Young fruit trees require early training. It is best to begin training a fruit tree as soon as it is planted. Young tree training is best continued for the first three or four years of the tree's life.
Training a fruit tree includes staking, pruning, and branch spreading. All of these will help create a strong framework of limbs. A strong framework of limbs is essential for years of growth and productive harvests.
Fruit trees that can benefit from early training include apples, pears, peaches, cherries, and plums.
Planting time. At planting time, cut the main leader or central stem of your young tree back to about 24 to 30 inches (60 cm–75 cm) above the ground. This cut will encourage the growth of important side branches.
Many young trees are branchless whips. Do not be concerned. They will develop side branches in short order.
If your young tree has lateral branches, make the top cut immediately above a strong lateral branch. Next, select two additional lateral branches to begin training into the tree's framework. Choose one, eight inches below the top lateral and a second another eight inches lower. These branches are best if they are arranged as spokes to create an imaginary circle around the stem as you look down from above the center of the tree. Cut away other less substantial laterals. Once you have chosen these important lateral branches cut them back by about one-third to outward facing buds.
These laterals will become the framework of your tree in maturity. It is important that these framework limbs be evenly spaced. Once cut back, allow two buds to develop on each of the laterals, one at the end and one halfway between the branch end and the stem. These buds will, in turn, develop sub-lateral branches to become part of the tree's overall framework. Be sure to rub off any new shoots that later sprout on the tree's main stem. They are not needed and rob energy from the tree if allowed to grow.
First summer after planting. If your tree had no lateral branching at planting time, allow laterals to develop during the tree's first summer of growth after planting. At the end of the first summer, choose three or four well-spaced branches that you plan to develop into the permanent framework as described above. Cut these branches back by about half. Prune away any unwanted branches or side shoots.
There are simple pruning cuts that you must perform from the tree's first summer forward. These cuts are essential for a healthy and productive tree.
• Remove any dead, damaged, or diseased wood from the tree.
• Prune away the weaker of two branches growing from the same spot.
• If two branches are growing in opposite directions, keep the branch that is best placed.
• If two branches cross or rub against one another, remove the weaker of the two.
• If two branches are growing parallel to each other, one over the other, keep the one that is best placed and remove the other.
Central Leader or Open Center Training. At the end of the first summer of training, decide if you want to train your tree for a central leader, a modified central leader, or an open center.
Central leader training produces an upright tree, symmetrical in shape, with a continuous central trunk. A modified central leader–sometimes called a multi-leader–is much like a central leader, but the central shoot is eventually removed and the laterals encouraged. Apples, European pears, sweet cherries, and European plums are commonly trained to a central or modified central leader.
Open center training produces a tree without a central leader or trunk, a tree shaped like a vase. With the central leader removed, open center training limits the height of a tree and allowing for easy pruning, care, and harvest. Apricots, Asian pears, peaches, nectarines, sour cherries, and Japanese plums are commonly trained to open centers.
Central leader training:
• After the first summer of growth, thin out new laterals or shoots growing at a narrow angle to the central leader or stem.
• Established lateral framework branches are but back by one-third to one-half.
• A modified central leader can be created after the first summer by cutting back the central leader. This will encourage side branching below the now removed central leader.
• Following the second summer of growth, three or four additional side branches can be added to the tree's framework. Again, choose branches that are evenly spaced around the trunk for development.
• Always remove watersprouts–green vertical whips–that grow up from the trunk or side branches. Also remove suckers that grow from the base of the trunk or roots.
• Trim framework laterals back by one-third to one-half of the previous season's growth. And cut away any new narrow angle branches growing from the trunk. Leave 4 to 6 buds on lateral branches to encourage growth next year.
• In the next two or three summers, continue to select new tiers of branches to add to the tree's framework.
• As the tree begins to fruit during the third or fourth summer after planting, trim out downward pointing branches.
• Trim upward-growing shoots back to ¼ inch (6 mm) stubs. These will become fruiting spurs.
Open center training:
• An open-center tree can be created the first summer following planting by cutting the central leader or shoot off just above the uppermost lateral framework branch.
• Encourage new sub-lateral branching by cutting back framework branches by one-third.
• The second spring after planting, cut back the previous year's shoots by one-third to promote additional side branching. Leave 4 to 6 buds on laterals to encourage growth next year.
• In following years, trim the previous year's growth back by one-third in early spring to encourage the development of new fruiting spurs.
• Thin the center of the tree to remove dead and diseased wood, to clean out watersprouts, and thin away shoots crowding the center of the tree. Prune to allow light and air into the center of the tree.
• Each spring following, thin back long shoots by about half of their total length.
• By the third or fourth summer after planting, the tree should begin fruiting. Pruning after this time will be lighter. Your goal will be to maintain the tree's overall shape and encourage new fruiting spurs.