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Over the Garden Fence

Benefits of training your apple and fruit trees

Note: this is part three of a series on fruit trees. Read part one.

Whether you have an orchard or just a few fruit trees in your backyard or garden, there are many advantages to training those trees. Now you may be thinking, “You can train a dog, but not a tree.” In this case though, training means you need to guide your branches into a proper structure, which will result in greater productivity, among other benefits.

Allows light and air

The scaffold branches need to be positioned to allow good sunlight throughout the canopy to promote fruit production from the interior to the exterior. This will allow air circulation too, reducing leaf and fruit diseases, so you benefit in two ways. Proper training also gives you a tree that can hold the fruit load without needing any additional support.

Keeps size manageable

Training starts the first year you plant your fruit trees. Using dwarf apple trees as an example, it is common to use what is termed the central leader system to train your trees. This system allows your fruit tree to look more like other trees in your landscape yet produce apples, without the tree looking like those you see in older commercial orchards. This ensures your dwarf tree remains dwarf in your yard or home orchard. As you start to select your scaffold branches, place the first set 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 easy to manage.

Makes maintenance easier

There are several other advantages of any well-trained dwarf fruit tree. Annual spring pruning will be visually much clearer as to which scaffold 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.

Helps prevent pest problems

As your dwarf fruit tree matures in size, home orchardists will realize there are even more benefits. The weekly inspection and monitoring of fruit pests will be easier and done very quickly. Even though a 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, they could easily delay fruit production and in a bigger picture, lesson the overall vigor and any fruit production. You want a tree that develops quickly, so that your training then can encourage flowers and fruit set.

Select system by species

Besides apples, our pears, sweet cherries, and European plums also get the central leader treatment. Peaches and tart (sour) cherries are trained into an open center system, which is bowl-like in shape with no interior branches.

Home Orchard / Fruit Tree Blog Series:

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.