We are looking at fruit trees – apples and pears just now – and specifically winter care, pruning and management. Young trees, old trees, productive trees and lost souls alike. We have a lot of ground to cover here but don’t panic, we can take it step by step and ultimately, cut by cut.
For established, older and trees seemingly beyond profitable salvage, there will be NO pruning frenzy here. In fact, it is a positive advantage to slow things down and take your time before even picking up the secateurs or pruning saw. Pruning in this instance has much in common with meditation. Calm reflection and really, really looking at the tree.
This goes even further, a proper consideration of Time. What it, the tree, has done in the past (if it has had one), what it is doing now and what hopes we have for its future.
I’m also told that a glass of wine or at the very least a cup of tea, is quite necessary before you tackle the job at hand but first, these are the topics we’ll be covering –
- Brief History of Pruning
- Why we Prune
- How to differentiate Fruit and Growth Buds
- Formative Pruning – very important (shrub, half-standards and standards, cordons, espaliers, fans and more)
- Rejuvenating/Renovating Older Trees
- Summer vs Winter activities
- Practical considerations – tools, health and safety, correct cutting
- Orchards for Wildlife
Brief History of Pruning
Well, it Goes Back A Long Way – to the fruit forest of Kazakstan bordering China – with evidence of cultivation in Persia and Mesopotamia at least as far back as 1500BC. Mentioned in the Odyssey in Greek literature 1000BC. Cultivation and tinkering around, horticulturally speaking, really began to take off in Persia 500BC – their word for Paradise means Orchard.
We have a specific deity too – a Goddess of Fruit – Pomona – who actually had a job to do, always depicted with pruning knife – the Patron Saint of Pruning? A uniquely Roman God (with no Greek equivalent).
“Research in the early part of the 21st century indicated that all sweet apples arose originally in a small area of Tian Shan on Kazakhstan’s border with China. It is likely that they gradually spread into Europe through the Middle East and several manuscripts from ancient Greece, including Homer’s Odyssey, refer to apples and describe apple orchards. There is evidence that apples grew wild in Britain in the Neolithic period but it was the Romans who first introduced varieties with sweeter and greater taste. The earliest known mention of apples in England was by King Alfred in about 885 AD in his English translation of “Gregory’s Pastoral Care”.
After the Roman occupation of Britain, many orchards were abandoned due to invasions by Jutes, Saxons and Danes. However, following the Norman Conquest improved varieties were introduced from France, which included the Costard. Orchards were developed within the grounds of monasteries and the raising of new varieties was undertaken by cross-pollination. The orchards of the monastery at Ely were particularly famous. Gradually, more orchards were cultivated and by the 13th century the Costard variety was being grown in many parts of England. Sellers of this apple were known as “costardmongers” and hence the word “costermonger”.
The Wars of the Roses and the Black Death led to a decline in the production of both apples and pears in England until Henry VIII instructed his fruiterer, Richard Harris, to identify and introduce new varieties, which were planted in his orchard at Teynham in Kent. At about the same time, the red skinned Pippin was introduced from France but the most common apple in Tudor times was the Queene.
Until the agricultural revolution of the 18th century, methods of raising apples and pears were relatively haphazard. Towards the end of that century Thomas Andrew Knight undertook a series of careful experiments in pollination which led to the development of many improved varieties. His work greatly influenced many nurserymen in the 19th century including Thomas Laxton who raised several well-known varieties including Laxton’s Superb. The developing of new varieties reached its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of gardeners employed by major estates in England and also by nurseryman who concentrated on producing apples with outstanding taste. Ribston Pippin, a favourite apple of the early Victorians, was superseded by possibly the most famous of all eating apples, Cox’s Orange Pippin. This outstanding variety was introduced in 1850 having been raised by Richard Cox, a retired brewer from Bermondsey. The Bramley Seedling, a single purpose culinary apple that remains the finest apple in the world for cooking was first exhibited in 1876, having been grown from a pip of unknown origin in 1809.
Throughout the Victorian age fruit growing tended to be carried out in small orchards attached to agricultural holdings. Apart from the apples sold at market, they were grown to supplement the farmers’ own needs and to provide cider for his labourers in lieu of wages, a practice which became illegal in 1917. After the First World War several specialist research centres were developed which investigated improved orchard production methods, the control of pests and diseases as well as the raising new varieties.
After the Second World War new rootstocks were introduced which enabled the height of apple trees to be reduced. This allowed harvesting to take place from the ground thus making long ladders redundant and reducing the costs of labour for picking and pruning. Additionally, the smaller trees allowed sunlight to reach a greater proportion of the developing fruit, which increased the density, and consistency of fruit colour. Trees could be planted closer together which resulted in greater productivity.
Once the UK became a member of the EEC, there was no restriction on the importing of apples from abroad during the English season. This led to English growers facing great competition from high-yielding varieties which were difficult to grow in UK, as they required a warmer climate. Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Granny Smith were the three most important of these varieties which were heavily promoted and advertised. By contrast, English growers were producing much lower yielding varieties, which had been bred for taste rather than yield. As a result, they were unable to compete with the relatively low priced imports. Many English orchards were taken out of production due to lack of profitability and replanted with other crops during the final twenty-five years of the last century.
In the early 1990s, Gala and Braeburn, both varieties which had been raised in New Zealand were introduced to the UK market and rapidly increased in popularity. Trial orchards were planted in England and despite initial cultural difficulties English growers began to produce these varieties with great success. Subsequently, other new varieties were trialled and planted including for example Jazz, Kanzi, Rubens, Cameo and Zari. All these apples share the attributes of great taste and flavour, vibrant skin colours and fine orchard performance.
Despite the outstanding work of researchers in raising new varieties, the primary factor responsible for the outstanding taste of English apples has been our climate. The absence of extreme temperatures but adequate rainfall allows our apples to grow relatively slowly and to develop their full flavour potential. This occurs to a greater extent than with apples grown up elsewhere, even with varieties that have been raised overseas. Our climate prevents us from producing some varieties but those which are grown in UK have unrivalled taste and flavour.
The National Collection of fruit trees at Brogdale near Faversham contains some 1,900 different varieties of apple trees. All would have been popular at some time in the past. However, the vast majority no longer meet the demands of modern consumers or they suffer from defects in production. The deficiencies include blemished appearance, minute size, unappealing taste or poor yields and susceptibility to damage from pests and diseases. Thus, they are unsuitable for commercial production but they provide a vital gene bank for future varietal development.
The introduction of the latest varieties coincided with greater demand from both consumers and retailers for locally grown apples. This increased the confidence of English growers who began to invest heavily in new, highly productive orchards and innovative equipment such as picking trains to improve efficiencies. Many modern orchards were planted much more intensively than previously with up to 3,500 trees per hectare supported by posts and wires. Much research was undertaken to minimise the use of chemicals and to make greater use of beneficial insects. Additionally, growers invested heavily in new packhouses and cold stores, all designed to operate efficiently and minimise the use of energy. As a result of all these factors, since 2003 there has been a massive revival in the English apple industry. The length of the season has been increased with several varieties now available in April and May whilst English apples have increased their share of the total market from a low point of 23% in 2003 to 38% in 2011.”
So – Why do We Prune?
Have you asked yourself the question?
- Maximise Harvest
- Clear dead and diseased wood – dead wood much heavier than live wood, a build up alone could topple a tree. Diseases will spread if unchecked.
- Helps to prevent future disease
- Rejuvenates trees, can encourage new growth in unproductive tree
- Maximises light and air penetration – sunlight might only filter 1′ into a dense leafy canopy leaving fruit on lower branches starved of ripening sunlight.
- Balance Tree
- To ease access for harvesting – or access for pruning – thinking about where a ladder might be secured for example. Getting into the tree is very important if the management is going to be straightforward.
- to correct biennial cropping
- to improve the health of the tree or minimise disease
An old tree may not be whole but it can still be productive – only a thin strip of live cambium is really all that is needed to keep a substantial part of an old tree alive.
Mary Spiller Book – worked at Waterperry Gardens, in her 90’s now. Excellent reference.
- Pruning to build into a particular shape
- To make sure that the branches are well spaced with light and air around
- To establish and maintain a balance between growth of the tree and fruiting – Farming the Tree
- To remove dead and diseased wood
- To support wildlife ecosystem – bearing in mind that this includes pollinators
How a tree grows – differentiating between growth (vegetative green growth) and fruiting buds.
The features of a young apple or pear branch – illustrating the two-year, one-year and current growth, growth rings, fruiting spurs, leaf buds, fatter fruit buds, terminal bud.
Glossary of the different parts of a fruit tree
Fat fruiting buds (above) – slightly silky too – on an apple Woolbrook Wonder, being grown as an espalier
The buds on apples spiral evenly around the stems and do not kink out as much – pear stem tend to show a zig-zag to the growth
Graft – where is it – difference between rootstock and scion (though we will come back to the mystery of Rootstock Classification later).
When looking at a new tree (in a nursery for example) is this a maiden whip – two years, straight stem, or is it feathering (branching) out at all? A straight maiden whip is cheaper, vigorous and often the best tree to start out with – though some patience is required! More varieties will be available bare-root than container grown, as a general rule, and fewer varieties that have already been trained as an espalier for example – these are more expensive on account of the time and work that has been done by the nursery and they may prefer to stick to the most popular cultivars.
Growth buds on an apple form a spiral – a double helix – along the whole length of the stem – why a spiral? – so that new branches are perfectly spaced to gain light from above and not be immediately shaded.
There are a lot of inactive buds even on a huge big tree gnarled with bark – that’s why there are watershoots – masses of straight short stems coming straight out the bark – at all angles – after injudicious pruning.
Apple Grantonion (below)
Have a look at a piece of stem with the buds spiralling on an apple stem.
Growth Buds are always on one year old wood – at this time of year, the wood made last summer (March onwards). These can be at the tip of a shoot or the end of a lateral branch. Growth buds produce vegetative growth – leaves – but not fruit. Leaves of course are important as they are food factories.
Growth buds on One Year Wood are narrower and pointy but will begin to swell as the season progresses, another reason to prune before bud-burst!
Fruit buds are much rounder and fatter and only found on two year old wood (and older) – one reason why you shouldn’t prune out masses of fresh growth as then you would never get the fruit buds the following year.
Diagram (below) showing the effect of the leader, the tip of the leading stem/trunk – packed with hormones that suppress the dormant buds further down along the length of the stem. If the tip is pruned out, the sap is diverted into the dormant buds or remaining shoots.
There is usually a defined growth ring marking one years growth and the next.
Laterals are side branches – these in turn may have sub-laterals or sub-branches.
Off these 2 year old laterals or the 2 year old trunk/main stem – come spurs – short lengths of stem with clusters of fruit buds. These fruit buds are much more rounded.
All trees want to chase the light and grow upwards towards it – with the least amount of effort as it were – why the leader has hormones which sink back down the stem and suppress the buds further down into remaining dormant. Note that young trees are often more upright and will develop a more horizontal form as they age.
Growth buds are really close to the wood, pointy. Think Laurel and Hardy – thinner Laurel being the growth buds and the Fatter Hardy, the Fruit Buds.
There are lots of dormant growth buds, even if you can’t sea them in mature bark, so there is always a back-up all the way down to just above the graft – so don’t worry so much that one cut can be fatal.
Nicking and Notching
In the process of Nicking and Notching these dormant buds can be tricked into life without pruning out the stem above – half moon nicks into the cambium above the bud will mean the growth hormones bypass the bud as they flow down the stem – and the bud therefore comes alive.
Most pruning on new growth is to encourage the tree to make laterals and sub-laterals, branches and side branches.
You may cut into older wood if you want to promote new growth – to help regenerate an unproductive tree for example.
The leader or leading tip is packed with hormones. If you remove it, it creates a LOT MORE GROWTH in the now freed, once dormant buds elsewhere. The whole ground swell from the root system which has stored energy all through the winter will be ready to mobilise come the spring. In fact any cut in winter, which removes existing growth, will create more growth in the summer. As the sap and hormones surge through the trees in the Spring, if it has nowhere to go it will ‘burst’ new growth buds to take the strain!
Quality NOT Quantity!
Tempting to think that quantity of winter pruning is the thing – if you are paying a tree surgeon, you might want to get your money’s worth. But bear in mind if you take too much out in winter, you will be triggering a huge amount of growth the following season. Tall columns of growth – it may even be enough to take the tree over if not addressed the following summer.
Winter pruning increases vegetative growth – a good thing especially for an older unproductive tree – but follow this up with summer pruning.
If the growth is vigorous, prune it lightly so that new growth doesn’t make it even more vigorous in the following season. If the growth is weak, prune it harder – this will encourage stronger growth the following season (though follow this up as necessary in the summer). It may be possible to balance the growth of a tree out by making this differentiation, all other factors aside (shade/buildings/aspect for example). There’s a diagram coming up on how to re-balance a lop-sided tree.
By contrast Summer pruning checks vegetative growth – you are removing part of the leafy engine of the tree that will be creating the energy that will subsequently be stored through the winter in the root system.
Winter is the time to space out spur clusters – have to think of the eventual size of the mature fruit and if the space will allow for them all. If remains crowded, the fruit will be smaller and this might be a bonus if you have younger children. Otherwise thin out crowded spur clusters in winter (rubbing out the blossom in the spring and thinning fruit in the summer have the same effect but do not replace spur pruning as a technique).
Fruiting spurs on this apple – (gallery above) – well spaced and de-horned – spur systems and you can see the pruning cuts for the large branch systems taken out recently.
On young trees – less than three years old – really beneficial to knock all of the blossom off and prevent fruit formation so that the root system – the engine of the whole production – gets time to mature. It feeds the tree and will support it long term. Don’t knock off individual fruit buds in winter, they are fragile, might tear and heal poorly. Knock off the flowers, when the plant is active.
As the tree matures, and after the June Drop – though there wasn’t one apparently last June, you can thin out the forming fruit then to manage the numbers.
If you do allow it to fruit early, feed it in the first three years – rotting mulch, liquid seaweed, comfrey tea.
Tip fruiting and Spur Fruiting trees – and partial tip fruiting… how confusing!
Fruit buds will form on 2 year old wood (and older wood) on small side branches and on the tips of side branches.
Worcester Pearmain is a tip fruiting tree – looks a little like a Christmas Tree with fruit on the end of the lateral branches. Therefore needs little pruning – if you keep tipping the end of the branches off, you will lose the following year’s fruit. You can take a little off each year if unproductive, to promote new vegetative growth – and later new fruit buds. Some less productive branch systems can be taken out, cutting out older wood to allow younger branches to take over the space and develop.
Pruning a tip-bearer
10% of apples are tip-bearing. Some are partial tip bearing but will also have small spurs. Discovery is a partial tip bearing variety.
One year Growth Buds
Two Year Growth (and older) Fruit buds
Assume a tree is not a tip-bearer unless it has the Christmas Tree shape, can double check with the database at Brogdale National Collection if unsure. Relevant to apples only – pears are tip fruit.
PRUNING CURVE – tending to the Horizontal
Fruit grows best on horizontal lines – anything off the vertical but better as it becomes more horizontal. Why trained forms like espaliers fruit earlier. Vertical growth will tend always to be vegetative as it is the most vigorous. Horizontal growth is less vigorous and will be spend more energy on fruit bud production.
Fruit buds will form on 2 year old wood and will remain productive for 3 or 4 years. These lateral branches as they age may produce fresh sub-laterals which will have their own fruiting spurs on larger trees. So look out for the angle of the branch – the more horizontal the better – and how productive it is – even if the main branch is older it could still be a good cropper.
Pruning to a bud – you can choose the direction the tree grows by pruning to one bud or another. Other factors will have an impact – the direction of sunlight, obstacles and buildings casting shade, proximity to other trees. Branches can corkscrew round towards the light!
Pruning a lateral branch on a spur-bearing apple tree – removing weak or downward-facing growth, removing some of the vigorous upright growth right to the branch collar and cutting back some of the younger shoots to 3 or 4 byds to encourage spur formation.
Pruning to control growth in one year wood.
When you decide what you are going to do with your tree – or a second chance if there has been damage to the tree.
To set the tree shapes
Bush tree with a 2′ trunk
1/2 standard with a 4′ trunk
Standard – going to be a taller tree you could sit comfortably under- a clear 6′ trunk
Cordons, espaliers, pyramids and ballerinas are different.
On a maiden whip – two year old stem – cut the leader down to 6′, 4′ or 2’…. drastic but will give you the tree you want!
New boughs come from below the cut from the dormant growth buds. Check there is a cluster of growth buds below the cut you are making.
Formative Pruning of an Apple Bush
The post in the foreground shows a replacement tree planted – it is the same variety as the one immediately behind, Bridgwater Pippin, and has been cut down hard to just about 2′.
Formative Pruning of an Apple Standard – or half standard
Pruning a half-standard or standard tree – years 1-3, with pruning to form an open centred standard. Removing all laterals on the bottom third of the tree in the first winter, reducing the laterals coming from the middle third of the tree by a third but leaving the laterals in the top third untouched (except for crossing branches). In the next winter, clear the laterals in the lower third – you are aiming for a clear trunk for a standard of 6′. Shorten the middle-third laterals that were themselves shortened back the previous winter. Again check for crossing and rubbing branches. The following winter season, take out the leader to form an open centre.
It depends on the vigour of a tree as to where you can set it – a vigorous tree can be set at any height – big varieties in exposed situations might benefit from being set as a bush tree.
Much less vigorous trees – can only really be bush or half standards.
MM106 rootstocks – which we will come back to – medium trees suitable for bush or half standard.
The tree you start off with might have small laterals all along the length of the trunk and these might be retained to help grow the tree – a bank of leaves to photosynthesise – but over the next two/three/four years the aim is not to have anything below the point you set the tree at 2′, 4′ or 6′.
Low trees are harder to maintain and have greater shade though much better access. Larger trees might need you to resort to a ladder but access beneath with a lawnmower might be necessary for example.
Triploid trees are very vigorous therefore you may set them lower than 6′
Formative Pruning takes place in the first three or four years.
Cutting the leader panics the tree to create the first three or four boughs coming off the main trunk. In the second year, the new growth is cut again to promote side branching and a balanced shape. This might be repeated again in the third year, particularly as the wood nearest to the trunk and the earliest formed boughs are thickening up to form the load bearing architecture of the tree.
If you do nothing in the 2nd year, the tree is more likely to be very spindly. You are pruning to promote growth in winter to fill the space.
Preventing fruiting by knocking off the blooms, the tree can put most of its energy into building a good root system – and whatever you see above ground is replicated in the underground system – reference to the Malling tunnels, where the root systems of fruit trees were carefully excavated and mapped – and shown to be as extensive as the crown above ground.
Remember, fruit buds form on 2nd year wood – therefore if you continually take off all one year wood, when will the fruit buds ever get a chance to develop?! Winter pruning encourages vigorous growth but has to be a balance.
Winter pruning essential to remove dead and diseased wood – especially as dead wood is much heavier and harder than live wood – just try cutting through boughs of equal diameter and compare the effort you need to put into it!
Ornamental forms and early cropping system – Cordons and Espaliers, step-overs too – playing on the fact that fruit growth is more significant on the most horizontal growth.
Cordons are planted at a 45 degree angle – these are apples Sunset, James Grieve, Greensleves and Discovery on semi-dwarfing rootstock M26. They can be planted against a fence or wall or against a post/wire system. Effectively taller trees can be grown, in a relatively short space.
A post and wire system below – these include apples Saturn, Limelight, Scrumptious and Sunlight on M26 rootstock.
Espaliers and cordons can make the most of unproductive boundaries – can even be used to create boundaries themselves and establish rooms in a garden that are enclosed by decorative structure in winter (hiding and revealing the space beyond) followed by blossom and then fruit. What’s not to love!
Formative Pruning of Apple or Pear Espalier
Take a Maiden Tree
A wire system is needed, either against a wall or fence, or supported between stout posts. Once planted, a maiden tree can be pruned – the first cut…
Cut just above 1st wire – set at 2′ – by a cluster of buds.
18″ between the wire
Damsons 1′ between wires
Bear in mind that the ‘arms of the tree can be several meters across, so watch planting distances between individual specimens.
Winter formative pruning –
Tip successive years to set the new height for the wire above.
Tipping the mainden leader just above the first wire in winter. In the summer, support the new growth with bamboo canes secured to the wires – they can be brought down to the wire at the end of the summer. A new leader climbs above the second wire. This is tipped itself in the winter and the process repeats itself as the espalier climbs up the wire system. Usually there are three or four tiers.
Fan Trained Trees – more common with stone fruit – but applicable to pip fruit too
Step Over Apple
Step-overs can be raised to form a low hedge though otherwise the form is the same – these are Falstaff, Egremont Russet, Discovery and Charles Ross on the very dwarf rootstock M27 in the Fruit Demonstration Garden at RHS Wisley.
Pear Arch (above) and Apple Arch (below)
Ballerinas are single stem, vertical cordons –
Other ornamental forms are available too – the limit is your imagination!
Below, Greensleeves apple trained into arches
Summer Pruning is the norm for Espaliers and Cordons and other established, restricted forms
Cordon – tip off just above wire. Crowded roots and you can cross the stems if short of space – crossed swords – so the roots are even more congested. But crowded roots similar to container growing – will produce more fruit – OK if plants are well fed.
Don’t panic if the tree doesn’t do what you want – once tied down there will be more growth next year to take you to the next wire up.
Espaliers can fruit in their second year – Pre-made espaliers in their 1st year as the maximum amount of growth is on the horizontal.
Plant 1′ from the wall or fence and lean in.
Really need to know what you are working off – what the tree wants to be!
Where once all trees were large, research and development have created dwarfing and semi-dwarfing rootstocks. Smaller trees are better for the commercial grower and amateur as they can be managed more easily, sprayed, pruned and harvested from the ground. These smaller rootstocks enable the tree to fruit earlier and you may have room for more varieties in your garden but there are checks and balances. These smaller trees are fussier, requiring more nurturing. Feeding and keeping away competition of weeds and grass – and of course the crops are smaller. They may not be the feature you are looking for in your garden, might overly shade the ground below and of course you can’t sit under them
Semi-dwarfing rootstocks are an excellent compromise between the smallest and largest tree. Reasonably quick to start fruiting, are compact enough and still manageable from the ground. MM106 for apples, Quince A or C for pears and St. Julien A for plums.
There is no logic to the system of classification. East Malling (M), Merton and East Malling (MM) research. Planted out 250 trees in a row 1-250 and catalogued how each one grew. M27 tiny, M25 huge… didn’t reclassify them so that’s one reason why they are so jumbled.
Also consider the vigour of the variety itself – weaker cultivars may need a stronger rootstock to compensate.
The following descriptions come from The Fruit Tree Book by Ben Pike.
Apple Rootstocks –
M25 A vigorous rootstock. Needs staking in its early life on windy sites. Susceptible to woolly aphids. Suitable for training as a half standard or standard. Suitable only for orchards and large gardens. Height 6-10m and spread 7-10m
MM111 A semi-vigorous rootstock, better in wet conditions but less common in nurseries as slower to establish. Prone to burr knots but resistant to woolly aphids. Suitable for training as a half standard or standard. Orchards and large gardens. 5-8m x 7m spread
MM106 A semi-dwarfing rootstock, requiring staking in its early life.Suitable for most soil conditions. Resistant to woolly aphid and to fireblight. Suitable for training as a bush, spindlebush or large wall-trained tree. Height 4-5m x 4m spread
M26 A dwarfing rootstock which needs permanent staking. Will not tolerate wet and heavy soils. Fruits early in its life. Liable to produce burr knots which can be colonised by pests such as woolly aphids. Susceptible to crown rot and fireblight. Suitable for most forms of training including cordon and espalier, as well as pot grown tree. Height 2.5-3m by spread 3.5m
M9 A very dwarfing rootstock. Needs permanent staking. Requires a fertile soil and lack of competition from from weeds or grass. Fruits early in its life. Will tolerate wet soils but not drought. Can be prone to canker in wet soils. Suitable for training as a bush or spindlebush, also small trained trees such as stepovers and cordons and pot grown trees. Height to 2.5m by 2.5m spread.
M27 An extremely dwarfing rootstock needing permanent staking. Requires fertile soil and lack of competition from weeds and grass. Fruits early in its life. Will not tolerate wet soils. Suitable for dwarf-trained fruit trees. Mature height 1..2-1.7m by 1.5m spread.
Quince C A moderately vigorous rootstock producing trees 3.5-4m tall, that will start bearing fruit when 4-5 years old. Spread up to 3.5m. Prefers fertile soil conditions. Intolerant of dry and chalky soils. Suitable for all forms of tree except standard.
Quince A A medium vigour rootstock producing a tree up to 4.5m tall with a spread up to 4m. Will start producing fruit when 4-6 years old. Prefers fertile soil and is again intolerant of dry and chalky soils. Suitable for all forms of tree except standards.
Pyrodwarf – a new medium vigour rootstock coming from Germany and similar in size to Quince A but more tolerant of less favourable soil conditions and fruits earlier in its life than the Quince rootstocks.
Wild Pear (Pyrus communis) – a very vigorous rootstock producing trees up to 15m tall (the spread varies considerable according to the variety). If unsure, allow at least 10m between trees.
These two pages are taken from the Blackmoor catalogue – which bring the subject of pollinating groups into play as well.
Rootstocks are a key to following one of the golden rules of gardening – Right Plant Right Place – right Size
Cardinal sin – people plants trees too close – observe the minimum planting distances on the handout. Trees fighting for space grow upwards. If you give a tree enough space, there is much less need for pruning.
AS we touched on before, a rootstock for a 5′ tree can’t be a standard as this would never reach the required clear 6′ trunk.
REJUVENATING OLDER TREES
Walk around your tree, don’t rush in – if you have a glass of wine, beer or a cup of tea, you are more likely to finish to drink before you set too with the secateurs. Look at the tree – you are mapping it in your mind.
Actually you should be creating a time-based, three dimensional sculpture – the past shape and performance, the present and future growth of the tree.
Use a compass to check the direction of the passage of the sun.
Note what else might be affecting the growth of the tree. If it is shadowed? This forces the growth upwards. Dealing with whatever is casting the shade might be all you need to do to the fruit tree in the gloom.
You can save a lot of time by looking first. You may just take out one branch and that will be enough. One (or two cuts if it is a larger piece of timber) is preferable to a blizzard of smaller snips. And even if you did work on the myriad smaller branches – you may as well have taken out the whole thing to open up the centre and let in light and air.
You should of course take out deadwood (though maybe not all or not cut back into live wood – again fewer cuts into living wood is better and the rotting wood will be great for wildlife, beetles and birds.)
Crossing branches where the rubbing will eventually give way to diseases like canker. Inward facing branches should also looked at – shortened or thinned out altogether.
The pruning of older tree does depend on what tree it is and how it has been set. If in an orchard situation, have a mind to the trees around it and which are doing better, which are more vigorous, which trees have easier access to light – as it may be a neighbouring tree should be pruned to invigorate the one you are actually looking at.
Regulated pruning – removing misplaced growth from a young tree – branches that form a narrow angle to the trunk (and which will likely break if allowed to develop). Equally, vigorous upright growth coming from a horizontal branch should be removed. Rubbing, crossing branches are best removed as are branches growing into the centre of the tree.
Start with the basics –
Remove deadwood – though many an old hollow tree is still a great sculptural part of a garden, a haven for wildlife and yet may not be especially productive.
Taking out the deadwood gets you into the flow and it doesn’t hurt at all if you take it out.
Remove crossing branches to stop rubbing and prevent canker setting in. For crossing branches, you can make a choice as to which of the branches you are going to take out – does one fill a space, you might take out the higher one to give the lower branch some well deserved light and air.
If the rubbing is really really gradual and slow, the wound heals at the same time and you can get a Lover’s Knot which can be attractive.
Equally a tree can be quite cankerous but it is not necessarily the end of the tree, not immediately, as long as your pruning regime accepts this and manages – clean tools for example – wet wipes with alcohol especially useful.
Take out inward facing branches – crowding the centre and shading the branches – and fruit as well as losing more light and air.
Deal with any branches that are on a tight angle to the trunk – very sharp angle off the main trunk or subbranches – they are more likely to break as the tree matures – branches with a wider angle form supporting architecture of wood to hold the branches in place.
Deadwood would usually need either anvil secateurs or a pruning saw – silky saw – deadwood is harder to cut and the timber heavy – if left it could pull over the tree.
If you leave a stub of deadwood, no healing is required at all – fewer cuts, less new vigorous growth, less work later and you can keep an eye if the die-back continues further into the body of the tree.
DEAL WITH OVERCROWDED SPUR SECTIONS
Cutting back to a replacement branch or to the trunk (above) and cutting in sections/using undercuts on larger branches (below) to minimise tearing.
Pruning a leaning tree – many smaller cuts on the weaker side to stimulate growth, removing large branches with few cuts on the more vigorous side will reduce the imbalance and make the tree more stable. Check to see what factors might be making the tree imbalanced in the first instance.
RESTORING ONE TREE OR AN ORCHARD – at least a three year project
The first thing to bear in mind when faced with a neglected tree is that you mustn’t do too much all in one year as this will shock the tree and maybe even kill it. You need to look at it as at least a three year project.
But if taken on in a careful and considered way it can be very rewarding as you gradually transform an overgrown mass into a beautiful and productive tree. When you have identified what needs to be removed you then have to assess what most urgently needs attention and then prune out roughly one third of what needs doing.
Dead wood can, of course, all be removed straight away since because it is dead it is not going to affect the tree adversely. Diseased wood needs to be removed completely – though again take a view. If it is an isolated canker, cut it out. If the whole tree is affected, it can still be productive, so you may leave it be. But consider whether a new tree, on a dwarf rootstock, might actually be better for you. How important is the look of the tree in the garden, something also to consider.
When you have done that the rest needs to be assessed in order of priority and a third is pruned away (inward facing branches, crossing branches, crowded branch systems, shading branches, branches that are too tall to manage). The aim is to let light and air into the centre of the tree. Feed and deal with pests and diseases while this process over a number of years is being managed. Older trees may be starved!
Neglected trees can sometimes have too much new growth usually in the form of water shoots and so you need to be careful not to make too many cuts as this will almost certainly provoke it into even more growth. Conversely some trees have stopped producing new growth and have become rather stagnant.
New growth in moderation is required to produce new fruit buds and new limbs for the future well-being of the tree. In this case you will need to make some cuts to hopefully stimulate some wood production.
In extreme cases where trees with too many watershoots and suckers are left, whole branches can break away or a tree can even split apart due to the increased weight of the wood. This is because the watershoots develop branches of their own and, if left, become little trees in their own right. Dense growth can also present more wind resistance to the wind with the danger of the tree being blown down.
Often diseases associated with overcrowded trees are present such as scab, canker and mildew and by opening up the trees these should diminish.
By thinning out the branches letting in light, air and simply giving the tree less to do the fruit should increase in both condition and size.
Sometimes an old tree may be in the grip of a virus which usually means small fruit and there is not a lot that you can do about it. Such a tree can still be worth keeping as it does not affect other trees and can still be a thing of beauty and a haven for wildlife. Older trees in any event may simply produce smaller fruit on stagnant spurs.
Always a Balanced Approach.
Don’t treat cuts with Arbex or sealant. Immune system of the tree triggered in the presence of air plus the sealant can seal in disease. When new plum trees are being pruned in commercial nurseries for sale, one person cuts, the second comes in immediately with the fungicide. Immediately. Making all the cuts in a tree, taking a break and coming back with the wound treatment half an hour later will be of no use anyway!
This treatment required good tools – sharp blades, clean cuts – surgeons don’t shop for equipment in Wilkinsons, they use good equipment – which we’ll come too –
When considering the rule of thirds, no more than 1/3 of the volume out in one year – less would always be prefereable – this can be a 1/3rd all over if you mean to stimulate growth.
Decay/disease on branches. You may keep a canker growth is there are lots of fruiting spurs. If it is just one patch of canker, sterilise your tools before moving on in the tree. If the canker is endemic, not worth the bother for that tree! Alcohol wipes are a useful addition to your toolkit for sterilising secateurs between cuts.
THE WHOLE IDEA IS to keep the tree open, let as much light is as possible, create a wine glass or bowl shape with an open centre. Crowded dark tree canopies are damp, have less air movement and diseases like mildew love this environment.
But keep to the 1/3 rule or 1/4 even – minimising the number of cuts necessary too.
You should be able to throw a bowler hat through the centre of the tree!
DEHORN OLD TREES – taking out major limbs – again spread over three years. Trees may be decades old so really there is no rush, unless the presence of too much dead wood has the ability to bring the tree down.
Remember this is all about
Summer pruning in winter….?
To Prune new growth in the summer is not always possible, so do this in stages in the winter – if you have three branches, take one of them back by 1/3, another by 1/2 and the last by 2/3rd – balance. Don’t take it all off – you must keep two year old wood on the tree – as this is where the fruiting buds come from!!
If you always have fruiting buds, this stops the boom and bust cycle and can help to stop biennial fruit bearing (thinning out the fruit can also help break the cycle).
BUT ALWAYS WALK AROUND THE TREE – preferably with a glass of wine…
SUMMER PRUNING CHECKS GROWTH AND ENCOURAGES FRUIT FORMATION – this year, some varieties were ready in July it was so mild.
You are shortening new growth to create fruit buds – particularly on espaliers, cordons as well as trees in the ground.
Summer pruning will be another blog…!
MARTIN’s TOP 10 TIPS
- Secateurs – clean and sharp, carried safely. There is a right and wrong side for cutting. Brightly coloured handles are a bonus.
- Walk and study the tree.
- The three D’s – dead, diseased and damaged wood
- Horizontal growth gives you more fruit buds – vertical growth just goes up
- Be kind to a really old tree and prune/dehorn them gradually and gently
- Farm your tree for regular fruit with renewal pruning
- Always undercut larger branches and reduce down in sections before the last short cut.
- Don’t be scared to make that first pruning cut. You won’t kill it.
- Let in Light and Air (in a fruit tree)
- Wherever you tip (remove) the leader it will set the height of your trunk and encourage new laterals/leaders to branch up and out.
And finally remember to take your time – there is no hurry to prune initially. An apple tree can last up to 150 years, and a pear 300!
Health and safety
- Locked secateurs when moving around
- Gloves – stop tools slipping. Even a thin pair of gloves can prevent a deeper cut.
- Always have a first aid kit available.
- Keep saw closed when walking around
- Wear a hat – to collect sawdust
- Goggles again for sawdust, especially if you are working above your head and it is windy.
- Boots with good grip – check for uneven ground
- Pruning is not manic – think of it like meditation.
- Always allow enough time for the job.
- Secure ladders to branches with rubber tree ties.
- Tie larger branches to relieve weight when pruning larger sections. Ropes are your friend.
- Cut larger branches in sections (for the same reason!)
- Three points of contact always – two feet, one hand – don’t overreach.
- Watch out for Pruning Frenzy and Pruner’s Itch
Extra Notes –
When taking out a branch, you could leave stump – not always necessary to prune to the collar and never flush – though watch out for sharp points around head height – your or that of a child!
- Sharp secateurs – bypass for live woo, green wood and with a scissor-action, cleaner cuts too. There is a group test in the February issue of Gardeners’ World.
- Anvil secateurs crush – OK for dead wood and good for harder woods and potentially thicker stems
- Avoid loppers – you can do a lot of damage with these, very quickly! Great for cutting up sticks on the ground and those with extendable handles save on bending down and can be used as pickers to move cut stems around.
- Good pruning saw – Silky tools are a worthwhile investment.
- Pruning saw on a pole – to save time up a ladders
- Loppers on a pole – ditto
- Ladders – decorators step – collapsible ladders
- alcohol wipes if disease is present in isolated spots to clean tools – if canker is endemic, probably not necessary except between trees.
Correct cut – undercut to prevent tearing – slow down as you get almost through the wood. Cut larger sections into two – or three and support them with rope to the tree – not flush with the wood – above the swelling ‘collar’ – but be wary of stumps and spikes at your head height – or that of a child running at full pelt.
Cuts should always slope away from the bud to prevent water running down onto it – and should be at an angle even is a large limb. Follow the line of the tree which may mean you are cutting up through the branch because of tricky access. Vertical columns and branches are the most difficult as the weight of the wood is bearing down on the saw which could stick or rip – cut more roughly higher up then make a clean cut to finish off the job.
YOU CAN TIE IN GROWTH IF THERE IS A GAP
FEED – 4-6 weeks when tree wakes up in Spring – or autumn rotting mulch (well rotted, mature) Maxicrop/seaweed, comfrey
CLEAR AROUND 2′ x 2′ young tree, mulch. Grass over when more mature. Staking is important for all young trees and for the less vigorous rootstocks – for the lifetime of the tree.
SITING A FRUIT TREE – an open, sunny aspect will help develop fruiting wood, encourage pollinators to the spot and help ripen the fruit. Avoid frost pockets that could potentially damage early blossom. Is there shelter from strong winds? What might create shade – what other trees are nearby (and how are they going to grow).
WILDLIFE – your established fruit tree can be a haven for wildlife and a rich source of nectar for pollinators. A managed proportion of deadwood can be food and home to a wide range of invertebrate life – in turn feeding the birds who might roost and nest within the branches. If you do inherit a productive fruit tree, you may do very little to maintain it. A starved, misshapen or previously brutalised tree can potentially be improved significantly – or at least managed to that it continues to provide a beautiful piece of architecture in your garden. Orchards multiply these benefits – even older, less productive ones (a tree which has fallen down might yet be happy for many years if there is a strip of cambium to connect it to the root system).
COMPLETE WINTER PRUNING BEFORE BUD BURST _ END OF MARCH LATEST
APPLE, PEAR AND PLUM VARIETIES
Article from The Telegraph
Top 10 apples to grow in your garden
We have the best climate in the world for apples, so why do we grow so few varieties? A leading orchard owner recommends 10 to try at home
This year looks like being a vintage apple crop. The spring rain was good for blossom and we’ve had plenty of sunshine since – but not baking drought – which is just what makes an apple particularly tasty. There’s plenty of sugar in the fruit, along with quite high levels of acidity, the perfect balance for flavour.
The apple-growing community is loving 2013, and are on a campaign for us all to plant more trees. We should be adding them to our gardens and underused public spaces. In apple-growing counties such as Suffolk, Herefordshire and Kent community orchards are already being encouraged.
Henry Chevallier Guild, eighth generation of the apple-growing Aspall cider family, is a leading advocate. As he says, Britain has one of the best climates in the world for apples. In the 19th century we used to make the most of that, with 2,500 different varieties listed in the UK, but that’s now declined to only 12 that you’ll commonly see. It’s even quite rare to see a whole orchard of Cox varieties.
The most widely grown apples are now modern hybrids such as ‘Gala’, ‘Braeburn’, ‘Jazz’ and the similar ‘Kanzi’, along with ‘Idared’ and ‘Falstaff’. These are OK and travel well, but they’re not the best for flavour, whether eaten or made into juice or cider. For that, you need Coxes, Spartans and Russets: traditional varieties that have done well here for decades but which are on the wane.
Aspall’s estate in Suffolk is entirely organic and, as Henry says, if you choose the right forms, growing apples in your back garden without chemicals is easy. I’m tired of my home-grown apples being riddled with scab, so I am keen to find tasty, disease-resistant forms which will give me a decent harvest. That’s the primary requirement of Henry’s top 10 apples listed overleaf, but they’ll all be helped – as Henry says – if they’re planted with a walnut or garlic nearby.
How this companion planting works is not well understood, but it is regarded as an effective way to help prevent scab. There is some symbiotic relationship between the scab spores and walnuts or garlic which means the apple tree stays scab-free. In the apple forests of Kazakhstan (from where all apples trace their genealogy), there is plenty of scab spore about but none of the trees have it. At ground level there are many bulbs, and it is widely believed that they perform the same job.
Henry gives me his list of top varieties but, when pushed to name his desert island apple, he decides on ‘Howgate Wonder’, a brilliant all-rounder, supremely tasty and easy to use in so many different ways.
HENRY’S TOP TEN APPLES
1. ‘Chivers Delight’
This is a late flowerer and cropper referred to in the trade as a ‘Cox Plus’. It has as much flavour (if not more) than ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’ and better acidity, which it keeps in storage. Cox famously go woolly quickly in storage, whereas the flesh of ‘Chivers Delight’ remains firm and nutty. This fell out of commercial favour because of its colour irregularity. If the sun is on it, the fruit goes red, but it will not colour up on the shady side. This does not affect the flavour but makes them difficult to sell.
Nothing has the same richness of colour as ‘Spartan’, a lovely deep plum red, with almost bright white, contrasting flesh. It’s a beautiful apple, which stays late on the tree and makes a fabulous eater with very juicy fruit. It’s the one I use at Perch Hill for Christmas wreaths and, being a good storer, is widely available late in the year.
3. ‘Blenheim Orange’
A fabulously aromatic, peppery, almost spicy apple with a softer nuttiness than you get with the similar-flavoured ‘Egremont Russet’. This variety is a bit prone to scab, so is best grown on its own and certainly away from very scab-prone varieties such as ‘Crispin’.
4. ‘Egremont Russet’
A famous apple with a wonderful nutty, woody texture and a very characteristic taste, floral and heady, so you can almost smell the blossom. It stores well, with the flavour deepening to honey.
5. ‘Pitmaston Pine Apple’
This is a very unusual apple, difficult to find but, in Henry’s view, worth the effort. It eats like a ‘Greensleeves’ early on, but you can store it until April when the flavour morphs into pineapple.
A light, crispy, full-of-flavour apple, lovely and crunchy straight off the tree. This is the one ‘Golden Delicious’ aspires to be, with excellent flavour in a beautiful pale yellow fruit.
This is one of the first to harvest (in August), so Henry loves it for reminding us what we’ve been missing all summer. If we get a sunny July and August, the redness leaches from the skin into the flesh. Then if you press it, you’ll have a beautiful pale pink juice.
8. ‘Worcester Pearmain’
A rich, creamy apple with a really strong flavour, one of the original varieties brought over by the Normans. It’s just about surviving in the UK, but you don’t see it often, apart from in the Wye Valley where it’s usually pressed into juice.
9. ‘Howgate Wonder’
A great all-rounder apple – a good cooker early on, it also presses well and mellows the later you leave it, with the acidity dropping away, so it can be eaten as a dessert apple from the store or tree. It’s one of the few varieties where you can leave the fruit on the tree, start harvesting in August and carry on until the end of October at least. It performs well whatever the weather and is often a challenger for the largest fruit.
10. ‘Médaille d’Or’
Henry’s final recommendation is this wonderful bittersweet cider apple, still abundantly on the tree, until the end of November. The tree’s appearance is unique – “there’s a Grand Dame feeling about them, which reminds me of my grandmother,” he says, “knotted and gnarled in the winter and very late to blossom in the spring. You think they’re dead and then out the flowers come towards the end of May”. The fruit is small and very acid, essential tannin for flavouring cider.
This is one of the great cider apples and one that – if you have the room for two trees and fancy a bit of cider-making – would be good to grow. Mix 50/50 with an acid apple such as ‘Howgate Wonder’ and you’re away. Then you have the tannin from ‘Médaille d’Or’ and acidity from ‘Howgate Wonder’ and both have good sugar levels, which is what you need for alcohol.
They are pruned to weep in the Aspall orchards, with graceful branches arching down almost to ground level. You can get right in underneath and be enclosed in an apple den.
BOOKS TO READ
THE FRUIT TREE BOOK by Ben Pike 2013 Green Books (many of the beautifully clear diagrams plus the Glossary and Appendix of Fruit Varieties are from this excellent book).
THE BOOK OF APPLES by Joan Morgan, Ebury Press
RHS PRUNING & TRAINING Mitchel Beazley Publishers 2013
THE FRUIT EXPERT Dr D G Hessayon
RHS Pests and Diseases
Fruit: River Cottage Handbook No. 9 by Mark Diacono
The Ten-Minute Gardener (fruit) – Val Bourne
http://www.rhs.org.uk – all manner of advice on all manner of fruit tree related subjects, planting, pruning, feeding, health….
Orange Pippin Trees – all kinds of useful information about growing fruit trees including a pollination checker for apples. http://www.orangepippin.com
From February’s Gardener’s World Magazine – a test of anvil and bypass secateurs