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

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.

11/25/2016 8:34:53 AM

Do these comments get replies? I don't see any replies. I have the same question as Kathleen, below, from last October: Can I use this method with a mature sour cherry? I never get any of the cherries, they are so high that the birds get everything.

3/5/2016 10:56:57 PM

My neighbor gave me an apple tree. It is one that he grafted himself at a workshop. When I planted it, it was barely 2 feet tall. That was two years ago. It is now around 6.5 feet tall. The trunk is around an inch in diameter. I have not pruned it since planting. The tree is now about the size that a newly planted nursery tree would be. As the article suggests, can I make a knee high cut at this time, even though the tree was planted two years ago?

10/14/2015 7:51:35 AM

Good information! Can 5-year old fruit trees, now about 10' high, be pruned to create small trees, or is it too late? Thanks.

10/2/2015 11:04:55 AM

Good informative article. Like to read articles on controlling pests (organically)that invade the apples and other fruits during their different stages of development. Hate to see flowers falling off and fruits being infested with worms.

10/2/2015 8:48:58 AM

This is a great article. I'd love to do this. Since fruit trees are kind of expensive, it would be great to see a how-to video on this process.

9/25/2015 4:56:01 PM

Oh hey, this reminds me of the time when my grandfather took me to his cabin in North Dakota. Over at his cabin he taught about tapping maple trees as well as doing tree removal for the ones that have lost their maple. It was quite a neat experience for me and one that actually helped me out with the job that I have now .

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