Grow A Little Fruit Tree
When I moved to a rural area years ago, an apple tree was one of the first things I planted.
I dreamed about snacking on crunchy, green apples as I worked in my garden; I couldn’t wait until I had enough fruit to make pies and cobblers and moist, sweet cakes.
But then I forgot about my poor tree. Seasons came and went and I neglected it, caught up in many other chores. I didn’t spray or prune or fertilize, all of which meant I never had much to harvest, either. Eventually the only ones enjoying my apples were the birds, squirrels and yellow jackets.
I wish I’d Ann Ralph’s book back then. Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees describes what the author calls her “revolutionary vision” for lopping newly-planted fruit trees to keep them about 6 feet tall.
That explains the word "little" in her title. She's not talking about growing dwarfs or semi-dwarfs, but about drastically pruning standard size trees to keep them around head-high.
Ralph argues that smaller trees take up less space in the garden, so you can grow more trees and a wider variety of fruits. They’re easier to maintain, because you can reach even the highest branches. Obviously, you won’t get as much fruit as you would from a bigger tree, but Ralph reasons that most of us wouldn’t use the extras, anyway.
That wouldn’t be true for gardeners who want to freeze and can their harvest—and I can’t imagine not having friends or neighbors who’d turn down an offer to share—but I understand what Ralph is saying. A fig tree in my yard bears fruit so far above the reach of my ladder, I have to abandon them to our cardinals every year.
Besides, Ralph says pruning a 6-foot tree is a 15-minute job while pruning a tall one often demands professional help. After working in fruit tree nurseries for over 20 years, Ralph, who also teaches pruning workshops, speaks from experience.
The problem with semi-dwarf fruit trees, she says, is that despite their name they still need pruning to keep them a manageable size. Dwarf trees grow on their own roots rather than grafted rootstock and will stay 6 to 8 feet tall, but she points out that it's hard to find a wide range of dwarf varieties. She adds that some also fail to grow vigorously or live for a long time.
That's why she advocates starting with bareroot saplings and pruning them drastically. If you're going to follow her advice, you'll need to work up some courage first.
She advises a “hard heading,” which means pruning off the top two-thirds of each new fruit tree. Do this not only to keep your tree around 6 feet tall, but also to help it develop scaffold limbs, which are the branches that will grow below the cut and support the fruit. There are a few exceptions; for example, she doesn’t recommend hard heading for persimmons, pomegranates or citrus.
This kind of pruning is a “hard sell,” the author admits, even for arborists and experienced nursery workers, but if you’ll do it, she promises your future pruning chores will be as easy as, well, apple pie.
Ralph has much more advice on how to maintain and care for fruit trees and she provides a useful glossary of terms and a comparison of commonly sold rootstocks in the back of her book.
While her photos are helpful—particularly those showing various pruning cuts—I would’ve liked more, particularly on how to make second-year-and-beyond cuts. But I’m persuaded to try Ralph’s method—-maybe next spring, on a brand-new, bareroot tree.