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How much pruning does a young tree REALLY need?

 
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Good morning-

I am looking for thoughts on planting and essentially leaving young fruit trees to their own for several years, and considering the impact of no pruning but maybe once a year. The area gets plenty of water and sun, and I can ask my in-laws to keep an eye on the trees (since they live across the street), and provide some winter mulching if necessary, but I am not sure their experience in pruning/ tree care.

We live out of state, but now own some 4 acres in Northern Missouri and I am trying to get a head start on "developing" with fruit bearing trees. We plan to move to the property in six years, and I am exploring options for getting a head start on growth. I would like to plant a couple plum, apple, and cherry trees and allow them to establish some growth, and maybe be bearing fruit by the time we move.

Assuming they survive the other conditions, would the early years of neglect have long term impacts on the growth/productivity of the tree? And would you consider it worthwhile to put them out without any real care?

I am not overly concerned about the possible financial loss, as I consider this a worthwhile gamble, or at the very least an interesting experiment. But I would like thoughts on realistic expectations?

Thank you!
 
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When to prune fruit trees is dependent on several things, first and foremost would be the  age of the tree when you transplant it, first year trees are called whips because they are simply sticks with leaves.
The second year primary branches will form and the third year would be the first time you should think about those primary branches, if you don't want branches close to the ground, you would want to take off the lowest pair only.
If you purchase trees that are 10 years old you will need to do some minor pruning after the transplanting so the root system can branch and grow instead of all the nutrients being sent to all the branches leaving the roots starved for growth rate nutrients.

What I do: if I'm planting whips I do a proper transplanting and give the roots a 10 to 1 vitamin B-12 soaking at planting, no pruning needed.
If I'm planting two to 5 year old trees I plant, Vit. B-12 soaking then take off any branches that are not wanted close to the ground.
If I'm planting trees older than 5 years I prune the branches by 1/3 after I've gone through the planting and Vit. B-12 soaking. This allows the root system to receive plenty of nutrients for their own growth and thus establishment of the tree.

Once trees are established you can prune to shape the tree to your desired shape and height.

Every main branch of a tree is connected to a main (primary) root and that root will die if the main branch is removed. By using this bit of knowledge it is possible to control the growth of a tree.
Root pruning helps established trees expand their feeder root system, to do this you need a spade (not a shovel) so you can make cuts straight down near the drip line, a spade blade is just the right length for doing this, which is handy for knowing you cut deep enough for the technique to work properly.

Redhawk
 
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I'm experimenting with not pruning my fruit trees (maybe very minorly if something is really needed), and have been amazed at the results so far. They seem a lot healthier than my fruit trees that I had pruned in the past.

This is a really neat thread discussing some of the benefits of unpruned fruit trees.

never prune technique of Holzer and Fukuoka

Training the limbs can also be an option instead of pruning, if you really want your trees to have a certain shape.

Best of luck with your fruit trees Jess!
 
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Well I'm no expert but I'm doing the opposite of the never prune thing, based on the book "Grow A Little Fruit Tree." I planted a plum and a peach tree a couple months ago and cut them to about hip height (the author says knee height, but I am not going for quite that small). Basically I just cut the whole top off, the trees were a good 6 feet tall when I bought them. I will then grow it as a sort of small version of an orchard tree, with the open center, instead of the central trunk these both had originally.

But it's all about context. I want the branches to start sort of low and control the height of the tree, since I'm in a urban/suburban place and don't have space for a huge bunch of trees, but still want variety on my lot. And I don't want all the fruit 15 feet up anyways, nor do I need as much of it as a full sized tree would produce. Just enough for me and my girlfriend, and probably to share with neighbors.
 
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Was just considering whether I should prune the trees I just put in.  Think I am convinced to give them a year to settle in.

Did prune my two figs, which were a bit messy, but they have been in the ground a few months.  Have two starts showing roots from those trimmings too.
 
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In the long run, careful and thoughtful pruning allows the tree to focus its energy on the branches you want to ultimately keep.  If you leave a branch to grow an extra year or two, and then prune it off, that is a lot of wasted energy that the tree could have used toward growth on branches that you want to keep.  So small cuts when a tree is small are a lot more energy efficient than waiting too long.

Prune in the winter, when the tree is dormant and the energy (sugars) are stored down in the roots.   If you're only going to visit your trees once a year, plan to do so in Jnuary and bring along a sharp set of loppers.  It might seem counterintuitive to cut off half the branches, as those branches are covered with little solar panels (leaves) and that's your source of energy.  Yes, and no.  Lots of small leaves crowded on the inside of the tree aren't really capturing much sunlight anyway.  By opening the tree up, more sunlight is able to reach the inside of the tree and the leaves on the lower half.  

How open should a pruned tree be?  Big enough that you can throw a baseball through, but not so big that you could throw a cat through.  I forget where I once heard that, but it stuck with me all these years.

As Redhawk stated above, years one and two, you really don't want to do too much.  But by year three, you want to select the long-term scaffolding branches that will give shape to the tree for the rest of its life.  You can leave a central leader growing straight up the middle of the tree, or you can prune a wine glass with an open center.  I used to prune my trees to have a single center but in the past 10 years, I've changed things up because I realized that I couldn't reach that fruit anyway and it was much easier to manage a shorter, wider tree.

If your goal is larger fruit, then you'll need to take out a lot of the smaller branches and biomass, and thin the fruit ruthlessly once you have fruit set.  If you have a lot of smaller branches and a bushy tree, you'll get lots and lots of small apples/peaches/mangos/apricots/whatever.  On my pomegranate tree, I thin 90% of the fruit off of it, and still have 50 or more big pomegranates in the fall.  I'd rather have 25 good sized peaches than 100 dumb little things that you can't hardly peal.  

When in doubt, cut it out!  Best of luck.  
 
Jessica Mcdonald
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Wow Marco, that was super helpful!! Thank you so much!
 
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My advice would be to wait to plant until you move there or until you can dedicate a good amount of time throughout the year to the trees. Lots of things can kill or stunt fruit trees.  Many will grow rapidly into unproductive / problematic forms.  They need a lot of care. They need to be watered regularly their first year. Trees are expensive.

I have a smallish orchard of ~ 40 trees. I spend 1-2 days in the spring and 1-2 days in the fall on things that I feel must be done.  I could get by without doing too much else during the growing season, but the more time you spend keeping on top of weeds, light pruning, managing disease and pest pressure, the better.  I could easily spend half a day a week working on the trees.  

If you are determined to plant trees now, I would research  /  ask for advice on varieties that naturally grow with good form. I would also ask around to learn the most severe disease issues in your area and try to plant varieties that have resistance. There is a lot of contradictory info on the web on this subject, so I would try to talk to people who grow the varieties you are interested, in you region, using no spray / low maintenance practices

Based on my experience, I would avoid plums - they tend to grow very rapidly into an unproductive form. I only have one cherry - black gold.  That one has actually required no pruning or training. Of my apples (~ 30) off the top of my head I would recommend Hewes Virginia crab if I was going to do what you are planning. It has naturally good form, very vigorous and hardy. Seems to be one of the least affected by pests and disease. If you planted a number of hewes, you could later graft them over to other varieties.

Good luck!
 
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