Training and Pruning Young Apple and Pear Trees

Pruning is especially critical just after planting and during the first few years of growth to make sure that the overall structure of the fruit tree is correct and to encourage early fruiting. Pruning cuts on young trees stimulate vegetative growth below the cuts and delay fruit bearing. So keep the number of cuts made on a young tree to a minimum, making only cuts that are necessary for proper structural development. If you do a good job of pruning and develop a structurally strong tree with limbs that are well exposed to full sunlight, you'll greatly reduce the amount of corrective pruning needed during the production years.

The pruning guide "Recipe for Training Young Trees to a Central Leader" (starting on page 28) is for semidwarf apples and pears, but it also can be used for cherries and plums. Your goal with this type of pruning is to develop a single central trunk with "scaffold" limbs spaced evenly around the trunk at

Proper pruning is especially critical in the first few years after planting.

Corrective Tree Pruning
Figure 6. It's important to prune young apple trees to maintain the dominance of a single central leader. After heading back at planting (a), several leaders will compete for dominance (b). Remove all but the strongest while they are still succulent (c).

a different levels, allowing for optimal exposure of the leaves to sunlight (see Figure 10). The tree will eventually assume a nearly conical shape, with longer scaffolds at the bottom of the tree and shorter ones near the top (see the apple and pear trees in Figure 3). In addition, you will need to spread or train the scaffold limbs so that they are nearly horizontal with the ground and their crotch angles (the angle formed where the limbs meet the central leader) are at least 60 to 70 degrees (Figure 7).

Keep in mind that the "central leader" method is just one way of pruning trees. There are many other methods—especially for high-density plantings of dwarf apple trees—that are variations of this method and designed to produce earlier harvests and high yields. (The general principles of central leader training can be used on dwarf trees as well.) As long as you keep in mind the effects that the different pruning cuts will have on your tree, you

Crotch Angle

Figure 7. Use spreaders to train scaffold limbs to wide angles. The narrow crotch angle and small, upright lateral branch make this a poor scaffold without pruning and spreading. Incorrect pruning (b) does not improve the crotch angle or limb position, and because the limb is near vertical, the A? y cut will stimulate vigorous vegetative y ^ growth. The correct procedure (c) spreads the limb to improve the crotch angle and properly positions the scaffold. Remove the lateral because it will be shaded by growth from the main scaffold limb.

Crotch Angle Trees

Figure 8. The cultivar Golden Delicious (a) is great for home gardens because its natural growth habit features a well-defined central leader, wide-angled crotches, and moderate extension growth, making it easy to prune.

Figure 8. The cultivar Golden Delicious (a) is great for home gardens because its natural growth habit features a well-defined central leader, wide-angled crotches, and moderate extension growth, making it easy to prune.

At the other end of the spectrum, young Red Delicious trees (b) are more difficult to prune because their vigorous, upright growth competes with the central leader and they have an excessive number of scaffold limbs and narrow crotch angles. Red Delicious and cultivars with difficult growth habits can still be trained to grow into structurally sound trees.

Note the improved form of the Red Delicious tree (c) after scaffold selection and heading back the central-leader shoot.

Limb Spreaders For Fruit Trees
The insertion of limb spreaders (d) improves the crotch angle, reduces scaffold vigor, favors flower bud formation, reduces competition with the leader, and eliminates interference of lower scaffolds with the growth of scaffolds originating higher on the trunk.

can modify this pruning method to meet your needs. For example, if deer pressure in your area is heavy, you may want to limit heading cuts on the leader or start your scaffold branches higher so that the trees more quickly outgrow their reach. Also keep in mind that different cultivars and different rootstocks may require or respond differently to various pruning strategies (see Figure 8).

For additional information on pruning and training, refer to the Cornell Cooperative Extension publications Training and Pruning Apple Trees and Cultural Practices for Commercial Vineyards. For ordering information, see "Related Cornell Cooperative Extension Publications," page 103.

As your trees develop, continue with dormant-season pruning, fruit thinning, branch spreading, and scaffold supporting as needed, similar to the fourth-year recommendations given in the following pruning guide. By the sixth or seventh year, you may need to remove the least desirable scaffold in the bottom tier so that no more than four remain in that tier. Remove larger limbs in the top of the tree if their diameter is more than half the diameter of the leader where they join or they cast too much shade on the scaffolds below. Continue pruning to maintain the pyramidal shape of the trees.

Recipe for Training Young Trees to a Central Leader: First Year

When: What to do:

At planting Plant so that the graft union is 2 inches above the soil level. (Tamp soil firmly.) Remove any shoots below about 18 inches. "Head" (cut off) the leader at about 32 to 36 inches (26 inches for pear trees) to stimulate branch development (see Figure 9). If the tree is well-feathered (has lots of side branches), head the leader about 12 inches above the top branch.

Soon after planting Stake trees, especially those on M.9 rootstock (see "Planting," page 18).

1/4 to 1 inch of Choose a strong bud (usually the one just below your heading cut)

new growth. to be the central leader, and pinch off the two or three competing buds below it. Remove any flowers that appear on the trees.

2 to 4 inches of Choose several sideshoots to become scaffolds. They should be new growth spaced about 3 to 4 inches apart on dwarf varieties and up to 8 to 12

inches apart on larger varieties. Make sure they are well distributed around—as well as along—the central leader (see Figure 10). Especially make sure that no two branches arise from the trunk at the same height.

Attach clothespins to the main trunk so that their opposite ends gently spread the scaffolds to near-horizontal positions (see Figure

Mid-July Remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader (see Figure 6). Tie the developing leader to the stake.

Remove clothespins. If any scaffolds are turning up at the end and trying to grow vertically, hang one or more clothespins from near the end of the scaffold (attach extra weight to the clothespins if necessary) to bring them back closer to a horizontal position.

Fall Install a permanent plastic tree tie above the first tier of scaffolds, leaving a 2-inch diameter loop to allow for trunk growth.

Recipe for Training Young Trees to a Central Leader, Second Year

When: What to do:

Remove any vigorous sideshoots that are competing with the central leader. The leader should have grown at least i8 inches the previous season (see Figure 12).

Figure 9. To train semidwarf apple trees to a central leader, it's important to start pruning right after planting. Remove any shoots below about 18 inches, and "head" (cut off) the leader about 32 to 36 inches from the ground to stimulate branch development (a). After heading, several side branches will grow just below the cut. While they are still small, choose a strong one to become the new central leader and remove the two or three competing buds just below it (b).

Central Leader Apple TreePruning Young Pear Trees

Figure 10. When training a young tree, choose scaffold branches that form wide angles with the central leader and are spread out along the trunk (a). From above (b), the scaffolds also should be evenly spaced around the trunk. Keep upper scaffolds pruned shorter so that they don't shade the lower scaffolds.

Figure 10. When training a young tree, choose scaffold branches that form wide angles with the central leader and are spread out along the trunk (a). From above (b), the scaffolds also should be evenly spaced around the trunk. Keep upper scaffolds pruned shorter so that they don't shade the lower scaffolds.

Pear Tree Scaffold

Figure 11. Use clothespins to gently spread the scaffolds to near-horizontal positions.

Clothespin Training Fruit Trees

Late winter if the leader grew more than 18 inches, head it back by about one-

fourth to encourage the formation of sideshoots for scaffold selection. If growth was less than 18 inches, head the leader and scaffolds, removing about one-third of last year's growth.

If the tree has less than three acceptable scaffold limbs, remove all scaffolds, rehead the leader at about 36 inches, and repeat the first-year training procedure.

If you are trying to encourage quick vertical growth or are growing dwarf trees that you want to encourage to fruit early, skip heading the central leader.

As a rule of thumb, remove sideshoots that are more than one-half to two-thirds of the diameter of the trunk where they meet.

2 to 4 inches of Choose and clothespin the second tier of scaffolds growing from new growth one-year-old wood on last year's leader, similar to your scaffold se lection the previous year. Again, make sure they are well spaced along the central leader and well distributed around the trunk.

Choose a new central leader (if you headed off the old one), and remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with it.

Mid-July Tie the developing leader to the stake and remove the clothespins.

Remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader.

Use "spreaders" ofvarious lengths to spread vigorous scaffold limbs selected the previous year that have crotch angles less than 45 degrees, bringing them down to nearly horizontal (see Figure 8d). You can make your own spreaders by cutting notches into the ends of a wood lathe or driving finishing nails into the ends of one-by-twos and sharpening the protruding head. (The sharp ends hold fast in the branches without doing permanent damage.) Alternatives to spreaders include hanging weights from the limbs or tying them down to the base of the tree.

Recipe for Training Young Trees to a Central Leader: Third Year

When: What to do:

Late winter Make sure the tree is tied securely to the stake.

Remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader. Head the leader if needed, following the directions given for late winter of the second year.

2 to 4 inches of Choose and clothespin more scaffolds growing from the one-year-new growth old wood on last year's leader, similar to the scaffold selection of the previous year. Again, make sure they are well spaced along the central leader and well distributed around the trunk.

Figure 12. In late winter following planting, remove sideshoots competing with the leader. The leader should have grown at least 18 inches (extension growth) the previous season.

Figure 12. In late winter following planting, remove sideshoots competing with the leader. The leader should have grown at least 18 inches (extension growth) the previous season.

Pruning Young Pear Trees

Figure 13. As the tree matures, remove vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader

  • a), scaffolds that threaten to overtake and shade lower ones
  • b), and suckers (c).

Figure 14. Remove drooping branches because they produce less fruit, are not well exposed to light, and usually shade other branches. Remove the ends of such branches back to a lateral in a near-horizontal position, and remove all branches growing downward from the bottom of larger branches.

Figure 13. As the tree matures, remove vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader

  • a), scaffolds that threaten to overtake and shade lower ones
  • b), and suckers (c).
Pruning Young Pear Trees

2 to 4 inches of Choose a new central leader (if you headed off the old one), and new growth remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with it.

June Hand-thin the fruit to singles spaced 6 inches apart (see "Thin ning Fruit," page 36).

Mid-July Tie the developing leader to the stake and remove the clothespins.

Remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader.

Use spreaders or alternatives to spread scaffolds with narrow crotch angles.

Use twine, heavy string, or wooden props to tie up permanent scaffolds if it appears they will not support the fruit load.

Recipe for Training Young Trees to a Central Leader: Fourth Year

When:

What to do:

Late winter Remove any vigorous sideshoots that compete with the central leader (see Figure 13). Head the leader if needed.

Thin out overcrowded areas. Remove branches whose tips hang below horizontal, or prune them back to a new shoot that is pointing up slightly (see Figure 14). Reposition the spreaders if necessary.

Remove any vigorous upper scaffolds so that they do not overtake and shade the lower ones (see Figure 13). If the diameter of any of those branches is greater than half the diameter of the central leader where they meet, remove them completely with a thinning cut.

Budbreak to Mid-July

June

Spread the scaffolds where necessary.

Hand-thin the fruit to singles spaced 6 inches apart (see "Thinning Fruit," page 36).

July

Use twine, heavy string, or wooden props to tie up the permanent scaffolds if it appears they will not support the fruit load.

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    How to use spreaders to spread fruit tree limbs?
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