By Ann Ralph
Commercial-size deciduous fruit trees are a difficult backyard proposition. They take too much space. They’re hard to maintain. Much of the fruit produced on these trees will ripen out of reach. People buy “semi-dwarf” fruit trees because they want small trees but, without pruning, most trees classified as “semi-dwarf” grow to be twice as tall as the average person.
Don’t count on rootstock to control the size of a fruit tree. Fruit trees absolutely require regular pruning to keep them in line. At best, an untrained fruit tree will be an eyesore. At worst, trees grow rapidly to unmanageable sizes and set fruit in quantities that defeat both the tree and the gardener.
That being said, it’s easy to keep fruit trees small.
Prune a newly planted sapling to knee-high when it first goes in the ground, a radical cut by any standard. By far, this is the most important and difficult pruning cut you will ever have to make, but it almost guarantees fruit tree success, whether you want to keep your tree at six feet or let it grow taller. This pruning cut is critical, not just for size control and aesthetics, but for the ultimate fruit supporting structure of the tree—the scaffold limbs that develop from the buds below the cut.
The final height of a fruit tree is up to the pruner. A good height for a fruit tree is as tall as you can reach. Routine summer pruning makes it a simple matter to scale fruit trees down. This time of year, in the dormant season, remove only what Portland pruner, John Iott, calls “the dead, the diseased, and the disoriented.” If you want to keep your tree short, leave tall upright whips in place for the time being, and head them back near the Summer Solstice. As a rule, prune young trees lightly and older trees more aggressively.
For more information about rootstocks, training, and summer pruning, visit the Dave Wilson Nursery and UC Davis Home Orchard websites. Local Master Gardeners offer excellent seasonal pruning seminars. © Ann Ralph
Ann Ralph’s pruning book The Little Fruit Tree will be available from Storey Publishing in 2013. Contact her by way of www.littlefruittree.com.