For years most of what we knew about fruit trees came from commercial orchard culture. These methods were designed for farmers to promote maximum tree size for maximum yield. Today, most backyard fruit growers don’t have the space that orchard-sized trees require and, even if space is not a consideration, large trees are difficult to maintain. Full size fruit trees also produce copious amounts of fruit—far more than a homeowner can reasonably expect to use.

In contrast, small trees are easy on the gardener. Routine pruning, thinning, harvesting, and spraying all become manageable when your fruit tree is only as tall as you are. Our customers know this; most request small-scale trees. Unfortunately, genetic dwarf trees often perform poorly, and because they’re bred primarily for their short stature, fruit quality can be compromised. Semi-dwarf rootstocks don’t control tree size nearly as much as people expect. Don’t look to rootstocks for size control. Rootstocks are better chosen for soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance, early bearing, and tree longevity. Ultimate tree size is best controlled by pruning.

With the following simple techniques you, the pruner, decide how big your tree will grow. You have the opportunity to select your favorite varieties on rootstocks suitable for soil and climate. Different varieties can be planted close together or even in a single hole. Backyard Orchard Culture allows more trees in a small space, varieties appropriate to climate, better opportunity for cross-pollination, fruit in appropriate quantities, and delicious, organic, homegrown fruit fresh from the garden over the longest possible season.

Pruning Practices

Fruit tree pruning doesn’t have to be complicated or confusing. To keep a tree between eight and fifteen feet tall, you need to create a scaffold that branches as low as possible. At planting time, prune the young whip so it stands no taller than knee high. This is the most difficult and important pruning decision you will ever have to make. That’s why we like to make this cut for you, before you leave the nursery. Your tree will respond to this hard, dormant season cut with a vigorous flush of growth. In June or July, cut new growth back one-half to two-thirds, depending on vigor. A moderate summer flush will follow. Very vigorous trees may require additional pruning in August or September.

Winter pruning encourages aggressive growth and, like all good things, should be practiced in moderation. Winter is a good time to make structural and aesthetic decisions, but reserve your heaviest pruning for June or July. Remove vigorous, upright growth by as much as two thirds. For increased fruit production, prune to outside buds and encourage horizontal branching. Your pruning decisions should enhance air circulation and sunlight penetration. Aggressive pruning is most necessary only when the tree is young.

There is no right or wrong way to prune a fruit tree. Every pruner will make different pruning decisions. Trial and error makes an excellent teacher. Picture the size and shape of the tree you have in mind and remove anything that doesn’t fit into the picture. Follow two important rules: if your tree gets too tall, cut it back; if it gets too bushy thin it out. Don’t be afraid to get out your shears. Not pruning is the only real mistake you can make.