Just what do fruit tree experts mean when they say "you need train your fruit tree?" Home orchardists need to train their trees for structure to encourage fruit production and have a productive, high yielding home orchard. Proper training also gives you a tree that can hold the fruit load without needing any additional support. The scaffold branches need to be positioned to allow good sunlight throughout the canopy to promote fruit production from the interior to the outside of the canopy. This will allow air circulation in the canopy, reducing leaf and fruit diseases, so you benefit in two ways.
Using dwarf apple trees as an example, you will likely use what is termed the central leader system to train your trees. The central leader system allows your fruit tree to look much more like most other trees in your landscape, yet produce apples without the tree looking like those you see in older commercial orchards. Training starts the first year you plant your fruit trees. This keeps your fruit tree ensuring your dwarf tree actually remains dwarf in your home orchard. You will be able to start to select your scaffold branches placing the first set of scaffold branches no more than 20 -24 inches from the ground. By starting that low, you will be able to place additional scaffolds and still have a mature tree that is no taller than 6 to 8 feet tall, making it very easy to manage.
There are several other advantages of a well-trained dwarf fruit tree. Annual Spring pruning will be visually much clearer as to which branches need your attention. There will be branches that need to be adjusted using traditional branch spreaders or alternative methods such as using twine and a stake to pull the branch into the desired horizontal plane as you develop your scaffolds. Water sprouts will be easily identified, as they will be growing straight up from the horizontal scaffold branches.
As your dwarf fruit tree matures in size, home orchardists will realize there are additional benefits. The weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though young fruit tree may not be producing apples, there are insects and foliar diseases that need to be taken care of. Foliage feeding insects reduce the canopy, reducing the amount of food that could go into growth and development. Leaf diseases have a similar impact. If allowed to continue over the season or seasons, it could easily delay fruit production and in a bigger picture, lesson the overall vigor. You want a tree that develops quickly, so that your training then can encourage flowers and fruit set. Limited fruits can begin to show up as early as the third year and get more productive every year after. Enjoy the challenge and amaze your friends with fruit that came right out of your yard.
About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.