What do fruit tree experts mean when they say "you need to train" your fruit trees?" Many of us have trained our dogs, but how do you train a tree?
Homeowners and orchardists need to train their trees for structure to encourage fruit production and to have a productive, high-yielding home orchard. Just like with dogs, proper training makes a difference. It 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, which promotes fruit production from the interior to the outside of the canopy. This also 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 ensures 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 to 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 other advantages of a well-trained dwarf fruit tree. At annual spring pruning, it will be much clearer to see 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. You easily can identify water sprouts, as they will be growing straight up from the horizontal scaffold branches.
As your dwarf fruit tree matures in size, home orchardists will realize additional benefits. The weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though young fruit trees may not be producing apples, there are insects and foliar diseases that need to be managed. Foliage feeding insects reduce the canopy, reducing the amount of food that could go into growth and future bud development and fruits. Leaf diseases have a similar impact. If allowed to continue over the season or multiple seasons, these diseases could easily delay fruit production and, in the bigger picture, lesson the overall vigor.
You want a tree that develops quickly, so that your training can encourage flowers and fruit set. Limited fruits can begin to show up as early as the third year for apples and get more productive every year after. Enjoy the challenge and amaze your friends with fruit that came right out of your yard with your dog obediently by your side.
Stay tuned for more tips in this home orchard series.
Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties.
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