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Managing Your Backyard Fruit Trees

by: ann ralph

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When backyard gardeners plant fruit
trees we have different motivations
than farmers do. We want fruit to share with
our friends and family and we want fruit that
tastes like fruit. We’d like fruit grown without
chemicals and pesticides. But most of all we
want that most simple and elemental domestic
satisfaction—the singular pleasure of harvesting
and eating tree-ripe fruit we’ve grown ourselves.

Yet when most of us think of a fruit tree we think
of the classic vase-shaped orchard-style tree. Tree size
and spacing accommodates farm machinery. An open
center allows light to reach all the branches when a tree
is shaded by the orchard around it. These cultivation practices
were developed during the Industrial Revolution to
promote maximum size for maximum yield, and indeed,
farmers need yield—their livelihoods depend upon it.

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When home gardeners borrow pruning tactics from farmers
they get more than they bargained for, namely, outsized
trees and impossible quantities of fruit. Most backyard fruit tree
growers don’t have the space orchard trees require and, even if
they do, the work required with large trees, from pruning to harvest,
can overwhelm even the most dedicated family orchardist.
One of the best reasons to keep a fruit tree small is because big
trees are so hard to care for. The routine maintenance of fruit tree
growing—pruning, fruit thinning, pest and disease control, and harvesting—
all become manageable with a tree that is only as tall as you
are.

The semidwarfing rootstock available in most nurseries is a misnomer:
it rarely controls tree size the way people expect. Semidwarf
means only “smaller than standard.” If a full-sized tree is 30
feet high, a semidwarf might grow as tall as 25 feet. Genetic
dwarf trees will stay small, but they don’t offer much in the
way of choice varieties—there is no such thing as a dwarf
Blenheim apricot—and their small root systems tend to
compromise the health and longevity of the tree.
Whatever their dwarfing properties, rootstocks
are best chosen for suitability to soil, situation,
and climate.

Pruning is the best way to keep a fruit tree
small. Fortunately for weekend gardeners there
is little that is complicated about it. Europeans
have been keeping fruit trees within bounds
for centuries. All a gardener needs for a sixfoot
fruit tree is a sunny plot of earth and
the wherewithal to prune whatever grows
out of reach.

Bareroot fruit tree season falls between
January and March. There is more than
just a price advantage with bareroot
planting. Roots that grow directly into
native soils establish more easily than
container plants do.

Most importantly, planting bareroot
gives you a one-time-only opportunity
to make the low pruning cut
that establishes the basic structural framework of the tree; you get to put the scaffold exactly where you
want it. Prune the freshly planted young tree to at least knee high as it
stands in the ground. This cut seems radical, but an initial hard prune
creates a low branching scaffold that puts the body of the tree in front
of the gardener.

Fruit tree pruning, and any pruning, really, is less of a technology
than it is an exercise in “call and response”: You prune, the tree answers,
you prune again. Prune in winter and the tree will respond with the full
force of its stored reserves. Stone fruits like plums can put on eight feet
of growth in a single season. Prune lightly in winter. Make aesthetic decisions.
Prune only to enhance the natural grace of the tree.

Trees pruned in summer regrow at a moderated rate. Prune in summer
for size control. In May or early June remove as much as two thirds
from upright growing branches. Prune a fruit tree the way you prune a
rose bush: prune above outside buds to encourage spreading, uncrowded
limbs.

“If you don’t know what to do, cut some stuff out.” This, from a UC
Davis extension course on fruit tree pruning, is the best advice I ever
heard for stymied and uncertain pruners on the topic of fruit tree pruning.
The implications are obvious, the first being that it’s hard to make
a mistake. Secondly, if you decide you have made a mistake, it’s correctable
later on. It’s better to make your best guess than to be so paralyzed
by the idea of proper technique that you prune timidly or not at all.
Perhaps most importantly, this advice trusts the native intelligence of
the pruner. We are more capable than we give ourselves credit for.

Experienced pruners will tell you that pruning is more of an art than
a science. Experienced pruners will also tell you they learned to prune
by pruning. A few well-placed aesthetic cuts in January, followed by rigorous
scaling back in May or June will keep your fruit tree invigorated,
short, well-formed and fruitful.

Ann Ralph is the resident fruit tree enthusiast at Berkeley Horticultural
Nursery.

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