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successive heading cuts to the leader

Posted by Ethan Gouge 
successive heading cuts to the leader
February 15, 2016 11:33AM
I've got a question on pruning in the pre-bearing years of a young tree; I understand the concept of heading the tree at planting. Does this heading need to be done every year until the tree reaches its desired height to continue the cycle of creating scaffolding layers just below the heading cut? Or after the first initial heading at planting will the tree figure out it's own balance? On my 3 yo trees (which I only headed at planting) I have mixed results; some trees have balanced out beautifully, while others have gotten pretty lanky (10 ft tall) with only a few side shoots besides the lowest scaffold whirl from the initial heading cut.

Roan Highlands Farm 6b, Roan Mountain, TN elevation: 3200 ft.



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/15/2016 12:47PM by Michael Phillips.
Re: successive heading cuts to the leader
February 15, 2016 12:55PM
Typically it is just once at planting, if at all. However, that depends on the specifics of your trees and planting style. Can you tell me what variety and rootstock combos you're using? As well, what planting style -- free standing, central leader, axe, spindle, etc. It all has a bearing on the answer.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: successive heading cuts to the leader
February 15, 2016 03:20PM
5 acres of 26 Different varieties, mostly heirloom. M111 on an 18ft hexagonal layout going for a freestanding central leader system. Specifics off the top of my head; Summer Banana and Virginia Beauty are looking amazing (3 scaffold layers with 2-3 ft between whorls), while Kinnard's Choice are going lanky (a few branches above the initial scaffold whorl and pushing 10 ft tall). I couldn't find any specifics on the answer in the Holistic community (this site or Michael's books). My extension agent is telling me to head every year (getting his info from conventional sources at NC State and Hendersonville, NC.) I should get my first fruit this year, and I'm sure pruning would delay that at least another season.

Roan Highlands Farm 6b, Roan Mountain, TN elevation: 3200 ft.



Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 02/15/2016 03:28PM by Ethan Gouge.
Re: successive heading cuts to the leader
February 15, 2016 09:15PM
You definitely want to slow down the heading/pruning to re-balance the trees from vegetative to fruiting. I would stop heading the trees this season and only do any heading in the future if the tops start to lean (and then only to the next good, but not overly vigorous upright). the less pruning the more fruit. Prune to keep shape and maintain good light/air penetration.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: successive heading cuts to the leader
February 16, 2016 09:44AM
Tree reality doesn't necessary conform to textbook theory. I agree that "mostly" we need to limit pruning cuts in the early years to get to fruiting sooner. This is why Mike asked the question "what rootstock?" Heading the leader on a trellised dwarf tree is simply not done. But with freestanding trees--growing a structure intended for decades of fruit production--all depends on the circumstances.

You head at a freestanding whip at planting around 40 inches high. Ethan seems good on this point and I'll assume others are as well. (Look up the "crow's foot response" in Holistic Orchard, if not.) Nursery stock that comes with feathered beginnings at a reasonable height probably are not headed that first season.

Things proceed apace. Only some trees get downright ornery. There are no lower branches appearing for 4, even 5, even 6 feet up the trunk. I would head such a tree in year two or three unless seriously planning to graze water buffalo in that orchard. Kidding aside, this would be appropriate for a classic full-sized grandmother tree. Only I tend to like fruiting on lower branches for twenty years or so ... after which the eternal form can be found by removing those lower branches.

Another scenario sees a good start to first tier branches but then the leader shoots for the sky on its ownsome. The decision to "head high" to develop second tier branches should take into account extreme lankiness. Don't want to make this cut unless two goals can be attained: popping more laterals for an envisioned midway scaffold AND wanting more girth to better support a lanky leader. Take note: some growers choose not to have a permanent midway structure as a means of keeping tree height down and less interior shading.

One good way to think of overall tree structure is that scaffolds are permanent extensions of the trunk and the "leader zone" is managed more as a dwarf tree atop of all that. So go our journeys in the time-space continuum called pruning.

Lost Nation Orchard
Zone 4b in New Hampshire
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