To grow the most varieties of fruit on my small suburban lot, I am experimentally trying a technique called Backyard Orchard Culture developed by the fruit tree-growers at Dave Wilson Nursery.
Proponents will tell you Backyard Orchard Culture or BYOC (“Bring Your Own Cherry? Citrus? Cherimoya?”) is a great way for space constrained gardeners to get the longest period of fresh eating fruit from their backyard, address pollination needs and avoid the hassles of full size trees.
Cynics may point out that it probably isn’t a coincidence that the largest fruit-tree growing company in the United States is encouraging people to plant four or more trees in the space where just one would normally be grown (what a profitable trend this would be for Dave Wilson, huh, if the demand for fruit trees quadrupled overnight?)
In Backyard Orchard Culture, pruning is not optional. You pick the mature height of the tree – typically 6 to 8 feet so that all pruning and harvesting can be done from the ground – and you keep it that size with frequent pruning. That’s the deal you make when you embark on the Backyard Orchard Culture method.
Luckily, pruning a fruit tree from terra firma is pretty easy. It’s when you have to haul out a ladder or use an extension pruner that things get annoying and likely to be put off, in my opinion. So I have not found maintaining my Backyard Orchard to be particularly difficult or time consuming. I just get out my hand pruners, walk to the orchard and start cutting things down to size. I can prune the core of the mini orchard – 16 trees (about to be expanded to 24) in about an hour, depending on how methodical I get.
I know a lot of people feel very intimidated by pruning. There seem to be two types of new pruners: those who are unwilling to cut anything out of a tree for fear that they will kill the tree, and those who will happily take a Sawzall to their tree and just whack away at anything. Both approaches lead to poor outcomes.
The truth is, good pruning of a fruit tree isn’t particularly difficult if you understand why you are doing it. I think one of the things that can make fruit tree pruning intimidating is the advice on how to prune, which always seems to come with a huge list of Dos and Don’ts that can leave the impression that pruning is the horticultural equivalent of defusing a bomb. But it’s not – more like the horticultural equivalent of cutting hair – and once you understand why you prune and how trees respond, you can get out to your own fruit trees and start making informed decisions about how you want to work with your trees.
There are as many ways to prune a tree as there are gardeners with Felcos. Everything in this article is based upon what I do based on my goals for high-density, size-limited fruit tree production. If you have stately 30-foot tall apple trees and 27 acres on which to grow, this stuff will probably not apply to you.
What The Backyard Orchard Culture Grower Wants
- Healthy, long-lived, productive trees.
- A long harvesting period of family-appropriate quantities of fruit.
- Great quality fruit.
- Backyard-appropriate size (small – think fruit bushes, not fruit trees!).
- To never have to get out a ladder for any tree maintenance.
What A Fruit Tree – Any Fruit Tree! – Wants
- To reproduce by making seeds.
- To maximize captured sunlight and grow.
- To balance its root mass with its leaf canopy (this is so important I’m going to talk about it in depth below).
How We Work A Fruit Tree To Meet Our Goals
- We increase airflow and sunlight penetration into a tree for healthier trees less likely to be plagued by disease.
- We guide the tree on where to add new growth by pruning out branches that go the wrong way and cutting branches at points of outward-facing buds (see note, below, for more on this).
- We remove diseased wood and branches that invite wounds by rubbing against surfaces or each other.
- We shape the tree with detail pruning during the dormant season (winter).
- We keep the tree small with vigor-reducing pruning in summer.
- We increase fruit size and quality by thinning baby fruits so that fewer, larger, uncrowded fruit mature.
- We promote high fruit quality by reducing or promoting leaf cover over fruit, depending on climate. In hot summer areas, sun scald of fruit is minimized by allowing greater leaf-cover over fruit. In cool-summer areas, fruit ripening is encouraged by thinning leaf-cover over fruit clusters.
Summer Pruning vs. Winter Pruning Fruit Trees: Understanding Size-Limiting Pruning
Typically, fruit tree pruning is thought of as a dormant season (winter) activity. Almost all methods of training fruit trees require dormant pruning. Dormant pruning has some real advantages. When a tree has lost its leaves you can see the structure of the tree, you can make cuts to correct the shape more easily. So, with Backyard Orchard Culture, winter pruning is important. We want a strong, solid scaffold for our fruit trees, and this is achieved by careful detail pruning in winter.
But winter pruning is not about size control of the tree, and if you try to winter prune for size control you will quickly be in a terrible battle with your tree, because you will be sending it very mixed signals.
To understand why, spend some time really internalizing this: trees strive to balance their root mass and their leaf canopy. From Spring through late Summer, a deciduous tree is actively growing both leaves and branches (the canopy) and its underground root structure. A tree can’t grow more canopy than its root structure will support, but it will do whatever it must to balance the two. Sometimes this means root dieback, sometimes this means canopy expansion.
But the tree’s goal is always to be top/bottom balanced – to keep its root mass and its leaf/branch mass about the same.
So, if you let a tree grow all summer without any pruning, the tree captures all that solar energy and converts this into a strong, expanded root structure. If you then aggressively prune a tree back during winter, in spring the tree “wakes up” and notices that it has a root system far larger than its pruned-down canopy needs. That’s out of balance, so – using the energy in that expansive root mass – the tree goes crazy trying to regrow its canopy as quickly as possible. The result is typically water sprouts, ugly, straight-up branches that a tree can grow quickly and hang a lot of leaves on.
From the tree’s perspective, winter pruning says, “All hands on deck! Time to regrow with vigor! Make more branches! Make more leaves!” With many shrubs and some trees this is exactly what you want. Think of a red twig dogwood with lovely bright red new growth. You encourage that new growth by being aggressive with your winter pruning. Aggressive to the point that you might just hack the whole thing to the ground every few years in February.
But if our goal is a small fruit tree, aggressive winter pruning works against us. The tree thinks you are asking for crazy spring regrowth, and once this gets started, you’ll probably be stuck in a vicious cycle, chopping off water sprouts for years.
On the other hand, if you come through once or twice during the growing season and prune back some of the actively growing leaf mass – long, whippy, new growth branches, typically – you are limiting the vigor of a tree. The leaf canopy and root development are checked together and stay more in balance. This makes it easier to maintain your tree at a comfortable, small, backyard-appropriate size.
So, for size restriction of fruit trees, I am a big fan of summer pruning. And really, there’s no easier pruning. As your tree grows and develops, if something is too long, or too tall, or sticking out too far, you just cut it off. Don’t worry too much about it, just cut it back. If you really feel you must have guidelines, cut back any whippy new growth by half. Reach up and cut off anything sticking up further than you can reach. You aren’t going to kill your tree.
Well, almost certainly you aren’t going to kill your tree. Typically, people under-prune their fruit trees. But you can go too far with limiting vigor, of course. If you cut off every branch on the tree, you’re harming it, not guiding it. A tree does need a leaf canopy to metabolize sunshine, after all. And if you cut major scaffold limbs off instead of trimming back whippy new leaf growth in summer you’re doing a long-term disservice to your tree and your fruit yield. So think about your goals, and prune with them in mind.
If you approach fruit tree pruning with an understanding of why it’s done, and you work with the natural inclination of your trees, you can achieve a healthy, productive, size-limited tree. As the one with the pruning shears, have a far greater role in the final size of the tree than you might think.
A Note on Outward Facing Buds
The highest bud on any tree, and the highest bud on any given branch of a tree has what is called “apical dominance.” This is a fancy way of saying, “Top Bud Makes The Rules.” When you cut back a branch in summer or winter, you should cut the branch just above a bud that is facing the direction you want that branch to grow. Once you – through pruning – make your chosen bud the “top bud” it wins the apical dominance of that branch and new growth of the branch will grow off in the direction that bud is facing.
If you prune to an inward facing bud, you are telling the branch to grow in, towards the trunk of the tree. This reduces sunlight and airflow and greatly increases the possibility of branches rubbing or crossing. That’s why, with very few exceptions, you should prune to an outward-facing bud.
A Note on Rootstock
If you have spent much time with the Raintree catalog or on the Peaceful Valley Farm website lately, you’ve run across rootstock. The right rootstock for your soil and climatic conditions will make the growing of fruit trees far easier. If you live in a place with wetter soils, a rootstock that can tolerate that is important. If you live in a place with sandy soil and high winds, you want a rootstock that has excellent anchorage.
Many rootstocks are bred to be dwarfing – that is, to produce a tree that is smaller when full-grown. All this means is the the rootstock itself is size limiting. Remember that a tree cannot grow more canopy than its root system can support. Summer pruning helps reduce vigor from the top-down; Dwarfing rootstocks help reduce vigor from the bottom-up.
I select dwarfing or mini-dwarfing rootstocks for my trees whenever possible because this means I don’t have to prune as often to keep a tree at the very-small backyard size I’m going for. However, I do still have to prune. Mature height for many fruit trees on “dwarf” rootstock is still 12 to 14 feet tall, which fails the “no ladder” benchmark I’ve set for my Backyard Orchard Culture trees.24