Grow a Little Fruit Tree

February 21, 2016 lawanda Newspaper Columns

Every once in a while, a book comes along that changes everything you’ve believed about a particular topic.  “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” by Ann Ralph, is one that did so for me.  Pruning is something I have fairly good knowledge of but I never questioned one of the basic tenets, the one that decrees that fruit trees are to be pruned when they are dormant in winter.  Ralph advocates instead for pruning fruit trees at the summer solstice.

      She says that the best size for a fruit tree is “as tall as you can reach, standing on the ground.”  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to harvest all the fruit with your feet planted on the ground instead of trying to maneuver a ladder and your body between branches that are intent on poking you in the eye or stabbing you in your side?  And to prune without hauling the stepladder out in winter and trying to set it securely in deep snow?

      Winter pruning makes a tree grow larger and increases its vigor.  In winter, all the tree’s resources are stored in its roots and trunk, and removing branches when it is dormant stimulates it to grow as fast as it can in spring to replace its lost limbs.  By June, the tree will be as big or bigger than it was the prior year.

      In contrast, summer solstice pruning curbs aggressive growth, creating a sturdier, smaller tree.  In summer, tree nutrients have moved outward and are stored primarily in foliage, so removing branches with leaves slows the tree down.  That’s not normally what you want, unless what you want is a tree you can manage.  Don’t miss the late June pruning though – by July or August, the tree is already getting ready for dormancy and moving resources toward its roots.  Pruning later in summer won’t slow the tree down as much.

      There are some pruning cuts that can be made in winter when it is easier to see the structure of the tree without its foliage.  Remove branches that are diseased, crossing or touching another, or just look out of place.  The center of the tree can be opened up to admit more sunlight.  As an alternative, in winter you could paint or tie something around branches to mark which ones you want to remove the following summer.

      You may think you can get a smaller tree by purchasing one labeled dwarf, semi-dwarf, or ultra-dwarf.  These trees always grow taller than you think they will.  They are shorter than the standard tree of the same variety but how much shorter is anybody’s guess.  The upper part of a tree labeled “dwarf” is grafted onto a rootstock that limits its size, but dwarfing roots are weaker than those of standard trees.  You’ll also sacrifice taste, overall health and disease resistance, so you are better off planting a standard-sized tree and controlling its growth yourself with pruning.

Fruits and vegetablesGardening techniques and toolsTrees and Shrubs

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