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Pruning standards to keep them small

Posted by Shelah Horvitz 
Pruning standards to keep them small
September 20, 2015 04:13PM
I have a question about the practice of heavily pruning standard or semi-dwarf trees to keep them short.

This year I planted a number of trees, most of which are on Antonovka stock. Most of them are now taller than I am (around 5 foot four inches).While they were small, reaching all the foliage while spraying was not a big deal. Next year it will not be possible unless I start pruning.

I have read conflicting arguments and approaches about pruning young trees. I have read that you should cut them back when you first plant them and thereafter leave them alone for a few years because pruning will delay fruit set. I have also read that if you want to keep your standards and semi-standards short, you need to prune them aggressively every year. The California writers I read talk about summer pruning but my trees are just getting themselves established and I don't think I need to cut down their vitality, and I'm in zone 4 so I think the vitality will be important to help them make it through the winter. I think spring pruning would be OK if I'm going to aggressively prune.

Still, I would like to hear a discussion on the pros and cons of cutting your trees back to a manageable size.

Otherwise, I'll have to go up and down orchard ladders every weekend, lugging the ladder from tree to tree, and that will be a lot more difficult and time consuming than just keeping the trees to a height I can reach with my sprayer from the ground.

I recognize that another option is to get one of those pressurized sprayers, and that may be the way to go, but if I can have my trees maybe 8 feet tall or less, I'd be a lot happier.

What's the consensus?

Shelah Horvitz
Savage Cider Orchards
Zone 4b
Weld, ME

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 09/20/2015 04:40PM by Shelah Horvitz.
Re: Pruning standards to keep them small
September 20, 2015 06:01PM
Pruning is simultaneously a dwarfing and invigorating process. While pruning may make the trees smaller initially, it also invigorates them to grow in response to how hard they've been pruned. In a nutshell, the more you prune to make them small (esp trees on Antonovka), the more (and crazier) they will grow. Unfortunately, Antonovka grows big trees. So the harder you prune to keep it artificially small, the more it will grow reducing productivity and generating a lot of unwanted growth in the tops. That said, Rule#1 is to grow the tree first, fruit second. Rule #2 is, without a tree, you can't grow fruit. Prune harder, earlier in the life of a tree to establish the structure (canopy). Once you are getting good strong growth (like you said you are getting), then stop/slow down to initiate fruiting and use the fruiting and limb bending to manage tree size. My recommendation would be to prune and train (limb bending) together to limit size and enhance productivity, if you want to keep the trees as low as possible. Nonetheless, the genetics of Antonovka + the scion are going to want to grow a large tree - so don't sell the ladder yet. You can also use some interesting techniques to reduce the vigor of trees that have nothing to with pruning - scoring with a chainsaw (9" above the ground) will remove the cambium and reduce the vigor of the tree + induce fruiting. Though it is tough to damage the tree severely doing this (short of cutting it down!), do not attempt this until you've actually seen it done and/or have a thorough understanding of what you'r getting yourself into.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: Pruning standards to keep them small
September 20, 2015 06:53PM
Well most of my Antonovka trees are not *that* vigorous. I had a nasty scab outbreak this past June and most of them got hit. My new trees put on a lot of girth around the trunk and a fair bit of height but didn't leaf out much; I am guessing that most of their growing was rootwork. I knew the soil was acidic so I limed it and put down azomite, and once I did that, the trees recovered from the scab and put out new growth, but most of them never got very leafy. Also, my British cider varieties are mostly tip-bearing and they're whippy right now; I think they're going to have to be pruned in the spring regardless.

Still, you bring up the question about future trees, because we're making preparations for a new orchard. I had thought that semi-dwarfs weren't going to do well here because we have harsh winters, but I think the ones we have are going to be OK. I have a number of B118 rootstocks my husband picked up this past spring and I planned to graft something onto them next spring, but it brings up the issue of semi-dwarf stocks. If fighting Antonovka's vigor is going to be such an issue, should I be concentrating on semi-dwarfs in the future?

Shelah Horvitz
Zone 6b
Weld, MA
Re: Pruning standards to keep them small
September 20, 2015 09:14PM
For my part, I have quite a few trees on Antonovka, in zone 4 Quebec. The oldest are about 25 years old and I manage them for a height of about 12 feet, which is quite easily manageable. At this height they can be sprayed without a ladder - you'd only need an extension to your sprayer wand. And about 3/4 of the apples are also harvested without ladder. Only the top ones will require it.

If you follow the link below that brings you to Jolicoeur Orchard, you'll see there a picture of my Liberty tree which is on Antonovka, in background for a family picture - it is not that tall...

The way I proceed is to let my trees grow up to desired height, and after that I simply prune the new growth every year. From then on, the tree grows in width...

Jolicoeur Orchard
Zone 4 in Quebec
Re: Pruning standards to keep them small
September 21, 2015 03:34AM
Lovely tree. Lovely orchard.

Very interesting, "let my trees grow up to desired height, and after that I simply prune the new growth every year. From then on, the tree grows in width..." I had not expected that but it makes sense; if they can't grow up they must grow out.

I like the idea that a wand extension will allow me to handle a 12-foot tree, although I suspect you may have nearly a foot on me in height. At 12 feet I will certainly be doing ladder work to prune. That said, pruning gets done rarely, while spraying gets done every week for a few months.

I'm just going to have to try it and see how it goes. Some of our trees are fine and I could see just letting them do their thing. Some of our trees are very whippy, the worst of which is Kingston Black, which is known for this. Long skinny branches, maybe 1/4 inch diameter at their widest, extending three feet to a little clump of leaves and that's it. No twigs, nothing. Our Ellis Bitter, Whitney Crab, Harrison and Yarlington Mill are all like this. They say with tip bearers, that they get their fruiting spurs the second year. If I prune them, the fruiting spurs will get pruned off. Not necessarily a bad thing — they're young trees and perhaps should not even bear yet. I would say the reason to prune these is because they look as though they're structurally vulnerable, too skinny. That said, they're like willows — flexible — and that's its own kind of strength. Apple trees are not supposed to be like willows. But maybe they fill out in subsequent years.

So you can see the debate. Pruning young trees good? Pruning young trees bad? I still don't know.

What do people have to say about pruning young whippy trees once they've been in the ground for a year?

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 09/21/2015 03:26PM by Shelah Horvitz.
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