Pruning Fruit Trees – Learn About Different Fruit Tree Forms

Anyone growing fruit trees needs to prune and shape them in order to help the tree develop a good branch framework for fruit. There are several fruit tree shapes you can use as a model when you prune to help you get a great harvest. Many gardeners have trouble understanding fruit tree forms and how to achieve them, however. If you want to learn about the different forms for fruit trees, read on. We’ll also give you tips for pruning fruit trees.

Understanding Fruit Tree Forms

You should train and prune your fruit trees every year, but it’s an easy job to procrastinate, especially if you don’t understand the how’s and why’s of different fruit tree shapes. But if you don’t shape your trees, they won’t give you high-quality fruit.

A tree left to its own devices will grow tall and broad. Ultimately, its dense upper canopy will shade out most of the fruit on its lower branches. As trees mature, fruit will only appear at the branch tips unless you prune them into appropriate forms for fruit trees.

A primary reason to start pruning fruit trees is to develop strong fruit tree shapes. The correct forms for fruit trees not only encourage fruit production, but also keep the trees shorter to make harvest easier.

Appropriate pruning creates an open branch structure that allows sunlight to enter. This kind of light penetration is essential to allow flower buds and fruit to develop. Proper shaping also allows air to pass through the tree canopy, encouraging quick drying to prevent disease.

When you start pruning fruit trees regularly, you have a chance to trim out broken, damaged or diseased branches. Working to create appropriate forms also makes the trees aesthetically pleasing.

Different Fruit Tree Forms

You’ll find a number of different fruit tree forms in articles about training trees. While you can choose any appropriate form, the two seen most often are the central-leader and the open-center forms. Espalier is another commonly used form.

Central-Leader Form

The central-leader fruit tree form is used frequently for apple, pear, pecan and plum trees. It is characterized by one principal trunk, also called a leader.

With a central-leader tree shape, you remove all branches on the lower section of the trunk, allowing the branching some 3 feet (1 m.) above the soil level. Each year, you allow four or five branches to develop, evenly spaced in a whorl around the tree. As the tree grows, upper whorls are pruned shorter than lower ones, so that all get adequate light.

Open-Leader Form

The other primary shape among the different fruit tree forms is called the open-center form or vase form. It is used for peaches, nectarines and plums.

In the open-center fruit tree shape, the central leader is removed by pruning. That leaves the tree without upright growth in the center. Instead of a central leader, this form fruit tree has several major branches coming out of the trunk, allowing in ample sunlight.

Espalier Form

One artistic form for dwarf apple or pear trees is called the espalier. An espalier form is a flat, two-dimensional tree shape against a trellis or wall.

Trees shaped to an espalier form have an upright trunk and multiple horizontal branches on each side. The branches are attached to the support and allowed to grow in all directions other than out. The support protects the tree branches as well as giving support.


It’s easy to go through life with what our third-grade teacher taught us about trees. What we ‘half remember’ is enough for us to happily relegate trees to the background of everywhere we go and everything we do.

It isn’t until one dies on your property and you need a tree removal service or someone knowingly spouts the name of a tree because of its leaf shape, that we take a closer look at a specific tree. It’s then that we start to marvel at the diversity of shapes, leaves, branching or barks. Then we want to know more.

So, if we’re going to start learning to identify the trees around us, what comes first?

Backyard Orchard Culture

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What is Backyard Orchard Culture?

The objective of Backyard Orchard Culture is a prolonged harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space in the yard. This is accomplished by planting an assortment of fruit trees close together and keeping them small by summer pruning.

Backyard Orchard Culture Is Not Commercial Orchard Culture

For years, most of the information about growing fruit came from commercial orchard culture: methods that promoted maximum size for maximum yield but required 12-foot ladders for pruning, thinning and picking, and 400 to 600 square feet of land per tree. Tree spacing had to allow for tractors.

Most people today do not need nor expect commercial results from their backyard fruit trees. A commercial grower would never consider using his methods on a 90 ft. x 100 ft. parcel, so why should a homeowner?

Backyard Orchard Culture Is High Density Planting And Successive Ripening

The length of the fruit season is maximized by planting several (or many) fruit varieties with different ripening times.

Because of the limited space available to most homeowners, this means using one or more of the techniques for close-planting and training fruit trees two, three or four trees in one hole, espalier, and hedgerow are the most common of these techniques.

Four trees instead of one means ten to twelve weeks of fruit instead of only two or three.

Close-planting offers the additional advantage of restricting a tree's vigor. A tree won't grow as large when there are competing trees close by. Close-planting works best when rootstocks of similar vigor are planted together.

As a four-in-one-hole planting, for example, four trees on Citation rootstock would be easier to maintain than a combination of one tree on Lovell, one on Mazzard, one on Citation, and one on M-27.

In many climates, planting more varieties can also mean better cross-pollination of pears, apples, plums and cherries, which means more consistent production.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Accepting The Responsibility For Tree Size

Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net and harvest than large trees.

If trees are kept small, it is possible to plant a greater number of trees in a given space, affording the opportunity for more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.

Most semi-dwarfing rootstocks do not control fruit tree size as much as most people expect.

Rootstocks can help to improve fruit tree soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance, precocity (heavier bearing in early years), longevity, and ease of propagation in the nursery.

To date, no rootstocks have been developed which do all these things plus fully dwarf the scion.

Pruning is the only way to keep most fruit trees under twelve feet tall.

The most practical method of pruning for size control is summer pruning.

Tree size is the grower's responsibility.

Choose a size and don't let the tree get any bigger. A good height is the height you can reach for thinning and picking while standing on the ground or on a low stool.

Two other important influences on tree size are irrigation and fertilization practices. Fruit trees should not be grown with lots of nitrogen and lots of water. Some people grow their fruit trees the way they grow their lawn, then wonder why the trees are so big and don't have any fruit!

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Understanding The Reasons For Pruning

It's much easier to keep a small tree small than it is to make a large tree small.

Most kinds of deciduous fruit trees require pruning to stimulate new fruiting wood, remove broken and diseased wood, space the fruiting wood and allow good air circulation and sunlight penetration in the canopy.

Pruning is most important in the first three years, because this is when the shape and size of a fruit tree is established.

Pruning at the same time as thinning the crop is strongly recommended.

By pruning when there is fruit on the tree, the kind of wood on which the tree sets fruit (one year-old wood, two year-old wood, spurs, etc.) is apparent, which helps you to make better pruning decisions.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Summer Pruning For Size Control.

There are several reasons why summer pruning is the easiest way to keep fruit trees small. Reducing the canopy by pruning in summer reduces photosynthesis (food manufacture), thereby reducing the capacity for new growth. Summer pruning also reduces the total amount of food materials and energy available to be stored in the root system in late summer and fall. This controls vigor the following spring, since spring growth is supported primarily by stored foods and energy. And, for many people, pruning is more enjoyable in nice weather than in winter, hence more likely to get done.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Not Being Intimidated By Planting Or Pruning

Fruit tree planting and pruning needn't be complicated or confusing. When planting, be aware of air circulation. This is important for minimizing disease problems. Check drainage. If poor-draining soil is suspected, consider a raised bed to protect the trees from starving for oxygen when the soil is water-logged. Up to four trees can be planted in a 4x4 foot bed raised at least 12 inches above the surrounding soil. For more trees, shape a larger bed to fit the available space.

Pruning in Backyard Orchard Culture is simple. When planting a bareroot tree, cut side limbs back by at least two-thirds to promote vigorous new growth. Next, two or three times per year, cut back or remove limbs and branches to accomplish the following:

First year

At planting time, most bare root trees may be topped as low as 15 inches above the ground to force very low scaffold limbs or, alternatively, trees may be topped higher than 15 inches (up to four feet) depending on the presence of well-spaced side limbs or desired tree form. After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half (late April/early May in central Calif.). In late summer (late August to mid-September) cut the subsequent growth back by half. Size control and development of low fruiting wood begin in the first year.

The main exceptions to the low-cut recommendation above are large caliper bare root peach and nectarine trees (3/4" up), which sometimes do not push new limbs from low on the trunk. Especially when these trees are not fully dormant, they should be topped higher initially, just above any existing lower limbs or at about 28 inches if no lower limbs are present. Once new growth has begun, height may be reduced further.

When selecting containerized trees for planting in late spring/early summer, select trees with well-placed low scaffold limbs. These are usually trees that were cut back when potted to force low growth. Cut back new growth by half now, and again in late summer.

Two, Three or Four trees in one hole

At planting time, plant each tree 18 to 24 inches apart. Cut back all trees to the same height.

Cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer as above. In the first two years especially, cut back vigorous varieties as often as necessary (very important!).

Do not allow any variety to dominate and shade out the others.

Plant each grouping of 3 or 4 trees in one hole at least 18 inches apart (between closest trees) to allow for adequate light penetration and good air circulation.

Hedgerow plantings: easiest to maintain when spaced at least three feet apart. Make sure the placement of the hedgerow does not block air circulation and light for other plantings.

To conserve water and stabilize soil moisture: apply at least a 4-inch layer of mulch up to 4 feet from a single tree or from the center of a two-, three-, or four-trees-in-one-hole planting.

Second year

Cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer, same as the first year.

Pruning three times may be the easiest way to manage some vigorous varieties: spring, early summer and late summer.

Single-tree plantings: prune to vase shape (open center, no central leader). Multi-plantings:thin out the center to allow plenty of sunlight into the interior of the group of trees.

All: remove broken limbs. Remove diseased limbs well below signs of disease.

Third year

Choose a height and don't let the tree grow any taller.

Tree height is the decision of the pruner. Whenever there are vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove them. Each year, in late spring/early summer, cut back all new growth by at least half.

The smaller one-, two-, and three-year-old branches that bear the fruit should have at least six inches of free space all around. This means that where two branches begin close together and grow in the same direction, one should be removed.

When limbs cross one another, one or both should be cut back or removed.

When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the under side ahead of your intended cut. Do this so it won't tear the trunk as it comes off. Also, don't make the final cut flush with the trunk or parent limb be sure to leave a collar (a short stub).

Apricots will require more pruning in the summer to control height. Prune as needed (2 to 3 times in the summer) to remove excessive growth. Be careful not to cut too much at one time, as this might cause excess sun exposure and sunburn to the unprotected interior limbs.

To develop an espalier, fan, or other two-dimensional form, simply remove everything that doesn't grow flat. Selectively thin and train what's left to space the fruiting wood.

Don't let pruning decisions inhibit you or slow you down. There are always multiple acceptable decisions - no two people will prune a tree in the same way. You learn to prune by pruning!

For further advice consult your nursery professional.

Backyard Orchard Culture Begins With Summer Pruning!

Smaller trees are easier to spray, prune, thin, net and harvest! With small trees, it's possible to have more varieties that ripen at different times. The easiest way to keep trees small is by summer pruning. There are lots of styles, methods and techniques of summer pruning most of them are valid. The important thing is to prune!

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Knowing Your Nursery Professional

The concepts and techniques of Backyard Orchard Culture are learned and implemented year by year. An integral part of Backyard Orchard Culture is knowing your nursery professionals and consulting them when you have questions.

Backyard Orchard Culture Is The Pride Of Accomplishment

A definite sense of accomplishment and satisfaction derives from growing your own fruit. There is a special pleasure in growing new varieties, in producing fruit that is unusually sweet and tasty, in providing an assortment of fruit over a months-long season, and in sharing tree-ripe fruit with others. These are the rewards of learning and experimenting with new cultural practices and techniques as you become an accomplished backyard fruit grower.


There's no excuse for neglected trees, maintenance undone or lack of know-how. Backyard Orchard Culture is an attitude: Just Do It!

The Value Of Ash

Ash is an extremely useful and valuable resource for the woodsman or woodswoman.

It is certainly worth putting in the effort to learn to recognise it easily as well as spreading the word so that others can also more readily identify and appreciate this majestic tree of our woodlands.

If you are fond of ash trees, please leave a comment below letting me and other people know why it’s a special tree for you.

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Watch the video: Fruit Tree Training Explained, Modfied Central Leader u0026 Delayed Open Center

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