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fruit orchard pruning strategies  RSS feed

 
Lindsey Jensen
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Hello fellow stewards! I am planning on starting a fruit orchard this fall & wanted to get your input. I recently saw the "Permaculture Orchard" video & wanted to see if anyone has any experience with his chosen technique of forcing the branches downward to focus the growth on fruit production. I was curious how this would affect the tree spacing and also any understory plantings. Would love to hear your input, pros, cons & or if you have other ideas on how you like to maintain your orchard?

We will be bringing in semi-dwarf & standard trees & would like to focus on beneficial multi-story plantings that are still easily accessible for us & others. Thanks so much everyone!
 
Deb Rebel
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I can definitely vouch that a few trees need to have the branches pulled/trained down to get good fruit set and production. If you have your trees spaced correctly, they grow properly, and in the first few years you sort their growth out, there should be room for the branches being pulled down to improve the fruit set.
 
Lindsey Jensen
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Thanks so much for your feedback Deb! Can you tell me what you mean by spacing the trees correctly? What do you recommend for spacing and is the spacing different when forcing the branches downward as opposed to letting them branch upward? Do you like to pull all the branches down, or how do I know which ones to let grow up, if any? Do you grow anything on or under your trees? Thanks for letting me pick your brain
 
Deb Rebel
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What are you planting, how tall are the trees expected to get, what is their normal mature shape.... usually you can find something that will give the height and diameter (a semi dwarf apple listed as 12-15 feet high and 10-12 feet wide for example). If you have the space you want to give room for the mature tree to be able to not touch the neighbor. Are you going to plant in straight rows, staggered rows, clumps? 

I invested in some superdwarf apples to be part of a living green fence. Taller trees with these planted between. The little apples were added a few years after the taller (cherries) were planted, so I had had time to trim up the bottom of the cherry trees as they grew to give some room for the apple trees to fit/fill in. The cherries are 12-15 feet now, mature, and producing and so are the little apples (full sized apples, very small trees).

If I was to plant all superdwarf apples (there are several kinds) I could plant them about six feet apart (trunk to trunk) and be able to move between them, at 7-8 feet I could easily get around them and put in a lower story shade loving second 'crop' undercover. If I planted 25' mature apple trees I'd need more space definitely.

In my case a heavy snow (over a foot) after leaf-out bent all the branches out and down. Else taking a concrete block and tying the branch to it with a soft loop (over the branch, a rag strip or such) to pull it down works. After a growing season it will be 'convinced' to stay.

I have a quince, though it can be taught to be a 'tree' it wants to sucker like a lilac and fruit on those, so the clump just sort of gets bigger, taller, wider, and more gnarly. This I am going to replant some into a hedgerow and let them grow as they prefer. (I missed chance this spring to dig and send some of these suckers to the ants... personal stuff intruded)

Decide what you want to plant. Look up and make sure of size and other needs of that tree. Look at your land and decide how you want to plant it. I draw on graph paper my land, to scale (and add a bit of light color pencil to put in the way water or terrain goes, etc), then cut out circles for the trees at what should be full sized diameter, to the same scale. Make sure you've also marked anything existing, to scale, that's staying.  Put those tree circles down and move around and decide where they go.

You don't have to worry to the inch but it will give you an idea where to measure to and plant your trees where you want.

A tree is a lifetime investment. Usually it's said you're planting for the next generation (especially with shade/wood/lumber trees like walnut or oak) but.

I have a good tasting fruiting pear, and it has a Bradford within range for cross pollination, but it decided to mostly go straight up and not spread and it would only give me a few sparse blooms (it looked like roadkill the first few years it was in and didn't grow, it must have finally got a taproot down far enough and decided to grow) and if it set fruit that disappeared in a few weeks. I tried a topping out as the branches seemed to be starting to relax from 75 degrees off horizontal, but. It stood in it's nice space allotted, plenty of space around it, with branches going skyward not out. We were going to concrete block it this year then the snow opened it up like petals. It now fills the space it is supposed to. Next year, year TWELVE, it might fruit. If it doesn't we're admitting defeat and it will become green turned spoons.

This is to point out that despite your best hopes, something may not produce. And something else might take over the world.

I return to you, what sort of space do you have, what do you want to grow, how 'natural food forest' do you want, and where is your water, wind, snow load? (Some places can have a spot where the snow PILES on in winter, or it gets swirled out, and some may have so much drying winter wind it will winter kill at least one side of the tree).  You can multicrop your area, yes. Again, what is your ultimate plan for what you want? Make list of what you'd like to grow, plot out where you have to grow it, research your list and figure out what you want to grow, and plot where you can plant it (do you have enough space, etc). Do you have to deal with deer, bear, neighbors? (I have some young boys to one side that can climb a chainlink fence as fast as they can run). And if you're urban (living in city) is there any covenants, codes, or restrictions on your property? (gated or not some neighborhoods have 'CCNR' which is basically what you can and can't do) One place I lived had some covenants that hadn't been enforced in a good forty years, UNLESS someone bothered Code Enforcement. In which case they'd cruise the neighborhood and hit people for stuff they didn't know existed. Not just the one called on.

Some trees may take a few years of serious care to get them established. Make sure you're aware of such on what you decide to plant! 

Make sure what you plant will have a chance in your area.  I wanted to grow Paulownia trees really badly and found out after a LOT of research that they don't like altitude even if you are in the growzone. I managed to find a topo map someone did for my state and it showed I was about 120 miles away from where they might grow, I am too far up. Rather to do the research than plant them and watch them fail...

Hoping to hear from you.
 
Hester Winterbourne
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Location: West Midlands UK (zone 8b)
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On pulling branches down...The way this was explained to me (I worked on the college fruit farm in the holidays): each shoot produces auxins at the tip.  These trickle down through the plant under the influence of gravity, and suppress growth in any lower branches.  Thus the top branch has "apical dominance" because it gets no auxins.  If you take out the top branch by pruning or bending it downwards, the next highest one will be the one to win the auxin battle and become the leader, but sometimes more than one leader will develop at the same time and you get a more rounded crown. 

With the small dwarfing trees, we had elastic strips that we would loop around the branch, pull down and staple to the stake. If you curl a branch over but let it go upwards too much first, then the buds in the top of the curve will develop as a new leader, because they are not influenced by any auxins.

We used a slightly different strategy with very large growy trees by pruning back the side shoots on a branch but leaving the very end one long (so long as it was the highest point) so that it would suppress the growth on the side shoots and they would turn into fruiting spurs instead of romping away in growth.

If you know what is going on inside the tree, you can use this to influence the way it grows.

My other pruning mantra is always always prune back to something else, whether it's a larger branch or a small side branch.  Not too much smaller though.  If a branch is overhanging a path, don't cut it off at the edge of the path.  Follow it well back into the mass of branches until it reaches a larger branch or a strong side shoot pointing the way you want it to grow.  This way the architecture of the tree remains balanced and it hardly knows it has been pruned.


 
Lindsey Jensen
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Wow, what a wealth of knowledge you both are, thank you for your input. I have so much to learn but I am trying to focus on just doing something!

My ideal orchard plantings would be a mix of apple, plum, cherry, pear. I am still debating whether I want to have nitrogen fixing trees or just include nitrogen fixers in the understory plantings. I would like the trees to be a wide assortment of varieties anywhere from 10-20 ft. tall. I am trying to find more information about final sizes of trees, & harvest periods since that will direct my row plantings but it has been hard to get all the information. I will keep looking. We have quite a bit of room so I don't think that will hold us back. I would rather plant properly than trying to fit too much into the space. We are located on a gentle southern slope and we have good water retention and I am considering making some swales to the north of each row. It is my plan to let the trees fend for themselves after the first couple years if possible. I do want this to be somewhat of a "food forest" but I want to be able to easily access the harvests so there should be room to walk under & around. We have no neighborhood restrictions so that won't be a problem. Deer are a problem here so we are thinking of adding some kind of movable fencing to protect the orchard area.

I have attached an image of a layout that I mocked up. We do get a fair bit of wind mostly from the east. I would like to try to plant a nut orchard with a hedge layer underneath to limit the wind damage to the east (you can see on my mock up). You can also see a our chicken area with our annual garden to the east of that. Where the big green water flow arrow is (north of the annual garden) I am considering putting in perennial berry rows.

I would love to see any photos you might have of your orchards if you'd like to share. Our area is just a hay field now. We do have quite a few old trees that don't really produce edible fruit. It looks like no one has pruned them in many many years and it keeps me up at night wondering if I should prune them, how to prune them, if I should take their wise example (many of their lower branches point toward the ground and the upper ones are upright). This is where my analysis paralysis sets in LOL!
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Hester Winterbourne
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Location: West Midlands UK (zone 8b)
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Sadly I don't have my own orchard any more, I just meddle in other people's.  But just for you I went looking on my work laptop for some pictures from an orchard restoration course I went on.  The trainer was not a permaculturalist but the venue had a compost toilet so something was going the right way.  Anyway, here we have a tree before and after pruning so you can see what I mean about keeping the architecture even though there is a big pile of branches on the floor.  The traditional wisdom was that you should be able to throw your cap through the branches.  Some people had heard it as "cat" but the principle is still the same.  The other picture is of a very old tree that I was assigned to prune as part of the course.  You can see in the background the other trees in the orchard are still much more congested.  The objective here was to preserve the tree for biodiversity and rebalance it, also to encourage it to produce new shoots suitable for taking grafts to preserve the heritage variety.

Two more mantras - never remove more than a third of the tree in any one year when restorative pruning.  Secondly, I found the guy's rule for cutting back to a smaller branch, it must always be at least 2/3 the diameter of the one you are taking out. 
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Deb Rebel
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Here is my pear. I also have a formerly lovely producing peach, and Hester Winterbourne has given ME a lot of good info for both.

The pear is about 12 years planted and took 5 to get going, and has been a disappointment. I will be pulling the top half down, some serious careful trimming, and hopefully 2018 it will quit being a brat and actually set. Else middle 2018 it is going to become springpole lathe turned greenwood spoons, some dowels for other projects, and a bit of smokewood chips for my smoker.

I was told to pull the branches roughly horizontal and tip them to encourage fruit spurs. As soon as I get caught up with the truck garden, this one will be meeting me, the coronas (my pruners) and a few concrete blocks and tie downs.
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As the snow redid it
 
Lindsey Jensen
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Thanks so much for the inspiration and the photos, both of you! You made me laugh Hester...imagining people tossing cats through the branches Hopefully once we get some things planted I can revisit you both and share some pictures of my own. Again, thank you so very much for your time and wisdom! ♥
 
Bill Erickson
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Hester, that story had me chuckling. An old arborist I met when we first moved home to Montana said "cat", very clearly. He said he wouldn't recommend the prospect from the time he tried it as a young man, but the adage still holds.
Truly awesome advice being shared. Thank you.
 
Victor Johanson
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Pome branches will often bend downward without intervention under the weight of fruit, becoming more productive as a result. The problem with this is that the branches by then often already have developed a weak acute crotch angle, making them prone to splitting off the tree under the increased fruit weight. Also, when the branches grow naturally at an upward angle and then are bent back down by the weight of fruit at the end, watersprouts tend to form at the top of the arc--this phenomenon is evident on long-neglected trees, which display a kind of weeping fountain effect. So it's helpful to train branches to a wider angle early on with spreaders propped against the trunk, or ropes secured to stakes or weights.

Solaxe, the technique described in "Permaculture Orchard," addresses these issues and is supposed to need far less regular maintenance after the initial pruning. Tree spacing is much closer and light penetration is improved, so the understory benefits from that. I intend to experiment with it, but have no firsthand experience yet; so far I've been more of a Mark Shepard STUN (Sheer Total Utter Neglect) practitioner. That has resulted in an awesome boreal jungle ecosystem, but it's kind of getting out of hand!

Alex Shigo, guru of trees, has convinced me that they are community organisms, and when removed from the forest are in an unnatural situation that causes them to respond by growing in ways which usually result in their inability to mechanically support themselves. Therefore the responsibility of prevention, mostly via pruning, falls to those who put the tree in that environment. The pruning can also be tailored for increased fruit quality and production, such as with Solaxe.
 
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