety) meets the rootstock. A knee-high prune is reasonable for almost all fruit trees for small gardens, but peaches and nectarines will sprout more reliably if you cut just above a nurse limb (a branch left to absorb the tree’s spring energy and encourage sprouting). A young tree will probably be a 5- to 6-foot whip at the nursery, so in most cases you’ll remove more than you’ll leave behind. Your beautiful sapling will now be a knee-high stick.



Granted, this cut sounds harsh. Do it anyway. The compact structure of the tree to come will begin to develop as a consequence. Heading your tree while it’s still dormant will take advantage of nutrients stored in the roots, and vigorous growth and branching will occur in spring, when the plant directs its energy to the remaining buds — the perfect combination of conditions to get a small fruit tree off to a strong start. Your initial cut will awaken the buds below, and they will eventually develop into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. The resulting open-center tree will be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and far more usefully fruitful.

Prune Fruit Trees for Small Gardens: The First Spring

After the first buds start to break in early spring, examine the spacing of the branches and decide if you like the arrangement of the top buds. If not, simply prune lower to a place where the configuration of leafing buds suits you. This place will eventually become the crotch of the tree. The lower the crotch, the easier it will be to keep the tree small. The earlier in the season you make this cut, the more vigorously new limbs will grow.

Davilyn
12/9/2018 10:29:38 AM

For everyone who is posting here. Do not be afraid - LOL. Any tree can be pruned this way. Be aware that the older the tree that you doing this to, the longer it will take it to come around to your way of thinking. But it will. If it was healthy to begin with and you make corrections only when dormant, it will come around. For Juancho - you might try a very low chill tree. Some are as low as 100 hours. And everyone - do not take as gospel truth the "rules" we have been force fed all our lives. Throw out the "zone" consciousness. I live in the High Desert of California and I've been able to grow everything I want here - it just takes some common sense. For instance, I keep things that are for cooler areas under shade cloth all the summer. Tropical things go in the greenhouse or inside the house during winter. That is another reason to keep everything small. Its much easier to move a container grown 3-4' citrus tree inside than protect a 8-12' citrus grown in the ground. Think of it as growing more little ones, than one big one. This will also give you a greater variety of things you can fit in your smaller spaces. I am in the process of dwarfing and espaliering all my nut trees. You need to be brave. If you love the tree and the tree knows you love it, it will come around.


Davilyn
12/9/2018 10:29:37 AM

For everyone who is posting here. Do not be afraid - LOL. Any tree can be pruned this way. Be aware that the older the tree that you doing this to, the longer it will take it to come around to your way of thinking. But it will. If it was healthy to begin with and you make corrections only when dormant, it will come around. For Juancho - you might try a very low chill tree. Some are as low as 100 hours. And everyone - do not take as gospel truth the "rules" we have been force fed all our lives. Throw out the "zone" consciousness. I live in the High Desert of California and I've been able to grow everything I want here - it just takes some common sense. For instance, I keep things that are for cooler areas under shade cloth all the summer. Tropical things go in the greenhouse or inside the house during winter. That is another reason to keep everything small. Its much easier to move a container grown 3-4' citrus tree inside than protect a 8-12' citrus grown in the ground. Think of it as growing more little ones, than one big one. This will also give you a greater variety of things you can fit in your smaller spaces. I am in the process of dwarfing and espaliering all my nut trees. You need to be brave. If you love the tree and the tree knows you love it, it will come around.


Angie
7/11/2018 4:41:50 PM

Can you prune Lychee nut trees this way too?







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