By University of Illinois Extension
Pruning apple trees helps them produce the best fruits possible. Richard Hentschel, a UI Extension horticulture educator, said that home orchardists need to train for tree structure to encourage fruit production if they are to have a productive, high-yielding home orchard.
"The goal of pruning and general plant care means a balance between vegetative and reproductive growth," Hentschel said. "Fruit trees need enough foliage to provide the necessary nutrition to maintain the tree in a healthy state and nourish the developing fruits. This is managed by limiting vegetative growth and the volume of apples produced annually. Managing the number of fruits produced improves the quality and size of harvested fruits."
Training starts when the tree is planted. This will ensure that the dwarf tree remains dwarf as it matures. With proper training, a fruit tree should begin to produce consistently in the third or fourth year, with yields increasing each year after.
"If you are growing dwarf apple trees, you will likely use what is called the central leader system to train your trees," Hentschel said. "This system allows your fruit tree to look like most other trees in your landscape, yet produce apples without looking like those in commercial orchards."
Start by selecting scaffold branches, placing the first set no more than 24 inches from the ground. By starting that low, there will be room to place additional scaffolds and still have a mature tree that is no taller than 6 to 8 feet, making it very easy to manage. Mowing underneath may be difficult, so consider a large ring of mulch that extends to the edge of the canopy and extend it as needed. If a dwarf tree is allowed to grow without being well-trained, it will be much larger than planned for, and fruit production will likely be delayed.
Other kinds of fruit trees have their own specific training systems to maximize fruit production. For example, peaches use the open center system.
"There are several advantages to a well-trained dwarf fruit tree," Hentschel said. "During annual spring pruning, it will be much easier to see which branches need attention."
Water sprouts are easily identified as they will be growing straight up from the horizontal scaffold branches. Foliage and fruit treatment will be much easier as the scaffolds will allow easy access to the entire canopy.
Harvest is much easier and a lot more fun, too.
Some branches will need to be adjusted using traditional branch spreaders or alternative methods such as pulling the branch into the desired horizontal plane with twine and a stake as scaffolds develop.
As the dwarf fruit tree matures, home orchardists will realize there are additional benefits. The weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though a young fruit tree may not be producing apples, there are insects and foliar diseases that need to be addressed.
"Foliage-feeding insects reduce the canopy and thus the amount of food that could go into growing and developing," Hentschel said. "Leaf diseases have a similar impact. If allowed to continue over the season or seasons, they could easily delay fruit production and limit the number of high-quality fruits you are able to harvest. You want a tree that develops quickly, yet one that you have trained to encourage flower and fruit set."
If you are going to start your home orchard this spring, there is still time to plan and lay out the orchard and order trees. Young fruit trees that are already planted should be pruned while they remain dormant.
"Enjoy the challenge and amaze your friends with fruit that came right out of your yard," Hentschel said.