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Pruning dwarfing fruit trees: central leader vs open center

 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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First, let me please apologize if this post is redundant. The Permies.com search function led me to no threads that tackle this particular issue from the angle I'm looking at, but that doesn't mean that the info hasn't already been discussed here somewhere. If so, a link to the existing thread would be very helpful if someone can provide it.

Second, I am NOT interested in discussing here whether to prune fruit trees at all or to start them from seed and let them grow unmolested into a purely natural shape. That is the only question related to pruning that seems to have already been discussed on Permies.com in any depth (at least so far as I can find). And that question always seems to be posed in the form of a dichotomy: conventional orchard management pruning vs Fukuoka-style natural-form trees from seed. Well, I have no interest in starting trees from seed. I have already purchased and planted trees of named commercial cultivars grafted onto commercial rootstocks, and most of those were pruned branch and root before even being shipped to me. So, based on what little I know about Fukuoka's approach, the option of growing natural-form trees is no option for me. I think many amateurs out there attempting urban permaculture, backyard orchard growing, or suburban-scale homesteading (I would fall into this last category) will find themselves in the same position of purchasing commercially grafted, mail-order trees.

My situation and design parameters: I am one year into establishment of a small food forest. Most of my trees were planted last spring and now, as winter transitions to spring again, I am pruning them for the first time. I have a relatively small space, into which I wanted to pack as many trees and as many varieties as possible. It was also important for me not to let this food forest block to much light to my patio and house directly to the north. Lastly, since I garden from a wheelchair, it is imperative that I keep things short and spaced out enough to allow me to roll around between individual tree guilds. The upshot of all these considerations was that I chose to design a food forest based entirely on dwarf trees - whether naturally small or grafted to dwarfing rootstock - amidst a natural/native meadow. So more, perhaps, a "food savannah" than a "food forest": definitely a bit smaller in scale and slightly more open than a typical food forest. Each tree is guilded with a few small bushes, veggies, flowers, and groundcovers beneath. My intention is not to let the trees exceed 10' or 12' maximum. Maybe 15' for a few most naturally inclined to grow tall or the ones from which I can shake a harvest. Otherwise, I have certain tricks that I think should let me care for and harvest from trees up to 10' or so.

So, here is my question: I cannot seem to find any consistent advice on how to prune certain species of trees. "Central leader" or "open center?" My inclination is to go with "open center" whenever possible - it seems the form best suited to keep the trees spreading horizontally rather than vertically, to allow me room to get into the tree for work, and to allow maximum light through to benefit the smaller plants beneath. But are there certain fruit trees for which the "open center" form is just not a practical approach? Beyond a few obvious species - everyone agrees that "open center" is best for peaches, for instance - there seems to be no consensus. Is it then really just up to my preference?

I list here the trees I am working with (and the cultivar/rootstocks where I can find this info from my notes):

Tart Cherry (Sweet Kansas on Gisella 5)
Manchurian Apricot (no named cultivar on unknown rootstock)
Apricot (Harglow on Lovell)
Apricot (Garden Annie on unknown rootstock)
Euro. Plum (Stanley on St. Julian)
Euro. Plum (Green Gage on Marianna 2624)
Euro. Plum (Kuban Komet on Krymsk1)
Apple (Grimes Golden on BUD9)
Apple (Smokehouse on BUD9)
Apple (Blacktwig on BUD9)
Quince (Aromatnaya on unknown rootstock)
Euro. Pear (Keiffer on OHxF97)
Euro. Pear (Warren on OHxF333)
Shipova (no named cultivar on OHxF? pear rootstock)
Fig (Negronne, grafted but I think onto its own roots)
Fig (Celeste, grafted but I think onto its own roots)
Almond (All-in-One on Marianna 2624)
Hazel (Santiam grafted onto its own roots)
Hazel (Yamhill grafted onto its own roots)
Mulberry (Persian on unknown)
Mulberry (Pakistan on unknown)
Medlar (Marron on unknown)
Medlar (Breda Giant on unknown)
Medlar (Royal on unknown)
Jujube (Lang grafted onto its own roots)
Jujube (Sherwood grafted onto its own roots)
Cornelian Cherry (Red Star on unknown)
Peach (Elberta on Halford)
Peach (Loring on Halford)
Peach (Cresthaven on Halford)
Peach (Indian Free on unknown rootstock)
Pomegranate (Parfianka on unknown rootstock)

I have omitted a few trees that I've already decided not to prune at all. I listed the Pakistan Mulberry, but I don't think I will prune that one at all; though I would still love to hear everyone's wisdom and experience concerning this tree. I haven't decided yet whether to prune the Persian Mulberry or not. Ripe mulberries are easy to harvest by shaking, yet the Persian is in a spot where I'd like it not to grow TOO tall...

Any info will be greatly appreciated. Happy gardening everyone!
 
Jordan Lowery
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Location: zone 7
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considering your situation, i would prune for open center and low growth. if you were able to get up someways( say anyone else in a similar situation reading this) go with the central leader for most of them.

i would prune the pomegranate, fig, hazel, quince as shrubs.

you can coppice the mulberry to get it going low, and then do that every 5-8 years to keep it at your height. we dont prune our Pakistani mulberry and it doesn't get as big as fast as all the red mulberry's and Russian mulberry.

hope that helps
 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Jordan - Thanks for the advice! I have it figured out where I will be able to reach to the same height as a man standing, and then a couple of feet more using tools with long handles. But even that will be from further away, from the edges of a tree, not up inside it as a man climbing or on an orchard ladder can be. So, anyway you look at it, shorter is better.

Let me restate your main points so as to be sure that I understand what you are saying, and please write back to correct me if wrong or expand on any of these points. 1) I can prune any tree to an open center for low growth if I choose. 2) Having said that, you still think a central leader form is preferable for most of them. What makes it preferable? And for which ones in particular? 3)You named several that you would suggest I prune as shrubs. How should I do this? Does that refer to their ultimate height, or to the idea that each plant will have multiple trunks starting at the ground? 4) You suggested coppicing the mulberry. Interesting. I take you meant the Persian mulberry? I hadn't thought about that... I'll have to double check that it's on its own roots. I already plan to let the Pakistan mulberry reach full height and natural shape, which should give me a shade tree about 20' tall (right?) I had also considered some sort of coppicing plan for the figs if they get too big, since I know they're on their own roots.

Thanks again!
 
Eric Thompson
Posts: 365
Location: Bothell, WA - USA
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duck food preservation solar trees
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Apples on BUD9 should need very little pruning -- they could probably use some support or they may start breaking off after year 5. You can prune off a year's growth if it's excessive, but I would usually leave them trained on something

For plums/apricots, a full tree is nice - just make sure the branches aren't getting too long each year


Great variety you have there!!

 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Eric - You're absolutely right about the plums: the first year they grew great 6' long whips of branches! As for your comment on the apples - "they could probably use some support or they may start breaking off after year 5" - what manner of support? How should I engineer this?

Yes, it is a lot of variety. Thanks! : ) I have several more trees not included on the list because I don't plan to prune them at all: a hican, an American persimon, two chestnuts, and a whole slew of paw-paws. And I didn't even mention any of the smaller bushes and shrubs, LOL!
 
Tim Flaus
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Location: Moss Vale, Southern Highlands, NSW, Australia
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Gidday,

My experience suggests that pruning styles are determined by a need to maximise productivity, either number of fruit, size of fruit or ease and speed of picking. If I was you I would prune those trees to suit you situation and rest assured that they will continue to produce a substantial crop. If you go for main leader style then you could easily drag that leader down so that it is running horizontal to the ground, as in an espalier or cordon type arrangement. In fact a wire line espalier would be a fantastic backbone to your food forest, allowing easy access and abundant fruit. You then only need to keep up the pruning to hold the shape. If you go for open vase then think umberella shape. Three main scaffolds and all laterals coming off either horizontal or vertical down at the ends. You end up with a funny looking tree with tops of the main branches bare and exposed , but you end up witht he fruiting branches on the outside and close to the ground.

Some trees like pears and apricots want to go up up up, so you will need to be strict with your pruning, remember summer time pruning will not result in the same sort of suckering that you get from winter pruning, but it is difficult to get in and see what is going on.

Dont worry too much if you mess it up, the tree will recover and you will get another go at it. They are very forgiving and most dont mind being hacked at. I enjoy pruning it is peaceful and artisitic activity, it takes a life time to really master but a the same time any mug can have a go and do a reasonable job.

Good luck let me know what you decide.

Cheers

Tim
 
greg patrick
Posts: 168
Location: SoCal, USDA Zone 10b
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Hi Matthew,
Question: What is your plant spacing and layout? Are your plants already in? If so, can you give us an idea of the spacing and orientation? How you have them in the ground will dictate how you prune. I have my trees oriented N-S, one meter apart with 3-4 meters between rows. I prune for a central leader and keep them tall and cylindrical with lots of summer hacking back. After I get my fruit, I tame it back. You can train a topped tree to a new central leader by training the topmost branch upward with wire/etc., so don't let a topped tree dictate how you train. I also have several trees along fences and buildings that I train in a fan, which is basically open center 'hedged' so it's much wider than thick. I call it my lazy espalier.
-greg
 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Greg - I am not growing in orchard rows, but rather a hodgepodge of different species all crammed irregularly into a small, roughly rectangular space. I would say a tape pulled from one trunk to the nearest adjacent trunk would measure out 15' (about 5 meters) on average. 12' minimum, 20' maximum. Again, these are rough figures. I'm not using machines or vehicles of any type, and I've purposely avoided planting in anything like a straight row in favor of a more informal aesthetic. Oh, I should mention that the average space between trees I've just quoted is from one fruit tree to another. In between I often have support trees (black locust, a N-fixer) planted, but I plan on keeping those smaller through coppicing. In time, if I find an area becoming too congested, I will remove the black locust to open up the pathway between production trees. And yes, nearly all of my trees are already in the ground.

Good point about the fact that I could recreate a central leader with some work in the future if I change my mind down the road.

@Tim - Thanks for your words of encouragement! I am already feeling better about this operation. It is good to know that my trees will be forgiving of my decisions now, for better or for worse. Please examine the photo of an old, open-center apple tree. Is this something like what you meant by "umbrella shape"?

Open Center Apple.jpg
[Thumbnail for Open Center Apple.jpg]
(photo credit: from Landscaping with Fruit by Lee Reich. Which, BTW, is an excellent and very useful book)
 
greg patrick
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Thanks for the info. Sunshine getting to leaves and ability to reach fruit are the reasons we prune. If my trees were that far apart, I'd top them and train them with an open center. More fruit with less work. Don't forget to mulch. Sounds wonderful!
-greg
 
Jordan Lowery
pollinator
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1) I can prune any tree to an open center for low growth if I choose.----

of course you can, nothing is going to stop you from pruning a tree if you want to. the tree wont say no, the birds wont attack and the sky wont start falling.

2) Having said that, you still think a central leader form is preferable for most of them. What makes it preferable? And for which ones in particular?----

i say that because i know how the tree grows naturally, i know how it produces fruit, where, when, how, and the traits each plant has. this is what makes you decide on what to do with a given tree.

for example i said coppice the mulberry, i say this because coppicing it will give you multiple benefits. keep it short, give you straight wood every 5-8 years for firewood, bow wood, tools, furniture, and more. at the same time you are still benefiting from the fruit on a short bush rather than a tall mulberry tree where it would be extremely hard for you to pick each berry.

3)You named several that you would suggest I prune as shrubs. How should I do this? Does that refer to their ultimate height, or to the idea that each plant will have multiple trunks starting at the ground? ----

yes you would want to end up with multi trunk bushes rather than a conventional standard orchard look. at first you will want to prune low right away, let it branch out, thin to the healthiest and most structurally supportive trunks, from there you just prune the outer edges each year to keep it from becoming a tree. the pomegranate should probably be the hardest to keep to a shrub but not hard at all really.

4) You suggested coppicing the mulberry. Interesting. I take you meant the Persian mulberry? I hadn't thought about that... I'll have to double check that it's on its own roots. I already plan to let the Pakistan mulberry reach full height and natural shape, which should give me a shade tree about 20' tall (right?) I had also considered some sort of coppicing plan for the figs if they get too big, since I know they're on their own roots. ----

sounds like you got this one on your own. mulberry root pretty easily and grow well on their own roots.

 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Jordan - Thanks for the confirmation and for the great advice!

@Greg - Well, okay, I went out and took some measurements. Not quite as rosy a picture as in my mind's eye. Just a couple of fruit trees are as close as 8' in a straight line to their nearest neighbors, although these are ones that tend to stay more columnar anyway (jujube, medlar). The vast majority are in the 10'-15' range. There are a few with up to 20' clearance to the next production tree, but most of these center around a chestnut that I plan to grow to full height, or else edge around an open space where I later will build a small pond.
 
greg patrick
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We do a hybrid of some open center for the stand alone trees, some espalier/fan pruning for the trees along walls, and the rest are high intensity 1m x 3-4m spacing with columnar pruning.
 
Eric Thompson
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Location: Bothell, WA - USA
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Matthew Nistico wrote:@Eric - You're absolutely right about the plums: the first year they grew great 6' long whips of branches! As for your comment on the apples - "they could probably use some support or they may start breaking off after year 5" - what manner of support? How should I engineer this?

If you keep plum growth long, just remove fruits on the branch ends until they thicken up.

Most any support is ok for BUD9 apples a few ideas (my favorite first):
- A support tree a few feet away like locust or alder - train a few support branches 6-8 feet high to tie on apple branches
- The side of a building
- a solid support post drive in the ground with a horizontal member 6-8 feet high
- drive some 2x4 into the ground to extend 4-6 feet - tie a single branch to the top of each in a good place to support weight (2/3 of the way to the tip)
- some thin support posts (T-posts and such) driven around with some 1/8" cable as a support
- Just leave them hanging, and nature will choose which need to be shorter

 
Tim Flaus
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Location: Moss Vale, Southern Highlands, NSW, Australia
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Matthew Nistico wrote:@Greg - I am not growing in orchard rows, but rather a hodgepodge of different species all crammed irregularly into a small, roughly rectangular space. I would say a tape pulled from one trunk to the nearest adjacent trunk would measure out 15' (about 5 meters) on average. 12' minimum, 20' maximum. Again, these are rough figures. I'm not using machines or vehicles of any type, and I've purposely avoided planting in anything like a straight row in favor of a more informal aesthetic. Oh, I should mention that the average space between trees I've just quoted is from one fruit tree to another. In between I often have support trees (black locust, a N-fixer) planted, but I plan on keeping those smaller through coppicing. In time, if I find an area becoming too congested, I will remove the black locust to open up the pathway between production trees. And yes, nearly all of my trees are already in the ground.

Good point about the fact that I could recreate a central leader with some work in the future if I change my mind down the road.

@Tim - Thanks for your words of encouragement! I am already feeling better about this operation. It is good to know that my trees will be forgiving of my decisions now, for better or for worse. Please examine the photo of an old, open-center apple tree. Is this something like what you meant by "umbrella shape"?



Gidday,

Yep that is what I mean, Imagine the same but on a dwarf root stock, you determine how high the tree grows by your choice of pruning cuts. Trees like to send up a central leader. So you will notice the tendencies to throw up suckers. Just keep cutting them or rubbing them off. Have you thought about expaliering your trees.

Cheers

TIm
 
Matthew Nistico
Posts: 269
Location: Clemson, SC ("new" Zone 8a)
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@Tim - Yes, I am aware of espalier training, but in truth I've never seriously considered it for my trees. Seems like a commitment to more work than I would be interested in. Besides, it doesn't fit in with the way my trees are organized into my "food savannah" (see above). There are no walls or fences anywhere nearby against which to espalier these trees. I would have to add fences just for that purpose. And aesthetically it just wouldn't fit at all.

In another part of my yard I have a narrow space between a wall of my house and a tall retaining wall. That space is divided by a walkway down the middle, leaving a planting bed between 1.5' and 2.5' deep on each side of the walkway. In those beds I have red/white currants and gooseberries. That would be an ideal situation to espalier those bushes for a very aesthetically pleasing result. But again, seems like more work than it's worth. Instead, I am content for now merely to direct my pruning of those bushes to encourage sideways growth, creating sort of "flat" bushes that extend up and down the pathway but not too far out into it. Doesn't seem like that should be too hard to achieve.
 
Matthew Nistico
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Tim Flaus wrote:Trees like to send up a central leader. So you will notice the tendencies to throw up suckers. Just keep cutting them or rubbing them off. Have you thought about expaliering your trees.


@Tim - BTW, you mentioned vertical suckers. Which I take to refer to water sprouts (?) That's funny - the photo I provided was the "after" of a set of "before and after" photos meant to show how one should prune off excessive water sprouts.
 
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