They will never jump through a hoop for you, but you can train your trees to be healthier and more productive.
Tree training helps fruit and nut trees stay healthy, produce larger crops, and avoid broken branches. Proper tree training also reduces the likelihood of pests and disease. Too much fruit and strong winds can result in broken branches. Proper training can prevent these problems. You may not want to go as far as pollarding or coppicing, but training your trees for good structure, air flow, and the retention of productive wood is always a good idea, except when it isn’t. Trees that are particularly large or unstable should never be trimmed or pruned by an amateur. It is too dangerous.
When to train trees
Most fruit and nut trees are deciduous. This means they go dormant and lose their leaves in winter. This is handy for several reasons. First, it allows you to remove leaves that may be carrying pests or diseases. Secondly, it allows you to see the true structure of your trees. This makes training them a lot easier. The only exceptions are cherry and apricot trees, which should only be pruned in summer, to avoid Eutypa dieback.
Making a proper cut
You may want to read up on pruning before you start training your trees. Put simply, you will want to make a smooth cut that is flush with, but does not cut into, the branch collar. There is no need to paint or treat these cuts. Your tree will develop a protective callus over the area, all on its own.
Tree training basics
To maintain a healthy fruit or nut tree in your backyard, you will probably want to keep it pruned to a manageable size. This is usually 6 feet tall and 6 feet wide. If it gets too large, you won’t be able to reach. Surprisingly, trees of this size can still produce a lot of fruit. As with any other pruning job, you will want to remove any dead, diseased, or damaged limbs. You will also want to eliminate one of any pair of crossed branches. These will tend to rub against each other, creating points of entry for pests and disease. As you prune, try to work from the inside out and avoid leaving stubs. You can orchestrate the direction new twigs will take by cutting just above buds that face in the direction you want the new twigs to grow. Do not use downward facing buds as these tend to be weak and break easily. Your overall goal should be to expose the tree’s interior to more sunlight, without risking extensive sunburn damage.
The big picture
Before cutting, take the time to really look at your tree’s structure and shape. Learn what is typical for that particular species, and think about what you want from your tree over the next several years. Consider issues such as wind exposure, shifting shade patterns, fruit and leaf litter, and tree maintenance. What is proper training for a tree in one location may be completely inappropriate in a different location. If you’re not sure, ask me. You can also look at this fruiting wood characteristics chart, from UC Davis, that can help you decide what to remove and what to leave for another year. Once you have really looked at your tree and prepared your tools, you will need to select the training style best suited to your tree species. The lowest branches are usually at knee height, regardless of the style chosen.
The central leader training style is best suited to semi-dwarf and standard size trees. This style features a single main, vertical trunk. Competing upright shoots are removed and an alternating spiral of lateral branches is encouraged. This is your classic Christmas tree shape.
Modified central leader
The modified central leader style allows more sunlight into the center than a central leader system. To create this shape, a tree is first trained as a central leader, until it reaches the desired height. Then, the central trunk is topped, or removed, just above the most recent lateral growth. This causes the tree to develop more of an open center. This method is particularly good for cherries and pears.
The open center style seems to be the most popular for backyard orchards. In this style, three or four low-growing scaffold (main) branches are encouraged, with the center kept open, like a bowl. Lateral (horizontal) branches make up the sides of this bowl shape and are trimmed back to approximately 30 inches. Fruiting wood will grow from these branches. This method provides good sun exposure and air flow. Also known as vase-shaped training, it is a good method for almonds, Asian pears, and European plums.
The “Y” system
The “Y” system features two scaffolding branches, heading in opposite directions, creating a “Y” shape. Look at it as a two-dimensional open center style. This method is particularly good for peaches and nectarines. It can also be used for apples, plums, cherries, and pears.
Espalier training is a trellising system used to create a two dimensional shape. This method works well alongside driveways, paths, buildings, and fences.
If you end up removing smaller, new wood, you can save these and use them as scions, to create new trees or modify existing trees. They make good gifts for fellow gardeners, as well!
Also, as you work closely with your tree, keep a look out for scale and other insect pests that may be overwintering in your tree’s bark.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!