Pruning dwarf fruit trees

Four Reasons to Prune Your Fruit Tree for Small Size

Author Ann Ralph harvests a little fruit tree. Photo © Saxon Holt, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

The path to a little fruit tree begins a dramatic heading cut that can only be called aggressive.

Whether your new fruit tree is a slender, branchless sapling or the most beautifully branched specimen you could find in the bareroot bin, most fruit trees require a hard heading when first planted. The opportunity to make this pruning cut is an important reason to buy a bareroot tree. A bareroot whip is young enough and slight enough to take the hard prune that a more established tree won’t manage nearly as well.

By far, this dramatic cut is the most difficult and important pruning decision you 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. Your planting job is only complete when you’ve lopped off the top two-thirds of your new tree.

In winter when the weather is cold and damp, dormant saplings can be dug from the soil and shipped to nurseries with their roots exposed. Once they arrive at the nursery, bareroot trees are often “heeled in” — buried in moist soil for protection. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?

This pruning cut is critical, not just for size control and aesthetics but for the ultimate fruit-supporting structure of the tree — the supporting branches called scaffold limbs that develop from the buds below this cut. This heading cut is especially necessary if the tree is to be kept small, but even orchard trees are pruned this way. Orchard trees branch uniformly eighteen to twenty-four inches from the ground because they were pruned. If you take a close look at an orchard, you’ll see that this is true.

Orchard trees branch uniformly from a hard scaffold prune made when they were saplings. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

Overcome Your Fear

Even so, the prune is a hard sell. It evokes a natural and paralyzing resistance. It’s a lot to ask, especially of novice fruit tree growers who lack experience with pruning. This prune makes nursery managers so agitated most can’t bring themselves to do it, even when they know it’s in the best interest of both their customers and the future of the fruit trees that leave the nursery. Many nursery workers with good intentions and years of experience hate taking this on. Even experienced pruners and certified arborists balk at the notion of removing more than half of a just-planted fruit tree.

Seriously, though, if you can’t bring yourself to make this cut, you may as well abandon your dreams of a fruit tree, pack away your pruning shears, and take up another avocation that won’t make such tough demands on your constitution. Take this partly on faith and partly on the explanation to follow, but steel yourself, get out your loppers, and proceed. Everything you do with fruit trees past this point will be gravy. I often encouraged our customers to make this first cut themselves while they were in the nursery, knowing that if they could take this one fundamental responsibility, they would never be as fearful about pruning their fruit tree again.

Fruit trees after a hard-line pruning cut. A workable fruit tree begins with a radical prune that removes the top two-thirds of the young whip. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

Remember, a heading cut removes the growing tip and awakens the buds below. In its absence, these buds grow into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. This heading cut is no exception. The prune is made in winter during the dormant season. It takes advantage of stored nutrients, and the vigorous growth and branching that occur in spring when the plant’s energy is directed to these remaining buds — the perfect combination of conditions to get a just planted tree off to a strong start.

Four Reasons to Make the Cut

This hard-line pruning cut accomplishes four important things:

  1. It removes upright growth that hormonally curbs the growth of lower limbs. The cut makes it possible for lower limbs to grow. The upright growth removed is not usually fruitful or strong enough to support fruit and, ultimately, creates shade that inhibits the creation of the fruiting spurs and eventual fruit production.
  2. It radically alters the form of the tree. This cut either opens the center of the tree or it creates a new central leader (the vertical trunk or spine of the tree), if the tree prefers to grow that way.
  3. It creates a low scaffold and spreading growth that is more fruitful and gives the tree strength and resilience it wouldn’t have otherwise, especially critical for stone fruits. As a fruit tree caretaker, the pruner has a responsibility to build sturdiness into a fruit tree, strength that begins with this cut.
  4. It establishes a pattern of low branching, which helps to keep the canopy of the tree within reach of the pruner.

Illustration © Allison Langton, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree

A perfectly branched bareroot specimen in the nursery tempts a fruit tree planter to avoid the initial prune and let the tree grow naturally. To put it in the plainest possible terms: this is a mistake. Like children or puppies, fruit trees absolutely require structure, training, and shaping. If you let it go, your innocent little tree soon becomes a thicketing monster, prone to breakage, fruiting erratically beyond your reach, then dropping that fruit to putrefy on the ground, even if you bought a semidwarf to avoid just these consequences.

Buy a skinny bareroot tree. Make a knee-high cut in winter as soon as possible either in the nursery before you put it in the car, or as you plant it. The resulting low-branching, open-center tree will grow to be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and far more usefully fruitful.

Few things can be more frustrating than having a huge tree, loaded with fruit, and not being able to reach all of it. Pruning your trees in summer can help keep them at a manageable size, says Contra Costa Master Gardener Helen Erickson.

There are many advantages to keeping your deciduous fruit trees small. The most obvious is harvesting and being able to reach the fruit without using a ladder. However, having smaller fruit yields can also be a good thing — there’s only so much fruit you can eat and use.

Smaller trees also are easier to maintain if you need to spray them for diseases and insects, and net them to prevent fruit loss from wildlife.

If you have larger trees now, there’s not much you can do, Erickson says, so it’s important to start at the beginning, when you first plant them. Here are Erickson’s tips on summer pruning.

  • When choosing a new fruit tree for planting in the winter, select a 1-year-old tree and after planting, cut the tree at knee-height. You’re left with a stick and a fear that you’ve killed the tree, but you haven’t. This is the first step to controlling how tall the tree will get.
  • In the first and second years, choose the branches you want as the main structure of your tree and remove or trim other branches. You’ll be cutting the branches back by about half.
  • In the third year, you should start having fruit production and you need to decide how tall you want your tree to get. The ideal size is no taller than you can reach. If you’re 7 feet tall, Erickson says, your tree can be 8 feet tall. If you’re 5 feet tall, you’ll want to keep it around 6 feet.
  • Two or three times a summer, prune your fruit trees, snipping off limbs and branches that are growing above the main canopy. You don’t have to be particularly careful with your cuts. Your main goal is controlling the height of the tree.
  • For nectarines and peaches, don’t do any summer pruning after July. Pruning later than that can reduce your future crops.
  • Prune your trees in a vase shape, opening up the center of the tree to admit light.
  • You learn to prune by pruning. Don’t let it scare you. There are lots of ways to prune trees and pruning isn’t usually fatal to the tree or to you.

Next time in the garden, gardening with nature using permaculture. Free classes are offered at Our Garden at 10 a.m. every Wednesday through October. The garden is at Shadelands Drive and Wiget Lane in Walnut Creek.

My best advice on pruning deciduous fruit trees: keep them small

Opinions on how to prune deciduous fruit trees are innumerable. I have just one: Keep your tree small.

I believe it’s the single best thing you can do if you want your tree to produce fruit and you want to pick and eat that fruit.

A small tree’s fruit is easy to pick. In fact, by “small” I mean within reach, which is different for everyone but is usually six to ten feet tall. The fruit on such a tree is in your face — you just reach out and grab it. Some of the fruit on my trees are even low enough to be in the face of my two-year old son, so he also just reaches out and grabs it. (That’s good and bad. He has a hard time not grabbing it before it’s ripe.)

But if you let a tree get tall, then the fruit is borne primarily high up, out of reach. Trees generally fruit most in the part of their canopy that gets the most sunlight, and that’s toward the outer and upper part of their canopy. I once had a plum that was 15 feet tall, and while a bit of the fruit was within reach, most of it was out of sight and only accessible by ladder or pole, or squirrels and birds. In the end, most of that fruit was lost to the critters. My current plum is about eight feet tall and I have never lost a single piece of fruit to animals, and despite its smaller size it is still big enough to produce more fruit than we can eat.

A small tree can be protected if necessary. My aunt has a small peach tree which she easily covered with a net once the birds discovered her fruit and started pecking it this last summer. Try covering a 15-foot tall peach with a net!

Yet I haven’t even found the need to net my own small trees. My Blenheim apricots attract scrub jays as soon as the fruit begins to sweeten. The birds peck some of the ripe fruit but don’t ruin it. That fruit is at head height on my tree, so I immediately notice it and pick it. I take their peckings as a sign of ripeness. “Eat this fruit, Greg. It’s ready.” There’s still so much more fruit on that little tree that the birds never touch.

I don’t like the idea of telling you how you should grow your fruit trees. Truly, do whatever you want. But after having many trees both big and small, I’ve found that small is better. I’m in good company, by the way. I don’t know of many people with a lot of experience with deciduous fruit trees who let their own trees get big anymore.

So, how to achieve this goal of a small tree? The topic of pruning can be studied for a lifetime, but the achievement of a small and productive fruit tree can be had with very little knowledge and little work. For each one of my trees, I prune them once in the winter (just finished my pruning yesterday) and once or twice in the summer. The total time involved is around an hour per year per tree.

Pruned the Blenheim apricot to the height of my reach in July

What do you need to know in order to do the pruning? Tough question because obviously the more you know the better your pruning is likely to be. On the other hand, you could literally shear your fruit tree as though it were a shrub and still get decent results. Shearing a fruit tree is actually a thing, the “fruit bush” style it is called sometimes. Try it, or dive deeper into the resources below, which are the best ones I know of.

As an aside, if you want to keep your fruit tree small, also remember not to counteract your pruning efforts by pouring fertilizer on the tree. I give my trees no fertilizer; I only keep a thick mulch under them. I don’t want to encourage them to grow too vigorously, which would only create more pruning work.

Book:

The Home Orchard published by the University of California (this is an Amazon link, but your local library might have it too — I borrowed this book from the library many times before I bought my own copy)

Videos:

Chuck Ingels, a University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, presents on growing deciduous fruit trees to a group of Master Gardeners in this video called “The Home Orchard Part 1.” The pruning section starts at 36 minutes. This video is great because Ingels explains things clearly, shows many photos that illustrate his points, and relates his own experiences in his own yard. He talks about the “fruit bush” style just after 52 minutes. Also, continue into “The Home Orchard Part 2.”

Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery prunes fruit trees plus gives some of his reasoning in this video titled “Winter Pruning.” Perhaps the best thing about this video is that you can watch Spellman make the cuts; then you can go out to your tree and imitate if you like. I’m sure you’ll find it useful to watch some of the many other videos Spellman has done on pruning too.

Document:

Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees by Chuck Ingels (again), Pam Geisel, and Carolyn Unruh. The information is dense, but it’s all there, and it’s freely available as a pdf. It’s kind of like the condensed version of the book The Home Orchard.

You might also like to read:

Don’t cut off the fruiting wood: Pruning lesson number one

Think about sunshine when pruning deciduous fruit trees

Where to cut a branch on a deciduous fruit tree

Pruning avocado trees

When and how to prune citrus trees

Oh the mistakes I’ve made: Not thinning enough fruit from a plum tree

Great Fruit Trees for Container Gardening

If you’ve always dreamed of having a fresh fruit at your fingertips but don’t have the space to grow full-sized trees in your yard or garden, you’re in luck — there are actually many fruit trees out there that also thrive in containers. As long as you plant the right variety and provide it with proper nutrition, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh fruit all season long.

Fruit Trees that Thrive in Containers

If you have a favorite fruit, chances are there’s a variety of it that’s been specifically bred to grow in containers. This is true of apples, figs, peaches, nectarines, lemons, and pretty much any other fruit you can think of.

Apple trees will grow as bushes in containers as long as they have dwarfing rootstocks. Since pollination requires two or more trees, you’ll want to pick out varieties that will readily cross-pollinate with one another, such as Granny Smith, Fuji, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Cox, Jonagold, and Gala.

Figs are the quintessential container fruit. Whereas many other plants don’t grow well when they’re rootbound, fig trees actually prefer it. If you live in a cool climate, you should consider protecting them from frost, hail, and snow by either bringing them inside or covering them with horticultural fleece. Easy-to-grow varieties include Brown Turkey and Black Mission.

Pear trees need a little extra care, especially if you live in a place that experiences late frosts. Like apple trees, pear trees with dwarfing rootstocks will typically take on bush shapes. Try a traditional Bartlett or grow a slightly more eccentric variety like Moonglow.

Plum trees produce a lot of fruit and are relatively low-maintenance, especially because a single tree can often bear fruit without being pollinated by another tree beforehand. Just as you would with other container fruit trees, you’ll want to choose plum tree varieties that produce dwarfing rootstocks.

Cherries are also self-fertile and easy to grow in containers. However, you likely won’t be the only one snacking on the fruit, as birds may try to sneak a snack as well. Protect your trees with bird netting to keep your harvest from getting stolen.

Peaches and apricots grow best in places where they won’t be subjected to late winter frosts. Since the trees flower in the early spring, you’ll want to make sure they’re protected from any frosts and storms during that time. If frost is in the forecast and you can’t put them under an adequate shelter, you’ll want to either cover them with horticultural fleece or bring them inside. Although most varieties are self-pollinating, planting them in pairs will ensure you get a larger, healthier harvest.

Give Your Trees a Good Home

Once you’ve decided what fruit you’re going to grow, it’s time to choose the right containers for the trees. Trees need space, so select a pot that is at least 20 inches in diameter. The material of the pots is entirely up to you. Fruit trees grow well in terra cotta, plastic, or ceramic pots, as well as whiskey/wine barrels. If you plan to move the trees indoors during the winter, you’ll definitely want to take the size and material of each container into account. After all, it’s much easier to move a lightweight plastic pot than it is to move a heavy ceramic one.

Fruit trees need plenty of water and sunlight to thrive, but they also need growing media (potting soil) that contains nutrients. Potting soils are generally sterile. That’s so you won’t introduce diseases and insects into the container. We favor splurging on the highest quality potting soil you can find, and preferably one that contains nutrients. Remember, once the tree is planted, you will not change-out the soil very frequently, so it’s best practice to start with the good stuff. Even though a high quality potting soil may contain nutrients initially, young trees tend to deplete them pretty quickly as they grow. Adding nutrients throughout the growing season with a slow-release plant food like Osmocote will ensure that your trees are receiving the right amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium when they need them most.

Fruit Tree Maintenance 101

The best part of planting fruit trees in containers is that you can move them around to find the best growing location for them. More specifically, you’ll want to look for a place that gets plenty of sunlight and has minimal exposure to wind and the elements. Of course, trees also need some protection from the sun to grow properly, so your best bet is to place them in a spot that meets the sunlight requirements on their tags.

Water is also important. The downside of growing trees in pots is that they tend to dry out sooner than they would if they were planted in the ground. Set up a watering schedule to ensure your trees get all the water they need. Check the soil often by sticking your finger in it and making sure it doesn’t get too dry.

Replace the nutrients in the soil throughout the growing season with a nutrient-dense plant food like Osmocote. Every few years, you’ll want to remove each tree from its container, prune the roots, replace the soil, and add in a bit of compost.

The first few years of growth are especially important. While you may be antsy to pick the harvest, you’re better off pinching off the developing fruit for the first couple of growing seasons. Postponing the harvest will allow the trees to put their energy towards establishing roots and developing strong, healthy growth. If you want to enjoy a bumper crop of tasty fruits, a little bit of waiting is essential!

Container Fruit Trees are Great, Even If You Have the Space to Plant Them in the Ground

Regardless of whether you have a large yard or several acres of land, planting fruit trees in containers allows you to place them much closer to the kitchen. Instead of running clear across the property to pick lemons for a refreshing pitcher of lemonade, apples for a homemade pie, or figs for a savory jam, all you have to do is walk over to your patio or deck and take what you need. Plus, who doesn’t love the sight of fresh fruit trees?

Healthy fruit trees may take a few years to grow, but with proper nourishment and plenty of sunlight and water, you’ll be able to harvest fresh fruit for years to come.

Even though container fruit trees are smaller in scale, they can still produce an impressive crop. From everyday fruits like peaches to exotic pomegranates and figs, there’s a great fit for your patio garden (and your taste buds).

Maybe you’ve got a rooftop patio, or are renting and unable to plant fruit trees right in the yard. Or, you just like the ability to be able to grow favourite delicacies in containers. Whatever your preference, there are many excellent options for pint-sized container fruit trees.

Keys to Growing Container Fruit Trees Successfully

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Before we dive into container tree varieties, take note of these five key things to remember:

  1. They need plenty of water, and generous amounts of fertilizer.
  2. Good drainage is a must. Drain holes plus gravel, broken clay pots, or rocks in a layer at the bottom will help with this. Mulch the top of the container with straw or coconut fibres to retain moisture.
  3. These trees need containers of at least 10-15 gallons. Bigger is better. For best results and easy portability, keep the containers on rolling plant stands or dollies. This way, you can move them around easily, bring them into a sheltered area during cold snaps, and ensure good air circulation.
  4. Move potted fruit trees into a sheltered, unheated environment to overwinter. Alternatively, wrap them with old-fashioned Christmas lights and bubble wrap to help keep them insulated.
  5. Avoid watering during the winter. Your tree will go dormant and you want to prevent drowning the roots.

1. Starfruit

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Starfruit, also known as carambola, is originally from Sri Lanka. As such, it thrives best in moist, hot environments. The entire lantern-shaped fruit can be eaten like an apple, and when cut across the middle, its perfect star shape makes a beautiful accent to fruit platters.

Maher Dwarf and Hawaiian Dwarf varieties are the most successful when grown in pots. Both of these varieties can produce a large crop of up to two dozen fruits. They also show off with clusters of pink blooms on the old wood.

It’s prized for being a low-calorie fruit very high in vitamin C, and provided you can give it a nice warm home, you can definitely grow your own. It will grow in greenhouses and outdoors during the hotter months, and isn’t recommended for cooler climates.

2. Kumquat

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Kumquats have been grown as patio plants since the mid-19th century, and have a good reputation for being quite hardy. In fact, they withstand temperatures down to 18°F when given plenty of space and well-drained soil.

They’re close relatives of the citrus family, and there are two main varieties that do best in containers. Nagami has a bright, almost neon-coloured rind and a sweet-tart taste. Meiwa is larger and sweeter, with a lighter peel.

Either variety is great to eat straight from the tree or to use in making marmalade. Try it in salads, as condiments, or crushed together with ginger and honey as a cold and flu remedy.

These fruits are heavy feeders, and thrive with a good slow-release fertilizer and food formulated especially for citrus trees. Enjoy their fruits from November through mid-spring.

3. Orange

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There are a few different varieties to choose from, but the Calamondin orange is the most recommended for container gardening. It can be grown indoors year round, or can be brought inside for the winter.

Its brightly scented flowers turn into small oranges that are great for making marmalade (pair with kumquat) or adding to cold drinks. These mini fruits’ flavor can best be described as a blend between mandarin and kumquat, and the sour juice is great in a marinade.

If your heart’s set on a traditional orange to pick and eat right off the tree, try the Navel. It can be overwintered indoors with a grow light when sunlight is lacking, and will produce fruit from November to February. Try this marmalade recipe using calamondin oranges.

4. Lemon

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Meyer is one of the best container fruit trees to try. It’s a well-known, user-friendly lemon variety that can be grown completely indoors.

A sweeter variety with beautiful blossoms, the Meyer lemon is a surefire crowd-pleaser. Just move it outdoors during the hot summer months, after acclimatizing it to rising temperatures.

Lemons don’t ripen after they’re picked, so be sure to wait until fruit is soft and uniformly yellow before carefully cutting the fruit off using scissors or a knife. Meyer Lemon coffee cake, anyone?

5. Lime

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Dwarf Tahitian is an ideal lime tree for growing in a container. Like other citrus, the blossoms smell amazing, and the tree can easily become loaded down with fruits.

Lime is delicious in iced tea, cocktails, and marinades, and is a great kitchen staple to have on hand. With standard citrus tree care, your potted lime will reward you with years of tart fruit.

*Note for all citrus:

A good potting soil, regular misting and watering, citrus plant food, and a fertilizer with a balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium will ensure that your citrus trees are healthy and beautiful year-round. Citrus trees don’t go dormant, so the best time to prune the roots and branches is after it has blossomed and fruited.

Citrus should also be re-potted every 2-4 years to prevent any root binding. You can either move it to a larger container or carefully prune the roots to maintain the current size.

6. Pomegranate

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There’s nothing quite like a pomegranate. The ruby-like arils are such a juicy treat that one of the red, round fruits is hard to resist. Like apples, pomegranates can last for several months when kept in cool and dry conditions after picking.

Pomegranates are surprisingly easy to grow in containers, and are happiest in acidic soil and arid, warm conditions that replicate Mediterranean climates. Move them indoors for the winter to avoid any potentially fatal cold snaps, and set back outside for the remainder of the year. If temperatures drop below 40° F, move the plant indoors to a sunny window.

Water the tree thoroughly once per week and fertilize in November, February, and May starting in year two. Use a 10-10-10 fertilizer on top of the soil, not touching the trunk.

You should see fruit after the first two years, and can then fertilize in November and February instead. Harvest season is generally September through October, or when the fruit makes a metallic sound when tapped.

7. Pear

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Pears traditionally do very well in containers and are a favourite for eating fresh off the tree. Durondeau and Honeysweet are nice self-pollinating varieties that adapt to container growth, and produce a large quantity of full-sized fruit in a fraction of the space.

These fruits need several hours of sunlight daily. Since pears flower early in the spring, any late frosts can lead to crop damage. Pears are best when picked slightly before ripening, as they will over-ripen quickly on the tree and become mealy.

The best way to harvest pears is to chill them in the fridge for up to a week (depending on the variety). This is because they’ll decompose without ripening if they’re not allowed to undergo the natural chilling/warming process seen in nature.

8. Apple

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Apples do well in containers, particularly Honeycrisp and Gala, which will pollinate each other. For this reason, they’re a safe bet for a first foray into a patio “orchard”.

If you prefer a cooking apple, try the Sierra Beauty, Gordon, or Liberty varieties. Like the pear, avoid watering during the winter, and keep it insulated in the event of a cold snap. Gala is quickly becoming the most popular variety over Red Delicious, and Honeycrisp isn’t far behind.

9. Peach

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Bonanza is a natural dwarf species that’s recommended for container fruit trees. It stays small (under six feet) while still giving full-sized, juicy peaches. Another plus is that it doesn’t need much pruning, so it’s quite easy-care. It can be grown in an espalier fan shape on a patio or against a fence.

Avoid growing it against a wall, because it will likely get too hot. Peaches tend to bloom in very early spring, depending on which zone you’re in. As a result, it’s best left inside until at least April when there’s no more risk of frost.

Peaches need at least six hours of full sun each day. Water the tree whenever the soil is dry—typically every two days during the hottest weather.

10. Nectarine

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Nectarines need basically the same care of peaches: good, well-draining soil, and protection from early spring frosts with plenty of warm sunshine.

Both peaches and nectarines are in a bit of a hurry to produce fruit, so you might even see pink blossoms on 1-year-old trees.

Like peaches, nectarines are self-fertile, and will pollinate as long as there are some insects buzzing around. Try the HoneyGlo Miniature nectarine, which is cold hardy and produces fruits in August.

11. Plum

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A good variety to try is the Santa Rosa dwarf plum for juicy, full-sized fruit. Like larger plum trees, they’ll produce scented blossoms in spring and fruit during August through to late fall

Like their larger counterparts, dwarf plum trees need to be thinned out to produce crops evenly each year. They can be thinned in midsummer, and grown as a bush or a fan.

Plums thrive under the same conditions as peaches and nectarines—several hours of sunshine per day, well-draining soil, and a container at least twice the diameter and height of the root ball.

12. Fig

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Because figs don’t mind being root bound, they’re excellent candidates for container gardens. They also have one of the quickest fruiting times of any fruit tree: as early as 1 year after planting, depending on rootstock.

Chicago Hardy and Brown Turkey are good options for containers, and will only grow as tall as you let them. Like any other fruit tree, if you prune the roots and move it to a larger container, it will grow larger.

Figs like warm weather and won’t do well in northern climates. For the healthiest tree, bring it into an unheated indoor area during the coldest times of the year, and move outdoors for some sunshine and warmth every day.

As always, it’s best to talk to an expert at your local nursery to find out which trees are most suited to your zone. They can also provide a complete care guide to find out which varieties are best suited. This isnt an exhaustive list, and there are also many mixed varieties available (limequats, pluots, etc…).

Let your imagination run wild and grow your own miniature orchard.

Gary Moulton & Jacky King, WSU Mount Vernon Research & Extension Unit

Why Prune?

Fruit trees need pruning for two primary purposes: to establish the basic structure, and to provide light channels throughout the tree so that all the fruit can mature well. A well pruned tree is easier to maintain and to harvest, and adds esthetic value to the home garden as well, but the primary reason for pruning is to ensure good access to sunlight. Did you ever notice that the best fruit always seems to be in the top of the tree? It’s true, because that’s where the most light is available. Training a tree that is open to the light, and easy to care for and to harvest, is the main consideration to keep in mind when pruning, whatever system you are using.

Equipment

Most pruning can be handled with 3 tools: a hand pruner, a long-handled lopping shears, and a pruning saw. Either bypass or anvil-type pruners can be used, but a bypass-type is better for close pruning such as is necessary on young trees. Some prefer the folding saw for its handiness but non-folding types are good also. A number of accessories are useful in tree training. Either spreaders (different lengths can be made or purchased) or weights that clip to the branches can be used to bend branches to a more horizontal position, so they will begin fruiting earlier. Limbs can also be tied down using ground clips (hop clips).

Thinning and Heading

The two types of pruning cuts you can make are thinning and heading. Thinning is removing an entire shoot, branch, or limb, back to the point where it originated. Thinning cuts are the ones you should use most of the time, because they tend to open up light channels throughout the tree. Often just thinning out the limbs that are crowding or crossing over does an effective job of opening up the tree. Heading is removing part of a shoot, branch, or limb (up to 1/3 to 1/2 of its length). Heading cuts encourage growth of side branches at the point of the cut, from the part of the branch that remains. Heading should be used primarily for establishing branches in young trees. Leaders or future scaffold branches can be headed to cause laterals to branch out. In most cases heading should be avoided, as it can result in a tree overcrowded with shoots that close off light channels and reduce productivity. When heading is necessary, such as to shorten and stiffen up a long bare branch, make the heading cut into older wood, as this results in less regrowth.

Pruning is done primarily in the dormant season (November 15–April 15), so when looking at a shoot or branch to decide whether to thin or not, try to picture the branch as it will be when full of leaves in the summer, and eliminate shoots that will be too closely spaced. Keep in mind the key phrase: When in doubt, thin it out! Make most of your cuts thinning cuts.

Training Systems

The training systemsmost used in pruning fruit trees are the Open Center, Central Leader, and Trellis (Espalier). In our area, as leftovers from earlier orchard methods, we also see many old trees pruned in the Umbrella method.

The Open Center or Vase type pruning is well adapted to the stone fruits that have a spreading habit. Peach, nectarine, apricot, cherry and plum are usually pruned as open center trees. In this system, at planting the tree is headed at the point where the future main branches will be established, and three to five of the branches are selected to form the main limbs, or scaffolds. In selecting future scaffold limbs, remember to allow clearance for lawn mowers, etc. Any limb will always be the same height above ground where it branches out from the trunk, no matter how large it gets, so be sure it doesn’t start out too low. Ideally scaffolds should be spaced evenly around the trunk and be of approximately equal vigor, but the more vigorous branches can be trained outward using spreaders to shape the basic framework of the tree in its first and second years.

As the tree matures, pruning should concentrate on keeping the center open by eliminating water sprouts, sometimes called “suckers,” that grow straight up from the main limbs, and providing good spacing and access to light along each of the scaffold branches. Peaches and nectarines bear fruit only on one-year wood, that is, the shoots that grew the previous season produce this season’s fruit. Half or more of each season’s new shoots usually need to be thinned out, to prevent crowding and make room for fruit to grow. Some branches on mature trees may need to be headed back if they spread too far, but be sure to thin the resulting shoots in the following year so that lower branches are not shaded out by excessive growth in the tops. Thin out large diameter shoots in the upper part of each limb.

The Central Leader is well adapted to trees that have a naturally upright growth habit , which includes apple, pear, cherry and some plums. This is the best system for trees on dwarf rootstocks. If trees already have developed side branches before planting, only the leader needs to be lightly headed. Side branches should be selected to form the lowest or main scaffold, and trained outward to a 45 degree angle with spreaders or tie-downs. Any branches that compete with the leader in vigor, or that would crowd the chosen scaffold branches, should be thinned out. Smaller branches can be left to set fruit, and should not be headed.

As the tree matures, select a second scaffold, 24″–30″ above the main scaffold, and train it similarly, only training to a flatter angle (about 60 degrees from the vertical). A top scaffold can be developed in the third or fourth season. The ideal profile is something like a simplified Christmas tree – a triangular shape wide at the bottom and narrowing at the top. In the top of the tree, thin out the most vigorous shoots, and keep those that are not so vigorous. Never allow the upper scaffolds to overgrow and shade the lower ones, and prune out large diameter upright- growing branches. Try to maintain about 60% of the tree’s total volume in the lower scaffold area. This provides good access to light throughout the tree, and makes for easy care and picking

Trellis training is similar to the central leader, only in a more 2-dimensional framework. Choosing a tree on the right dwarf rootstock is important, so that the tree doesn’t outgrow its space. The classic espalier is a more painstaking variation, but one that will reward the home gardener’s artistic efforts. A simplified trellis system is increasingly used by commercial orchards, particularly apple growers, to maximize fruit production per unit area, and to provide better exposure to sunlight for high fruit color and quality. The best alignment for a trellis is north-south, so that both sides get good exposure to sun. In setting up the trellis, the first wire is usually about 30″, and the top wire usually at 6 or 7 feet, but fruit trees are quite adaptable and can be trained to a number of different designs.

The key element to emphasize with all of them is that the less actual pruning you do, the better. The wires allow for branches to be bent down and tied in position, either horizontally as in the classic espalier, or at a 45 degree angle from the trunk. Very little cutting should be done, and then only to remove shoots and branches that are growing in the wrong direction (at right angles to the trellis) or are too crowded. In young trees, the leader should be headed to produce side branching at each level, until the main trunk reaches its desired height. After that, growth should be controlled by bending the branches to encourage early fruiting, and thinning out any shoots that are too vigorous.

Umbrella trees are usually older trees (some up to nearly 100 years old), originally planted in yards and homesteads when the modern size-controlling rootstocks were not yet available. They were pruned to an umbrella shape to keep trees that would normally reach 40 feet down to a manageable height. An established umbrella tree has as its basic framework one set of main scaffold limbs that are horizontal and are also the apex of the tree. Fruit bearing branches grow outward and downward from these main limbs, and clumps of water sprouts shoot upward.

Keeping these water sprouts thinned out is the key to maintaining a productive umbrella tree. About 80% of the water sprouts that emerge each year should be thinned out. The largest and most upright should be removed, leaving the smaller ones well spaced, much as you would thin a row of corn. These remaining sprouts can be positioned by bending and tying them to encourage more fruit buds. Don’t head these water sprouts, as it only stimulates more shoot growth and reduces fruiting.

In the rest of the tree, thin out weak branches, particularly those that are shaded by an overhanging branch. Areas of the tree that get little or no access to light will weaken and die, so try to make sure that all fruiting areas of the tree are pruned to let light in. When a tree has been left unpruned for many years, it is sometimes best to take 2–3 years to get it back in shape, rather than try to do it all at once. Start by looking at the basic structure of the tree and choose two or three major branches to eliminate completely – ones that will open up central areas of the tree to light. Try to visualize what the tree will look like without those branches. The next year, look again, and repeat the process. Follow up by thinning out water sprouts, and maintain the tree’s new shape with regular fine-tuning of the branches that develop.

Pruning: Both A Science And An Art

In a home garden no tree exactly fits the textbook training system. The science of pruning a tree means being aware of how light affects its growth, and how its structure develops over time. The art lies in pruning a tree so that the balance of growth and productivity is esthetically pleasing to you. Put aside any fears of making a mistake, and just keep in mind the purpose you are aiming for: a tree that is well balanced between growth and production, easy to manage, and open to the light and air. Until they gain some experience, most people tend to prune too little, and too timidly, rather than too much. Often you can make one or two big cuts to thin out a large, crowding branch and have a better result (for you and the tree) than from a dozen cautious little nibbles that don’t solve the problem. Think of it as a living sculpture, with many light channels flowing throughout its structure, which will reward your efforts with a bounty of tasty, good quality fruit

For anyone interested in learning more, a detailed 55-minute video Easy Steps to Fruit Tree Pruning can be obtained by calling 360-445-5483. Also, pruning workshops are included annually in the February/March Open House and Field Day held at Mount Vernon research station.

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