I am sure that anyone who has a fruit tree in their yard has read that it is essential to prune fruit trees. And I’m not here to contradict the importance of pruning. In fact, I was out in my garden in January diligently pruning my apple and pear trees. And just in case you’re curious…yes, it was cold and rainy. But if your goal is to maximize fruit production, it is important to trim the trees while they’re dormant.
You can do a quick Google search and come up with hundreds of articles on how to prune fruit trees. But I’ve noticed that while most home orchardists understand the importance of pruning fruit trees, very few understand the power of training fruit trees.
Training a fruit tree consists of using string, weights or wedges to control the growth of individual branches. The goal is simple; you want fruit-bearing branches to grow at about a 45-degree angle relative to the main trunk. Somewhere between 45 degrees and 90 degrees is best. And the reason for that is even simpler, branches won’t be productive if they grow vertically or point down toward the ground.
Here’s a photo of my Bartlett Pear tree, which always reminds me of the scene in Gulliver’s Travels where the Lilliputians stake Gulliver to the ground. Whimsical literary references aside, this is a great example of how to train fruit-bearing branches. Left to their own devices the branches would grow straight up. Notice how the branches are instead trained into a fan pattern. Where ever possible, I’ve pulled and pushed the branches to be somewhere around 45 degrees.
Now you may be asking yourself…why a fan pattern? The tree is planted pretty darn close to the back fence in order to take advantage of the available sunlight in my small urban yard. So it is essential to keep the tree pruned and away from the fence. This gives me enough room, front and back, to work around the tree.
So as you can see in the photo below, I’ve put a stake in the ground; actually two stakes on either side of the tree. And then I’ve used twine to pull key branches down by tethering them to the stakes.
For smaller branches, it isn’t even necessary to use stakes; I can just use other sturdier branches on the tree as anchor points.
There are other ways to control the growth pattern of tree branches. You can use a “spreader”, which is typically a piece of wood or metal used a wedge to force a too-vertical branch further away from the trunk. You can also hang some kind of weight, like a pseudo Christmas ornament, from a flexible branch to force it down.
The advantages of training your fruit trees’ branches to the optimum angle don’t end with more apples or pears (or plums, peaches, figs, etc., etc.). The crotch of a branch is much stronger if the angle it forms with the trunk is between 45 and 60 degrees. And unlike pruning, which works best during a fruit tree’s dormant period, training can take place at any time of the year. So grab some twine, or twigs or weights and get out into the garden to train your fruit trees for greater production!