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Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees

Posted by Nick Segner 
Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 01, 2014 05:28PM
I'd like to explore thoroughly with you the technique of training dwarf tree laterals to downward angles (100-120 degrees). As I mentioned in this thread: Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic DVD recommendations, I was recently introduced to this concept by the Permie DVD featuring Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms in southern Quebec (zone 5).

It flew in the face of what I understood about pruning and is said to elimate 80% of the annual work in pruning due to the reduced vegetative growth via the downward sloping branches.

I had to ask some questions.

This is part of a post I made on the Permies forum to Stefan:
Nick Segner
... I am kind of stunned by your training technique after having read a lot of other material on pruning.. My understanding was that branches should be ideally at a 45 to 60 degree upward angle and never at a downward one that you utilize. I know that the tree won't have a lot of vegetative growth at downward angles and the branches in our orchard that are sloping downward DO have a lot of fruit but how do you keep regenerating growth to have 2-5 year old branches that will bear the most fruit? Is it simply because you prune out any branches that are 50% of the size of the trunk that encourages enough new growth?

And his response:
Stefan Sobkowiak
Good questions Nick. I don't see where you are from but likely USDA zone 4 or warmer as you use M9 rootstock. We don't use a trellis. Some trees get a stake for a time so they will grow straighter. We occasionally prune to allow a straighter tree. We have apple trees on M26 which is a little larger than M9.
2) I really need to give a few pruning and training workshops in the US. Your pruning and training practices tend to be behind the times. The French primarily from the research at INRA originally led by Dr. Jean-Marie Lespinasse progressed the art and science of pruning to a simple and far more efficient system. Being in Quebec and functioning in French I have followed their work and taken a 1week training from them. Fantastic. It has cut my pruning time by 80%. Training branches to a 100-120 degree angle (resulting in below horizontal branches) produces branches that are fruitful instead of being branchy. In the end do you want to grow branches or do you want to grow fruit. Each tree has a limited amount of energy and will put it into branch growth or fruit growth or both. Focus the trees energy in its youth to grow branches and once mature to grow fruit...
Sorry I missed the second part of the question.
Limit your tree to 12-14 branches and you will get a commercial crop.
Each branch below the horizontal should be left intact or almost so and the pruning is simply the removal of growth BELOW the branch. This growth is usually shaded anyway so not as productive. This is pretty well the only pruning you do to a branch. Do not cut the tips. The branch continues to be productive by adding a little bit of growth to each spur which will give next years fruit. Eventually that spur bends down with the weight of fruit on it and becomes a spur or branch below the branch which you will dormant prune off. We use a heavy glove and just rub them off. Try it since you already understand that that branch angle is productive.
As a transition to having a fully trained tree I dormant prune one or 2 of the most vertical main branches each year until I get a tree with all branches below horizontal. Follow up with 1-2 years of summer training and you will enjoy years of FAR easier pruning. My tress have gone from: OK where do I start (since there is so much to remove) to now Ok is there ANYTHING to remove. A dramatic change.

Have any of you expertise with this technique? Seems like a breakthrough for us if it really remains productive!

I can elaborate for you on what the DVD had to say about training in this way if you give me a chance to watch if again and take notes.

Nick Segner

Wildcat Valley Farm
Zone 8b
Olympic Peninsula Rainshadow
Port Angeles, Washington
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 02, 2014 03:14PM
Here is a picture of trees in a cider orchard I saw in Brittany, France last fall. As you can see, the branches are very much angled towards the ground...
Does this look like what you would like to achieve?


Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 02, 2014 08:41PM
Editor's Note: Just want to be sure everyone knows ... click on the thumbnail of an image ... and you will soon see an enlarged version.

Good shot, Claude. Dwarf high density totally hinges on this discussion.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 03, 2014 10:31AM
I must say I was quite puzzled when I saw this orchard. These trees were taller than what they look like on the picture - probably 12 to 15 feet high... And the branches were so weak and angled. Very peculiar sight. Unfortunately, I couldn't talk to the owner - we just saw this orchard while driving and I stopped to take a few pictures. It was late in the day, and not best light conditions, hence the poor color and contrast quality of the picture, but this picture is still better than nothing!

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 03, 2014 12:45PM
Claude -

Yes this does look like a trained tree. Wonder what rootstock those are on - likely a semi-dwarf? All of the branches are sloping downward and the tree begins to look a bit like a Christmas tree like that.

However, as Stefan allows only 12-14 branches in his apples, his trees are probably less dense than the ones in your picture.. I will try and take a screenshot of the DVD and post a summary of his technique when I have some more time on Monday.

I'm excited to experiment with this technique. It should work well with our 2-4' spacing as the downward branch angle creates even more room in a dense planting such as ours. He also removes any branches perpendicular and in line to the row.

Nick Segner

Wildcat Valley Farm
Zone 8b
Olympic Peninsula Rainshadow
Port Angeles, Washington
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 06, 2014 11:14AM
Hi guys

Sorry, it took me a couple extra days to track down a functioning laptop to re-watch the DVD as I don't have a TV (kill your television!!)

Here is that basic synopsis from the Permaculture Orchard of Stefan's technique for pruning dwarf or semi dwarf trees:

Stefan asks "do you want a tree?" gesturing with his arms raised up in a U-shape, "..or do you want a fruit tree" where he pointed his arms toward the ground in a shape that more resembles /\.

This is achieved primarily by training and not pruning. Upward angles stimulate veg growth not fruit. Training to downward angles is a one time investment. Bottom of tree trained when it's younger, tops when older to save 80-90% effort in pruning.

He uses wire in an "S" hook shape to grasp the branch, bend it down below horizontal, attach to the trunk.
Sometimes it's necessary to use cordage. He trains in July/Aug.

Leave the wire for two months, evaluate and remove if it's horizontal or below. It not, leave for another two months.

There is still some corrective pruning necessary after training.

Boiled down, there's three basic pruning principles to achieving this.
1-Have a "chimney" to the tree.
2-Keep only 12-14 branches.
3-How to Maintain those branches (LBL).

1) The chimney is a "pipe or column" to the tree along the trunk. Area in which we want clear of little branches, spurs and everything but the main scaffold or desired branches.

Clear the "chimney"- remove fruit spurs/any other undesirable branch growth within 6 inches of the trunk on a young tree. Leave untrained branches alone in this stage of growth (young trees).

2) Keep 12-14 branches.

3) Decide which ones to keep. Remove the LBL (Low ones, big ones, and branches in line with the row and perpendicular to it).

Low - remove branches below 1.2 meters - 47". He keeps some in this zone to feed the rabbits to offset trunk bark damage.

Big - take the diameter of the trunk. Then remove any branch (where It meets the trunk) that is 50% or greater of the diameter of the trunk.

(In) Line - remove any branch that grows into aisle or straight along row. Try an achieve an X pattern.

Using these guidelines, remove all but 12-14 branches (but not more than 30% in a year).

You want a hand shaped fan of growth at the end of a bearing branch.

Remove all spurs underneath branch for better light penetration, etc- rub off with a glove.

I was doing some more research on Stefan's recommendation of the French researcher Dr. Jean-Marie Lespinasse and found two downloadable PDFs translated into English here: French Method 1 and French method 2.

I believe this is the same method "French Axe" mentioned by Michael in "The Apple Grower", but it appears that that endnote link to a PA extension document has since gone bad.

Nick Segner

Wildcat Valley Farm
Zone 8b
Olympic Peninsula Rainshadow
Port Angeles, Washington

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 08/06/2014 11:20AM by Nick Segner.
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 08, 2014 11:16AM
Hey Nick
Great post, When I read this it reminded me of a system I read about years ago and it has taken me a couple of days to find which book I read it in. Bart Hall-Beyer and Jean Richard wrote a book in the 80's titled "Ecological Fruit Production in the North" In this book they describe a system that sounds like what your talking about. The author was taught the swiss system called "Oeschberg pruning" He brought that system to Ontario in 1952 and started to prune trees in Ontario to that system. He makes it sound like a good system for restorative pruning and in the 70's it gained popularity in the Rougemont area of Quebec. It sounds like it fell out of favor later on and gives a couple of lessons learned from the Quebec experience.
First was that many people were pruning to early and he advocated that pruning in Quebec with this system should be done in Feb, Mar. Many growers also made the mistake of, if a little is good more is better and pruned way to much. just to name a few. I have not tried this system since all of my trees are young but it sounds like an interesting system for restorative pruning. If you find the book it has numerous photos and drawings along with an detailed description of how to use this system.

Jeb Thurow
Zone 7
Yelm WA
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 14, 2014 11:00AM
These techniques appear similar to common current practices in high density systems advocated by university and extension services. In a vigor reduced rootstock it apparently does well, as with the spindle systems. This all has to do with auxin mediation, bend a branch down it looses vigor, and tends to produce mixed buds. Any horizontal wood, and especially the highest point of the arch, can have strong shoot eruption in any vigorous stock or cultivar. Espalier systems in Europe have employed these techniques for hundreds of years.

Walden Heights Nursery & Orchard
Zone 3 in Vermont
Re: Training Not Pruning for Dwarf Trees
August 25, 2014 09:06AM
We have been using this training method for about six years. It really does help to reduce the time spent pruning in subsequent years, but there is a lot of time spent initially pulling all those branches down to below horizontal. We use jute string (that disintegrates after 6 to 12 months) to hold the branches in position - tying a loop that goes from each branch, around the back of the trunk and back to the branch, and tied off so it cannot strangle branch or trunk, and does not have to be removed.

We sometimes get strong shoot eruption at the top of the arch (or shoulder of the branch), as Todd mentioned, but otherwise the trees generally calm down and pruning time is drastically reduced. The trick when pulling the branches down is to avoid an arch- if the branch can come off flat or slightly downward immediately from the trunk (achieved by rolling the branches around, or under-cutting with a pruning saw), little or no strong growth emerges at the shoulder.

Also, we think we are seeing less of a tendency toward biennial bearing with this training method.

However we are not convinced this is really the way to go for the most efficient orchard system, as it brings more of the fruit down to within easy reach of any herbivores that might be used to control grass under the trees (geese in our case). We think that ultimately the most efficient and sustainable orchard system is one where herbivores are used to control grasses, insectivores to control insects, good microbes to control bad microbes, etc. Seems to us in our situation, a better system might be wider spaced central leader trees on a more vigorous rootstock, and running sheep/poultry/pigs under the trees (??).

Kalangadoo Orchard
On the “other side” in South Australia

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/25/2014 06:36PM by Michelle & Chris McColl.
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