Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 11, Issue 4 - April 2016  
Growing Fruit Trees: Why Size Matters
When growing fruit trees, you would think bigger is better. If you buy a bigger tree, you'll get to enjoy your harvest sooner, right? If you let your tree grow larger, you will get enough fruit to make lots of pies!

Actually, size does matter when it comes to growing fruit trees. But the truth is that smaller trees are much better. They are easier to care for and they are healthier. Yes, they will produce less fruit, but that fruit will be sweeter and easier to harvest.

So how can you keep your fruit tree compact, productive and healthy? There are two key ways. One is by buying the right tree. The other is by using the correct annual pruning techniques.


Author beside peach tree
The author beside a peach tree in an orchard in Virginia. Increasingly, even professional growers keep their trees a compact size so that they are easier to prune, spray and harvest. (Photo credit: www.orchardpeople.com)
Buying the Right Tree
When you go to a garden center to buy your tree, you don't really have much choice. They will have a few fruit tree cultivars and all of those trees will be potted, ready to plant in your yard whenever you are.

When you order fruit trees from a specialist fruit tree nursery, however, it's a completely different experience. You will have a wide range of cultivars to choose from, so you can research and select a tree that will thrive in your conditions. After you choose and order your tree, it will be shipped to you, but not right away. That's because specialist fruit tree nurseries sell their trees "bare root". They dig their trees out of the ground in the early spring and send them to you at that time.

The tree you receive may be a whip – a year-old tree that looks like a tiny twig with roots – or it may be a slightly larger, two- or three-year-old tree. Either way, it comes to you with its vulnerable bare roots wrapped in moist sawdust or newspaper. The tree, still dormant, can survive like this for only a few days. So after it arrives, your tree must be planted immediately. If you see the buds are starting to burst, it's a sign that planting quickly is essential. If a bare-root tree emerges from dormancy before being planted, it will become stressed and die.

Planting a bare-root tree can feel like a game of "beat the clock", so is it really worth the hassle? The answer is a resounding "YES!". Bare-root fruit trees adapt more readily to their new environment. They grow more quickly once they are in the ground. They are healthier than potted trees. And they are easier to shape into an ideal fruit-supporting structure through correct annual pruning. But more about that in the next section.
Pruning and shaping
You might be tempted to splash out and buy a larger fruit tree, but older trees don't adjust as well to their new location and they are more difficult to prune and shape because their branches are already set. (Photo credit: Susan Poizner)
Controlling Tree Size with Correct Annual Pruning
There are so many reasons to keep your fruit tree small. Here are a few of them:
Fruit trees can grow to be taller than houses. Cherry trees are notorious for being vigorous growers, but even apple and pear trees can grow to be huge. And who but the birds can enjoy the fruit at the top of the tree?
Big trees can cause a lot of mess, as ladder-fearing gardeners wait until the fruit falls to the ground. By that time it's soft, half rotten and unappealing. Who wants to use squishy bird-pecked or wormy apples in their fruit crumble?
Big trees are hard to care for. Even if you grow your fruit trees organically, you do have to spray them from time to time with organic sprays. It's hard to spray a huge tree.
All fruit trees need pruning to ensure good air circulation and to give all the branches equal access to light. Pruning is much more difficult to do when you have a really big tree.
If you're interested in large, sweet fruit rather than smaller fruit that's as hard as a rock, you need to do some hand thinning on your trees, plucking off some of the baby fruit early in the season so that the remaining fruit has room to grow to full size. Who is going to hand thin the fruit on the upper branches of your oversized tree?
I could go on and on, but by now you get the picture. Smaller trees are better, and if you keep your tree small – anywhere from 7' to 12' tall – you'll have room for other plants in your garden too. You might even have room for a couple more fruit trees.
Small, well-pruned tree
It's much easier to harvest a smaller, well-pruned tree. (Photo credit: www.orchardpeople.com)
So…what's the secret? How do you keep your tree small? Here you have a couple of options:
Some people control the size by selecting and planting a tree that has been grafted onto dwarfing rootstock. That is certainly one option, but trees grown on dwarfing rootstock are often weak and need staking.
Or you can get a book or go online and learn fruit tree pruning skills. Correct pruning helps you create a strong but compact fruit-bearing structure for your tree. It also improves air circulation and ensures that all branches have full access to the sun.
Your pruning adventure starts on the first day you plant your bare-root tree, when you perform a "whip cut", slicing off the top third of the tree to spur vigorous growth and encourage the tree to focus its energy on its root system. Each year after that, shape your tree using your hand pruners or loppers. To encourage vigorous growth, you can prune young trees in the early spring while they are dormant.

Once your tree has reached an appropriate size, you may opt for summer pruning. That way, you can reduce the size of the tree or the length of the branches without spurring tons of new growth during the growing season. Your fruit tree will still grow, but not as much, which is good if you want to keep it small.

What If You Already Have a Huge Tree?
If you have a tree that's grown too large, you can bring its size down slowly over a number of years. Each year, you can safely remove up to 20% of the branches on your tree. If you take off more, you will stress your tree and possibly kill it.

Renovating a larger tree can take four to five years. Ultimately, it's worth it as you already have a tree that's established and producing a harvest for you, whereas newly planted fruit trees can take five years to start producing a harvest.

Developing a Relationship
Fruit-tree pruning is very different from pruning native or ornamental trees, and there are some skills you will need to learn. But once you know the theory behind correct pruning, it is easy.

What you will find over time is that as you prune and care for your tree, you will develop a relationship with it. You'll see how it responds to the previous years' cuts. It will teach you how it wants to be shaped and cared for.

For me that is the most magical, challenging and enjoyable part of fruit tree care. I hope you will learn to enjoy it too!

Text by Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner is a writer, filmmaker and an urban orchardist. She is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book
Growing Urban Orchards. She is also the creator of the fruit tree care training website www.orchardpeople.com.
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