It may sound counterintuitive, but if you can’t bring yourself to lop off the top two-thirds of your new fruit tree, you may need to adjust your expectations for fruit-growing success.

Author Ann Ralph harvests a little fruit tree. Photo © Saxon Holt, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

The path to a little fruit tree begins a dramatic heading cut that can only be called aggressive.

Whether your new fruit tree is a slender, branchless sapling or the most beautifully branched specimen you could find in the bareroot bin, most fruit trees require a hard heading when first planted. The opportunity to make this pruning cut is an important reason to buy a bareroot tree. A bareroot whip is young enough and slight enough to take the hard prune that a more established tree won’t manage nearly as well.

By far, this dramatic cut is the most difficult and important pruning decision you ever have to make, but it almost guarantees fruit tree success, whether you want to keep your tree at six feet or let it grow taller. Your planting job is only complete when you’ve lopped off the top two-thirds of your new tree.

In winter when the weather is cold and damp, dormant saplings can be dug from the soil and shipped to nurseries with their roots exposed. Once they arrive at the nursery, bareroot trees are often “heeled in” — buried in moist soil for protection. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?

This pruning cut is critical, not just for size control and aesthetics but for the ultimate fruit-supporting structure of the tree — the supporting branches called scaffold limbs that develop from the buds below this cut. This heading cut is especially necessary if the tree is to be kept small, but even orchard trees are pruned this way. Orchard trees branch uniformly eighteen to twenty-four inches from the ground because they were pruned. If you take a close look at an orchard, you’ll see that this is true.

Orchard trees branch uniformly from a hard scaffold prune made when they were saplings. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

Overcome Your Fear

Even so, the prune is a hard sell. It evokes a natural and paralyzing resistance. It’s a lot to ask, especially of novice fruit tree growers who lack experience with pruning. This prune makes nursery managers so agitated most can’t bring themselves to do it, even when they know it’s in the best interest of both their customers and the future of the fruit trees that leave the nursery. Many nursery workers with good intentions and years of experience hate taking this on. Even experienced pruners and certified arborists balk at the notion of removing more than half of a just-planted fruit tree.

Seriously, though, if you can’t bring yourself to make this cut, you may as well abandon your dreams of a fruit tree, pack away your pruning shears, and take up another avocation that won’t make such tough demands on your constitution. Take this partly on faith and partly on the explanation to follow, but steel yourself, get out your loppers, and proceed. Everything you do with fruit trees past this point will be gravy. I often encouraged our customers to make this first cut themselves while they were in the nursery, knowing that if they could take this one fundamental responsibility, they would never be as fearful about pruning their fruit tree again.

Fruit trees after a hard-line pruning cut. A workable fruit tree begins with a radical prune that removes the top two-thirds of the young whip. Photo © Marion Brenner, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree.

Remember, a heading cut removes the growing tip and awakens the buds below. In its absence, these buds grow into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. This heading cut is no exception. The prune is made in winter during the dormant season. It takes advantage of stored nutrients, and the vigorous growth and branching that occur in spring when the plant’s energy is directed to these remaining buds — the perfect combination of conditions to get a just planted tree off to a strong start.

Four Reasons to Make the Cut

This hard-line pruning cut accomplishes four important things:

  1. It removes upright growth that hormonally curbs the growth of lower limbs. The cut makes it possible for lower limbs to grow. The upright growth removed is not usually fruitful or strong enough to support fruit and, ultimately, creates shade that inhibits the creation of the fruiting spurs and eventual fruit production.
  2. It radically alters the form of the tree. This cut either opens the center of the tree or it creates a new central leader (the vertical trunk or spine of the tree), if the tree prefers to grow that way.
  3. It creates a low scaffold and spreading growth that is more fruitful and gives the tree strength and resilience it wouldn’t have otherwise, especially critical for stone fruits. As a fruit tree caretaker, the pruner has a responsibility to build sturdiness into a fruit tree, strength that begins with this cut.
  4. It establishes a pattern of low branching, which helps to keep the canopy of the tree within reach of the pruner.

Illustration © Allison Langton, excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree

A perfectly branched bareroot specimen in the nursery tempts a fruit tree planter to avoid the initial prune and let the tree grow naturally. To put it in the plainest possible terms: this is a mistake. Like children or puppies, fruit trees absolutely require structure, training, and shaping. If you let it go, your innocent little tree soon becomes a thicketing monster, prone to breakage, fruiting erratically beyond your reach, then dropping that fruit to putrefy on the ground, even if you bought a semidwarf to avoid just these consequences.

Buy a skinny bareroot tree. Make a knee-high cut in winter as soon as possible either in the nursery before you put it in the car, or as you plant it. The resulting low-branching, open-center tree will grow to be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and far more usefully fruitful.

Text excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree © 2014 by Ann Ralph. All rights reserved.

Ann Ralph

Ann Ralph is a fruit tree specialist with twenty years of nursery experience. She teaches pruning classes in the San Francisco Bay Area and lives… See Bio

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Grow a Little Fruit Tree

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