from; Grow a Little Fruit Tree by Ann Ralph
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.
- First end of winter
Make a hard heading cut (a cut that removes the growing tip) when planting; lopping off the top two-thirds of your new tree. As winter comes to an end, and the ground is workable for planting, buy a dormant bare-root 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.
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.
- First early 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.
A young tree with a stem thicker than three-quarters of an inch may have a hard time pushing buds. In this case, make the first dormant cut where the caliper (width of the stem) is thumb-sized, then make a second cut lower as soon as buds begin to develop. After the sprouts get going, you can cut the scaffold as low as you prefer.
Revisit the tree once more in early spring just as sprouts reach 1 or 2 inches long, before woody branches begin to form. Gently pinch off all but one bud where multiple sprouts grow on a single node.
- First Summer
In spring and early summer, deciduous fruit trees aggressively expend their energy reserves as they bloom and leaf out. This is when trees are in the mood to grow, and grow they will, often at an alarming rate.
By the time of the solstice in late June, a tree’s resources will have migrated from the roots and trunk to be stored primarily in the foliage. Solstice pruning will remove some of those resources and reduce late season root growth. In other words, summer pruning will slow a tree down, a desirable result for compact fruit trees. While peaches, plums and apricots pruned in fall and winter — the traditional pruning season — can grow as much as 8 feet the following spring, the same pruning cuts made in summer will yield growth of only 1 foot or so. Cuts made while a tree is actively growing will heal quickly, too.
In a perfect world, a young tree would have three or four branches evenly spaced around its trunk. In the real world, branches grow anywhere and anyhow they please. The key to pruning is to envision the future: Consider the placement of the fully grown limbs in relation to one another. You may have too many options. You may have an open area with no branching. You may be tempted to let nature take its course, but leaving too many branches will prevent sunlight from penetrating the interior of the tree. Remove competing branches to create space. An ideal branch angles upward at 45 degrees. If you want to keep a vertical branch, consider a heading cut to encourage horizontal growth, or hang weights on the branch to direct its growth downward.
After removing extraneous branches, cut remaining scaffold branches back by at least half, to a bud that faces the direction you want the branch to grow. In the case of aggressive growers, such as apricot and plum trees, feel free to prune by two-thirds. Remove any suckers growing from the lowest part of the trunk or the base of the tree.
The closer to the summer solstice you prune fruit trees, the greater your size-control effects. By late summer, nutrients collected by the leaves will have already begun to move into the trunk and roots. A tree begins the shift into dormancy as early as July.
- Winter will be the best time to make structural and aesthetic decisions because your tree will be bare. The dormant season will also be a good time to remove any limbs that just don’t look quite right — those that are too horizontal, grow into a fence, or branch out over a path. You’ll want to remove what Portland, Oregon, pruner John Iott calls “The Three Ds” — the dead, the diseased and the disoriented. Open up the interior with a few well-considered cuts. Observe the growth pattern of the tree, and prune to enhance its natural grace.
Make heading cuts in winter only if you want an enthusiastic response — when you’re trying to develop the first low scaffold branches, or when you’re trying to rejuvenate an older tree. Prune heavily in winter only if a tree has stalled, if pruning has been neglected and needs correction, or if you were too timid last time and want to generate some better choices this time around. The tree will outgrow the pruning with the full force of its reserves.
In subsequent years, just keep pruning: Make architectural decisions in winter and take height down around the summer solstice. When fruit is about the size of the end of your thumb, thin clusters down to a single fruit. Depending on the variety, you may harvest a few fruits by the third year and a few dozen fruits by the fourth.
How should you choose what to keep and what to prune? Ask yourself what seems best, listen to your instincts, and cut something out. The tree will create new choices and you can always make adjustments next season.
How to Choose Dwarf Fruit Trees for Your Homestead
Try to find a local nursery that sales a variety of dwarf fruit trees on a regular basis. They most likely are going to have in stock trees that are known to do well in your area. You can also talk to your cooperative extension agent and ask for a list of fruit trees that do good in your growing zone.
Consider a few things…
Chill hours – fruit trees require a certain number of at or bellow 45 F every winter to end their dormancy and flower and bear fruit in the spring. If you live in Texas, for example, you might need to choose a “low-chill” tree.
Heat tolerance – Apples like warm days and cool nights. Peaches and nectarines love long, hot summers, pears and cherries prefer cooler climate. Make sure to choose a tree that can handle the summer heat in your area.
Cross pollination – some trees need a second tree close by to pollinate them. For example, Bing cherries like Black Tartarian cherries close by. In some cases, you will have to purchase two trees at once.
How to Plant Dwarf Fruit Trees in Containers
Use a 15-20 gallon container with holes for drainage at the bottom. Fill the bottom of the container with rocks to help with drainage. Fill half of the container with good potting soil, place your tree in the center and make sure it is straight. Add the rest of the potting soil then tamp the soil down around the roots to get rid of air. Water well after planting.
How to Plant Dwarf Fruit Trees in the Ground
Dig a hole 12-18 inches deep and wide in an area that gets 6-8 hours of sun daily. Place your tree in the hole, but make sure the grafted joint stays about two inches above the soil. You will see the joint clearly at the base of the tree. Cover with soil and compost, then mulch around the tree to help keep the soil moist. Water well.
How Should I Care for my Dwarf Fruit Tree?
Watering – make sure not to over water, especially if your tree is growing in a container. Watring once or twice a week for both in ground and container trees is usually sufficient. You might need to water a bit more during the summer when there is fruit on the tree.
Pruning – usually done during winter when the tree is dormant. Just like full-size fruit tree, prune damaged or diseased branches, or ones that grow toward the center of the tree.
Winterizing – If your tree is growing in a container, consider moving it indoors. If it has to stay outside, or if it’s in the ground, mulch it well.
Staking – some dwarf fruit trees will need support especially during fruiting. Tying them to a stake should do the work.
Feeding – don’t forget to feed your tree. Add compost around it once in a while, water it with compost tea, or add organic supplements to the soil. Especially pay attention to trees that grow in containers.
Full sun – dwarf fruit trees need to be placed in full sun. At least 6 hours, 8 preferably.