What is the difference between a fruit tree and a shade tree? A grand, old apple tree surely makes for a nice shady spot to relax on a hot summer day, and mankind has been enjoying fruit such as acorns, pine nuts, and coconuts for the last 10.000 years or so… So what is a fruit tree? For the sake of this month’s article, we will focus on trees we “manage” for fruit production, and what we are managing, is size…
A dwarf or semi-dwarf apple would easily top 15 or 20 feet if it was never pruned! The term “dwarf” refers to time, not space. Unfortunately, fruit trees, with exceptions of course, make lousy shade trees! When you plant your tree for the purpose of fruit production, you should already have in mind the limits of overall size you will let your tree attain. It is easy to keep a tree small, and very difficult to make a big tree small!
The initial pruning on a new tree is the “training” stage, and you should be concentrating on editing branches that have acute angles of attachment, and keeping the space between branches large enough to accommodate the flush of a year’s growth, and fruit load. With the exception of espalier, try to radially space the secondary scaffolding (fancy name for branches) around the trunk with some likeness of equality.
Once your tree reaches the target size, keep it there forever! It really is that simple. Year after year, all you really have to do to manage the tree is remove the last years’ response to pruning. You may want to move the cuts around a bit to keep from re-injuring the same place, but for the most part, what went up, comes off. No fruit will come from 1-year-old wood, so all you are really taking away from the tree is a foliar “flush”. Fruit trees are real survivors in that respect, so don’t be shy, they can take it!
Keep your pruning tools sharp, and expensive. The thrill of a bargain fades fast in the limelight of poor quality. The best hand pruners on earth will set you back less than a hundred bucks, a steal when you consider you will have them for the rest of your tree’s life. If you have to make a cut bigger than your little finger you will need a pruning saw. It is hard to find a poor quality “tri edge” type of saw nowadays. A pole pruner will round out your stable nicely, and again, prepare to pay a little more for quality! Forget about a pole saw unless you are a pro, an eight foot orchard ladder will probably get you into position to make that cut with your handsaw in most cases. Below is a before and after shot of an apple tree I prune every year, and yes, all that growth (over 1000 pruning cuts) happens in about 5 months or so. This tree should be maintained at this size forever. The only things it will gain will be annular growth rings, and fruitwood or “spurs”. You can study the proper branch collar pruning cut to death, but there is no teacher like experience and the more you do, the better you get! Keep in mind that you want those pruning cuts to close as fast as possible!