Keep Fruit Trees Small

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

Today most homes are situated on a smaller parcel of land with limited area for planting. Due to limited space, gardeners need to realize how to maximize their area so they can get the most out of it. If you live on a smaller parcel of land and want to grow your favorite fruit tree and think you just have room for one, you need to think twice because by size managing your fruit trees you discover that in reality you can plant multiple trees. Imagine a Plum tree that is over 15 feet tall or an Apricot tree that is 30 plus feet high, in most cases for the typical homeowner this is too big and takes up too much space.

Did you know that it is possible to have a fruit tree that is over 15 years old and be only 5 or 6 feet tall and be loaded with fruit? How does one accomplish this?  The answer is by summer pruning, read on and I will explain. Let’s say you go into a nursery and you want to buy a semi-dwarf Nectarine. A semi-dwarf fruit tree will get close to 15-20 feet tall while a standard size fruit tree may get over 30 feet high.

Do not think of a semi-dwarf Peach, Apricot, Cherry, Nectarine, ect. in terms of size management. The only way to keep them small is by pruning. Pruning is critical in developing a smaller size. As intimidating as it may be, do not let the ultimate size of the tree discourage you from not keeping it small to suit your needs. Keeping your trees small has many advantages: It is easier to harvest the fruit because it is at a lower picking height. Smaller trees offer ease of care, spraying, pruning, and thinning.

The secret to keeping fruit trees to a height that is convenient for you is by pruning. Think of a height you want to keep it at and don’t let it go beyond that goal, if it does, you prune it off. You can keep fruit trees to any desired height whether it is a semi-dwarf or standard size tree by size management. Prune to the size that best suits your needs. If you want it low, prune more, if you want it really high, prune less. The tree height is the decision of the pruner. Whenever there are vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove them. The growth you prune off will never become fruiting wood, that wood already formed earlier. I will provide you tips and tricks on how you can keep your fruit tree small.

For new bareroot fruit trees or dormant trees in containers at planting time, if you choose, they can be topped as low as 15 inches (or whatever height you elect) above the ground to force low branching. Trees may also be topped higher than 15 inches (up to four feet) depending on the presence of well-spaced side limbs or desired tree form. After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half. In late summer cut the subsequent growth back by half. Size control and development of low fruiting wood begins in the first year.

If you have a large stem caliper fruit tree (3/4 inches up), they sometimes do not push new limbs from low on the trunk. They should be topped higher initially, just above any existing lower limbs or at about 28 inches if no lower limbs are present. Once new growth has begun, height may be
reduced further.

During the second and subsequent years, cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer, same as the first year. Pruning 2-3 times, spring, early summer and late summer is the easiest way to manage height. When pruning, be careful not to cut too much at one time, as this might cause excess sun exposure and sunburn to the unprotected interior limbs.

When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the underside ahead of your intended cut. Do this so it won’t tear the trunk as it comes off. Also, don’t make the final cut flush with the trunk or parent limb; be sure to leave a short stub.

What If you have an old, large tree that is too unruly and want to make it smaller so it is easier to manage and pick the fruit. If the tree is taller than 20 feet and you feel unsafe on a ladder, or the job is just bigger than you want to take on, call a professional arborist.  If the tree is older than 20 years, this can be a mistake; the results simply might not be worth the time and effort.

Some old trees are beyond their peak productive years and the trauma of a drastic reduction in size could make them more susceptible to other problems.  Consult a professional arborist if this is a concern. If you love the fruit and choose to keep the aging tree, it is essential to maintain its health – the right amount of watering, pruning out diseased limbs, etc. Otherwise, have the tree removed and replace it with a new one, a great-tasting variety of your choice. If you must prune, bring the tree down in stages over a three-year period. Begin by reducing the tree height by one-third in the first winter. This will stimulate limb development below the cuts. In spring, when the tree is flush with growth, you would cut just below the winter cuts, removing the uppermost spring flush. This will redirect the growth, stimulating lower limb development. The following winter, half of the remaining excess canopy height comes off. Again, in the spring, the resulting uppermost spring growth is removed. Do not remove limbs that are forming lower in the canopy; these may be used as scaffold limbs. In the third winter, you would make a final determination of canopy and tree height, and prune accordingly.

Feel free to visit your favorite Green Thumb Nursery for all your gardening needs.

Do you like what you see? Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get content like this every week!

CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP!