From the end of February to anytime now is a good time to go out and prune your pear and apple trees, and this is especially important if you are growing them espalier-style in a Belgian-fence pattern. I’ve been interested in growing fruit trees for several years, and around six or so years ago I took a class at the Home Orchard Society that taught me how to graft fruit trees–well worth it. I then went to their Rootstock Sale and Scion Exchange–held every year in March, and this year happening on March 17th if you live in Oregon–and bought several rootstocks and then was able to select all the scion wood I wanted for free! When you consider that buying grafted mini-dwarf fruit trees will cost you around at least $25 each at a gardening center, and I was able to make mine for around $5 apiece, you could see why this appealed to my frugal gardening nature.
As they grew, my husband put up the framework of cedar posts and orchard wire that they would need to grow upon in order to achieve the espalier effect that I wanted. Espalier is what the artist Monet (or more likely, his hoard of gardeners) used to train the lovely apple trees that grace the perimeter of his garden at Giverny, which are absolutely stunning when they are in bloom in the spring. Espaliered forms of fruit trees are nice in that the fruit is easy to pick, because it is most often done on mini-dwarf fruit trees that will only reach 4-6 feet tall at maturity–no ladders needed, another distinct advantage. (They can even be grown in large containers!) These trees are basically pruned so that they are rather two-dimentional, kind of flat, and each tree resembles a letter “Y” in shape, with the trunk the bottom of the Y, and just two main arms that come out from the trunk. When the trees are positioned close together, the arms of the trees eventually at maturity form a diamond pattern. These arms are tied to slender sticks, and then I can position them at any angle I want on the wires, so that I don’t have to cut all the strings to reposition each time. This style of growing allows you to pack in several mini-dwarf fruit trees in a small amount of space. I have eight trees in a fifteen-foot run that’s only about 15 inches wide, with trees grown on two-foot centers. (If you go to my garden book recommendations page, I have a book listed that talks about pruning and training plants that I recommend you look at if you are interested in trying this.) Once the trees are well on their way to maturity, at least 3 years old, you can add bulbs and other flowers to the row, which I’ve done to coincide with when the fruit trees are in bloom. Late tulips usually bloom at the same time. Be sure to give the tree roots enough room–they are shallow rooted, and you don’t want them to have to compete for root space with an aggressive bed partner, because the tree might not win.
So it was the end of February a couple of weeks ago, and out I went on a sunny afternoon to deal with pruning the apples and pear. Here are the varieties of apple and pear trees that I grow:
1. Bartlett pear, grown on a a OHXF333 rootstock, a pear rootstock
2. Liberty apple, grown on a P-22 apple rootstock (mini-dwarf apple rootstock)
3. Hudson’s Golden Gem apple, grown on a M-27 apple rootstock (this rootstock is basically the same as the P- 22, so they are essentially interchangeable for apples)
4. Whitney crabapple, grown on a M-27 apple rootstock (this I am growing as a polinator for some of the other trees)
5. Kingston Black cider apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (normally you need a sweet and savory apple variety to make good cider, but this apple is great on it’s own for cider-making)
6. Stayman Winesap apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (this is the second Winesap I’ve tried–so far the first one died after three years, and this one is pretty small compared to the other apple variety I started the same year. They taste wonderful, however, so I am being patient and will see what happens over time.)
7. Tompkin’s King apple, grown on an M-27 apple rootstock (I cannot recommend this apple variety enough. The flavor is amazing, and the apples are quite large. Our best tree so far, in my opinion.)
8. Spitzenburg apple, grown on a B-9 apple rootstock (this rootstock would not have been my first choice, as this one creates a tree that reaches 9-12 feet tall, but I put it on the end of the row, and am letting one of the arms get quite long, and so far it’s happy.)
I also put the pear on the other end of the row, because pears always want to get big, even on mini-dwarf rootstock, so again I can let one of the Y-arms grow out way long, and it seems to be working.)
Last year was the first main year that I allowed several of these trees to bear fruit. Up to that time, you pluck all the flowers off so that they don’t produce fruit too early, because when they start to produce fruit, they will stop growing, and if they haven’t filled in the frame or shape in which you want them to grow, then you are messed up. My trees are taking around five years from grafting to fruit production stage.
I was by myself when doing this recent pruning, and I discovered very quickly that it is hard to hold a pruner in place and take a picture with your other hand (I am not an octopus!) But I will show a few pictures to give you a little idea of how it went.
You will notice that I am growing these trees up a steep slope. Ideally, you’d do it on a flat gardening area, but this is what I had to work with, and I’m not going to let a slope stop me from having wonderful fresh fruit!. I have to get a little creative on the arm angles of the trees so that the patterns look right on the slope, but it’s just a matter of stepping back and looking at the overall shape, and then making adjustments to it.
After you have cleaned out all the obviously dead, diseased, rotted stuff and crossing branches, then the next step is to actually step back and take a look at what you have. You’ll have several side-shoot branches coming off the main arm of each tree. If there are any that are really tiny and weak, I tend to prune those back to the arm, because they won’t be able to support the fruit as it grows. (Apples get heavy as they grow.) Next, step back up to the tree and start with one side-shoot. You are looking at those little bumps along the side shoot, which are buds. You want to trim it back so that there are around 5-6 buds per side-shoot. This may mean you’ll be cutting a lot of length off those shoots, but that’s okay. If you don’t what happens is that those long floppy side shoots produce flowers at the end of the branch, and then you are left with big heavy apples growing way out on the end of the branch, which can result in the branch breaking under the weight. You want to keep the side shoots fairly short, 12 inches approximately should be the longest. (You will see as I go along that I break that “rule at times”. Pruning is a little like art, and a little like zen–probably no two gardeners will do it exactly the same, but if you follow these basic principles for most of the tree branches, you should be fine.) The fewer buds you leave, the larger the fruit will be, but there will be less of it, so keep this in mind. Also don’t leave the maximum number of buds on a weak little side shoot, because it will break under the weight of the ripening fruit. Don’t be afraid to step away and back from the tree, so that you can see what the results of your pruning look like from a bit of a distance. This also helps to prevent mistakes, and cutting where you didn’t exactly intend to.
You want to prune your trees when they have these little buds on the branches, rather than after they are leafing out or blossoming, because the idea is to shorten all the side branches before they start producing leaves and flowers. If you wait too long, they will produce flowers way out at the ends of all those long branches.
Now, the pear tree . . .
I took a pruning class, and one phrase stuck with me: always have clean crotches when you prune (I know . . . now you’ll never forget that, will you???) Meaning, these trees are formed in a Y-shape, so at the base of that Y, where the two arms meet the trunk, you want to make sure to cut out any branches that start to grow there, because they will be suckers and sap the energy from the tree as it tries to produce fruit. I am a pruning wuss at heart, and have a hard time whacking back a plant, but this had gone on way too long, and it was ruining the shape of the espalier, so out those extra branches came!
Notice that this tree always wants to get too big for this frame, and so I trick it a little and let it think it’s growing big by running the left arm of the tree up and along the top wire. This just gives a nice finished edge to your espalier, but if you prefer you could just cut it off a tiny bit higher than the top wire, and that would work as well. But I want art, so I create an edging.
Remember that that top edging is one of the productive arms of the tree, so I have short branches coming out of this arm that I prune back to 5-6 buds, because I don’t want to cut all the fruit off that arm. I want fruit, and as much as they will produce!
The finished results:
You will notice there are some gaps in the line. This is because I have 3 trees that I had to restart, so they are a few years younger than the big ones. They will catch up in time. You have to be patient with trees–plant them and then wait five years for fruit!
I have a short video from about three years ago that covers a little bit more about grafting fruit trees and espalier.
Are you growing fruit trees this season? What types do you grow? Would you like to learn how to grow or graft and prune fruit trees? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
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