Apple Trees – Pruning

Commonly asked question(s):

– How do I prune a grafted M26 apple tree?
– How do I prune dwarf apple trees?
– How do I train my apple and quince trees so they grow sideways?

How do I prune a grafted M26 apple tree?

Pruning apple trees normally begins immediately after planting. Remove the central stem to just above the highest side branch. For the following 3 years, prune only the tips of the remaining main branches by one third in winter. Aim for about six main branches which will form the frame of your tree, with fruiting sub branches growing off of them. From the fourth year, some sub branches can be pruned out at the union where they join the main branch, to allow new sub branches to take their place.

However, if you are dealing with overcrowded mature trees then you may need to do some renovation pruning to restore the tree to a nice open shape and improve air circulation and light penetration. But be careful not to remove more than 25% of the canopy per year. This type of pruning should also be undertaken in winter. First remove all damaged, dead, crossing and diseased branches. Then remove any crowded branches to create a nice, even framework. Once you have thinned out the unwanted branches, you can begin a regular pruning regime, removing older fruiting spurs so that younger ones can replace them. You will need to spread this renovation process over several years though so it will require a bit of patience and may also reduce your crop initially.

How do I prune dwarf apple trees?

We assume that we are talking about a dwarf tree which has 2 different varieties of apple grafted onto one rootstock such as our family apple tree.

Apples should be pruned during the winter months while the plants are dormant. Immediately after planting, trim back the grafted main branches by a third, always making the cut just above an outward facing bud.

For the following 3 years, prune the tips of the main branches and sub branches by one third in winter. Aim to develop the main branches to form the permanent framework of your tree, with fruiting sub branches growing off of them. From the fourth year, some sub branches can be pruned out at the union where they join the main branches, to allow new sub branches to develop and take their place. The sub branches will produce the best quality fruit.

We know this sounds complicated but there are lots of useful diagrams online and you are essentially pruning to create a ‘bush’ tree. Just bear in mind that when pruning ‘family apple trees’ you will need to treat each of the grafted stems individually as the different varieties are likely to have different growth rates. Remember to remove any suckers that develop at the base of the tree each year as well.

We have assumed you mean training your trees as an espalier (a main trunk with neatly pruned horizontal branches on either side). This is fine for apple trees but quinces are better trained in a fan shape as they don’t respond well to such restrictive pruning. It’s also worth checking that your apple tree is spur-bearing (bears fruit all along the branches) rather than tip-bearing as you wouldn’t get very many apples on an espaliered tip-bearing tree!

  •  1. Firstly you’ll need to put in a sturdy support framework. To train the apple tree, place wire or bamboo poles horizontally
       between two posts, spacing the wires or poles 45-60cm apart.
  •  2. This winter, you’ll need to cut the leading shoot of your apple tree back to a bud about 5cm above the first wire. Make the
       cut just above the bud.
  •  3. In the summer, a new leading shoot will grow which you need to tie in. Also choose two strong side shoots to tie in
       either side of the trunk, along your first set of wires. Prune back any other side branches to two or three leaves.
  •  4. Once the tree has become dormant again next year, cut the new leader back to a bud about 5cm above the second wire
       and completely remove all the side shoots that you shortened in the summer (leave your two selected side shoots
       on the first wire).
  •  5. Again in the summer tie in the new leader that will be produced, and two more side shoots along the second wire.
       Remember to shorten any other shoots.
  •  6. Continue the process until you have three or four tiers. The branches on the first wire will start fruiting before the
       topmost ones have finished developing. During the summer, prune new shoots on the lower branches back to three or
       four leaves to maintain a neat shape and help develop fruiting spurs.
  •  7. Remove the leading shoot once you have enough tiers on your espalier. Only winter prune your espalier when you need
       to remove congested fruit buds (spurs).

  • For your Quince tree it would be better trained as a fan as this is not so restrictive on growth:
  •  1. Prepare a support framework as for apples. Select two side shoots, one on either side of the trunk and growing about
       30cm from the ground. Cut out the leader just above the two side shoots.
  •  2. Shorten the two side shoots to about 40cm length and tie them to bamboo poles at a 40? angle (so that you have a
       shallow V shape). Cut off any other side shoots on the main trunk.
  •  3. In the summer tie in any well placed shoots that develop, aiming to create a fan shape spreading across the framework.
       The aim is to fill in the centre of the fan last. Only remove any crossing, badly placed or excessively vigorous shoots.
  •  4. As for apple espaliers, in the summer prune new shoots on the established branches back to three leaves.
  •  5. As the quince matures, older or congested fruiting spurs can be pruned out during the winter.

Successful Fruit Tree Pruning

To get a new fruit tree off to the right start, virtually nothing is as important as proper pruning. Follow our pruning guide to avoid mistakes and shape your trees for years of enjoyment ahead.

If left unpruned, fruit trees may struggle in growth, and, if you encounter an unfortunate drought, they may not grow at all. More importantly, unpruned trees take longer to bear fruit! All bare-root Stark Bro’s trees are pruned in the nursery row for proper shaping, and our trees are also pruned right before packing and shipping.

Why we take pruning seriously:

• Survival

First, a tree needs pruning to help it survive after planting. In digging, a bare-root trees’ roots have been disturbed. The trees have lost many of their tiny feeder roots, which are needed to absorb moisture and nutrients, but the top is still its full size! This imbalance can cause tree growth to be weak and slow.

• Stimulation

In addition, cutting the tree back stimulates stronger, more vigorous, growth from the remaining buds. After a single growing season, a pruned tree will be bigger than a matching unpruned tree.

• Shaping

The natural shape of a fruit tree is not always the best for maximum fruit production. It’s best to start the shaping process as early as possible, particularly to balance the top portion with the root system.

These are just a few reasons all eligible Stark Bro’s trees are professionally pruned before they arrive at your door: we want to get you off to the best start possible. Please note: When your Stark Bro’s bare-root trees arrive pre-pruned by our professionals, do not prune them again when you plant. Plan to prune your fruit trees during every dormant season. In Zone 6 and further north, you should wait until late winter. A good reference, such as our Pruning Made Easy book, is handy for addressing questions and guiding you through the pruning process.

Continue Pruning for Success

“The best time to prune is when the knife is sharp,” old-time gardeners say. Well, that’s not exactly true… fruit trees develop better if they’re pruned at the right times, in the right ways. Here’s how:

• Prune trees when they are dormant

Wait until a tree is dormant before pulling out the sheers! This is best for the tree and easiest for you. It’s easier to see where to make your cuts when the leaves have fallen. As mentioned above, pruning should be done in late fall, winter, or early spring. Exact timing will vary by zone, as winter months differ by zone.

• Prune fruit trees to certain shapes

Prune into strong, bearing trees following the chart below. If you keep up with your pruning and shaping each year, you’ll make mostly small, easy-to-heal cuts.

• Help the tree form a strong framework

Remove weak, diseased, injured or narrow-angle branches (the weaker of any crossing or interfering branches), and one branch of forked limbs. Also remove upright branches and any that grow toward the center of tree. You want to keep your tree from becoming too thick and crowded and to keep its height reasonable. All these objectives promote improved bearing, which is your overall aim. Try to achieve the general shape of the trees in the drawings provided, but be sure to allow your tree to express its own individuality.

Tips for Pruning

• Apple, Pear, European Blue Plums & Cherry Trees

These trees do best when pruned and trained to a central leader tree. This type of tree has a pyramidal shape with a single upright leader limb as its highest point. This leader is the newest extension of a long, upright growing trunk from which all lateral branches arise. As with all strong growing branches, the leader should be headed back each year. The uppermost bud on the leader produces a vigorous new leader, and no other shoot should be allowed to grow taller. Lateral limbs should be selected from shoots growing out from the central leader. These should be spaced vertically 4-6” apart, have growth that is more horizontal than vertical and point in different compass directions from the trunk.

• Peach, Nectarine, Japanese Plums & Apricot Trees

These trees do best when pruned and trained to a vase-shape. This type of tree should have no central leader. The shape of the tree is controlled by selecting and maintaining three to five main scaffold limbs arising from the trunk. These limbs should point in different directions and originate no less than 18″ and no more than 36” from the ground. Prune as shown, balancing growth evenly between the scaffold limbs.

• Miniature Peach, Nectarine & Apricot Trees

These do not require shaping cuts. However, because they grow so densely, they require regular dormant thinning cuts to remove competing and crossing limbs.

• Whips (Unbranched Trees)

Prune back to 28-36” above the ground at planting time. After the new branches have grown 3-5”, select a shoot to become the leader and scaffold limbs.

• Off-Season Pruning

Sometimes pruning should be done even when the season isn’t the best. Such would be the case if a branch is broken by the wind or by a heavy load of fruit. Emergency treatment is necessary! Prune back the ragged edges, making a smooth cut that leaves no stubby stump. Fast-growing “water sprouts” can be removed as soon as you see them, rather than waiting until winter.

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Any lower branches that you don’t want can be removed until you have a ‘trunk clearance’ of the desired length. You don’t have to remove lower branches but mostly it results in a more shapely tree and it’s easier to weed beneath, plus these lower laterals don’t tend to be great fruit producers anyway. Cut them off clean at the trunk.

In subsequent seasons more strong growing upright branches will likely be produced. Again, they can and should be cut back by one third.

All pruning is best carried out over winter.

These are the basics that will get you by and help the tree to produce fruits early in life.


If you are looking for a nice selection of trees to start growing, for your patio, or for a smaller garden then you will be pleased to know that you can get a nice ready made selection of 1 apple, 1 pear and 1 plum tree, separately labelled. and as self-fertile varieties that will crop well without the need to consider pollination issues. The trees are supplied as 18mont old to two year old specimens; you should get aharvest maybe within 1 year, or 2 years at most. Have a look at this lovely collection by clicking here.

Pruning & Training Apple & Pear Trees

Training and pruning are essential for growing fruit successfully. Fruit size, quality and pest management are influenced by training and pruning. Untrained and unpruned trees become entangled masses of shoots and branches that produce little or no fruit and harbor insects and diseases.

Consider the following tips when training and pruning fruit crops:

  1. Before training or pruning a plant, visualize the results of the action. Once a branch is pruned out or removed, it cannot be replaced.
  2. Train as much as possible and remove as little as possible. Bending and tying shoots instead of cutting them out, especially on apple and pear trees can induce early fruit production.
  3. Use sharp pruning tools to make clean cuts.
  4. Discard or compost pruned out shoots and branches. These plant parts will serve as dwelling sites for insects and diseases and should be removed from the area to reduce pest populations.

Training begins at planting and may be required for several years. Pruning is an annual management practice. Two basic pruning cuts are heading and thinning. Heading or heading back removes the terminal portion of shoots or limbs. Thinning removes an entire shoot or limb to its point of origin on the main branch or lateral. Light pruning can be performed throughout the growing season to remove broken, injured or diseased branches and to improve air circulation to control foliar diseases. Major removal of twigs and branches should be done during the dormant season, preferably before active growth begins in the spring. Training and pruning procedures vary according to the type, age and variety of fruit crop. The types of branching involved in pruning are illustrated below.

Suggested Pruning Cuts

A. Suckers.
B. Stubs or broken branches.
C. Downward-growng branches
D. Rubbing or criss-crossing branches
E. Shaded interior branches
F. Competing leaders
G. Narrow crotches
H. Whorls

Initial Training & Pruning

The day apple trees are planted is the day to begin to train and prune for future production. Too often backyard growers plant apple trees and leave them untended for several years. This neglect results in poor growth and delayed fruiting.

Apple trees are trained to a modified leader system. The tree should be trained with one central leader or main trunk in the center, with several wide-angled limbs spaced around the leader. The tree should mature to a pyramidal shape.

The picture below shows correct and incorrect pruning of an apple tree.

Use “spur-type” strains or grow apples on dwarfing rootstock to make training and pruning easier. Spur-type and dwarf trees produce fruit at an earlier age than full-sized trees. These trees are also easier to manage and harvest than full-sized trees are.

If one-year-old unbranched “whips” are planted, head to the desired height – about 28 to 32 inches for standard and 30 to 35 inches for spur-type and semi-dwarf trees.

When the buds grow out to 4 to 5 inches, select a central leader and scaffold branches. Scaffolds (side branches) should be spaced at least 6 inches apart vertically and at equal intervals around the trunk. Between three and six branches may be selected as scaffolds during the first summer or may be left to grow throughout the season and selectively pruned out during the dormant season.

If young trees are branched when they come from the nursery or garden center, remove any broken branches and those that form angles less than 45° with the main trunk. Eliminate competing leaders by removing the less desirable branch. Head-back the central leader by one-third in the second year. Make the cut close to a bud that is growing in a suitable direction or to a lateral branch. Keep pruning to a minimum during the early years to encourage the trees to produce fruiting wood.

Pear trees naturally develop narrow angled, upright branches. To train properly angled scaffold branches, either weight the branches, tie branches to pegs in the ground or brace the branches apart with spacer sticks.

Pruning Bearing Trees

Prune bearing trees to maintain a balance between vegetative growth and fruit production. The first three years should be spent on training only, but by the fourth and fifth years, the trees can be allowed to produce a light crop.

Pruning bearing trees is critical to maintain healthy fruiting wood. Remove weak, “shaded-out” wood, diseased or dead wood, watersprouts and root suckers. Control tree height by cutting back the top portion of the tree to weak lateral branches.

For flower buds to develop well, all branches of the tree should be exposed to adequate sunlight. This can be a challenge in the lower portion of the tree. On the lowest whorl of secondary scaffolds, merely tip the terminal shoots of these branches rather than cutting them back to laterals. If the fruit quality and yield diminish in older trees, some heavy pruning may be done carefully to restore tree shape and allow more sunlight to penetrate into the tree.

Summer Pruning

Summer pruning is advised, especially for removing waterspouts, rootsuckers and fire-blight-infected wood. Summer pruning can also be used during the first three years of tree training to produce the desired tree shape. Undesired growth should be removed in early summer or after harvest between late August and early September. Also, note that pruning should be focused on thinning out rather than heading-back

Heading-back cuts may stimulate new growth near the cut. If the trees are heavily pruned, reduce the amount of fertilizer applied in relation to the severity of pruning. Heavily pruned trees may not need fertilizer for a year or two.


Apple and pear trees grown under favorable conditions will set more fruit than they are capable of carrying to maturity. It is essential to remove excess fruit from the trees to assure satisfactory development of fruit remaining on the tree. Failure to remove the excess fruit will decrease flower formation for the following year and cause the tree to produce a crop only every other year.

Fruit should be removed by hand to one per cluster. Space fruiting clusters about every 6 inches along the limb. To remove the fruit without damaging the spur or other pears on the spur, hold the stem between the thumb and forefinger and push the fruit from the stem with the other fingers. This method will remove the pear leaving the stem attached to the spur.

The earlier that hand thinning is completed, the more effective it will be in achieving the desired results. Midsummer thinning will help to improve fruit size, but it will not aid in the formation of next year’s flower buds. Most of the flower buds for next year are initiated during a four to six week period following full bloom, so thin before this time.

Pruning Neglected Apple Trees

Many people will purchase a house where an apple tree was planted on the property several years ago. Often, the previous owners did not take the time to properly prune the tree. The tree has become bushy and weak and will produce very poor quality apples. Such a tree requires extensive corrective pruning.

The main objective in pruning such a tree is to try and open up the interior to allow good light penetration. The first step is to remove all the upright, vigorous growing shoots at their base that are shading the interior. As with the young apple trees, it is necessary to select 3 to 5 lower scaffold branches with good crotch angles and spaced around the tree. Limbs with poor angles, and excess scaffold limbs, should be removed at their base. In some cases it is advisable to spread the corrective pruning over two to three seasons. When severe pruning is done in the winter, the trees should not be fertilized that spring.

OSU Extension Catalog

  • Jeff L. Olsen

PNW 400 Revised July 2011 Reviewed: August 2019

The Basics

Why train fruit trees?

• Training develops a strong tree structure that can support heavy crops without limb breakage.

• Training helps bring a young tree into production at an early age.

Why prune fruit and nut trees?

• Pruning reduces overall tree size.

• Pruning makes trees easier to spray and harvest.

• Pruning young trees can improve structural strength and induce branching.

• Pruning mature trees can increase their production and improve fruit quality.

• Pruning reduces the need to prop up fruit-laden branches.

Basic terminology

Branch collar—The raised tissue at the base of every branch. It contains specialized cells that seal off pruning wounds from wood rot fungi.

Crotch angle—The angle formed between the trunk and a limb. The strongest crotch angle is 45 to 60 degrees.

Crown—The base of the trunk where the tree meets the soil.

Heading (or head cut)—A pruning cut that removes only part of a branch.

Lateral branch—A side shoot off of another branch, usually at a more horizontal angle.

Leader—The uppermost portion of a scaffold limb. In a central-leader trained tree, only one leader is left in the center of the tree. Multiple-leader trained trees usually have three to five leaders per tree.

Scaffold limb—A large limb that forms a tree’s framework.

Shoot—The length of branch growth in one season. The bud scale scars (ring of small ridges) on a branch mark the start of a season’s growth.

Spur—A short shoot that fruits.

Stub—A short portion of a branch left after a pruning cut. Avoid leaving stubs.

Sucker sprout—A 1-year-old shoot that grows from the root.

Terminal—The end of any shoot.

Thinning cut—A pruning cut that removes an entire branch from its point of origin.

Vertical branch—A branch that grows upright.

Water sprout—A 1-year-old shoot that grows within the tree.

Save the branch collar, and don’t use wound dressings.

Prune so that you don’t leave a stub (figure 2), and also so that you don’t make a wound larger than necessary (as occurs with a “flush cut”). Cut just outside the branch collar (the raised tissue at the base of every branch). Its specialized cells seal off pruning wounds from wood rot fungi.

There’s no clear evidence that wound dressings reduce wood rots in pruning wounds. Early tree training helps you avoid large pruning wounds low in the tree, which might become infected.

General rules for training

• Start training at planting time.

• Remove unwanted shoots in summer when they’re small.

• Train more by limb positioning than by pruning.

• Follow the training program consistently, as often as necessary, so that you complete proper training as soon as possible.

Manage your fruit trees actively

The best ways for homeowners to control the height of a fruit tree are to plant a dwarfing rootstock, prune well, or use a trellis system. Keeping the tree’s height low allows for easier harvesting and pest management. As a homeowner, you may have inherited fruit trees on your property from previous owners. You can either choose to manage them or replace them with a variety, rootstock, or training system that controls the overall height of the tree. A post-and-wire trellis system is a popular way to keep fruit trees at a manageable height (see “Espalier training”).

Untended fruit trees can become infestation sites for serious insect and disease pests. Untended trees can make it difficult for commercial growers in the region to control key pests. If you are using an untended fruit tree mostly for shade, perhaps you should replace it with a nonfruiting shade tree.

General rules for pruning

• Prune all fruit and nut trees at planting time to balance the tops with the roots. You’ll need much less pruning at planting if you plan to irrigate the young tree frequently during its establishment.

• Prune young trees very lightly.

• Prune mature trees more heavily, especially if they’ve shown little growth.

• Prune the top portion of the tree more heavily than the lower portion.

• Prune when all danger from fall or early winter freeze has passed, but before full bloom in spring. Sweet cherry trees may be pruned in August when there’s less danger of bacterial infection.

• In a mature tree, thin out more of the shoots that grow toward the end of a well-pruned branch. This increases fruit size and quality on the remaining shoots (figure 3).

• To reduce the height of a tree that’s too tall, cut limbs at the top of the tree to a lateral branch that is the height you desire (figure 4). Leave the branch collar but don’t leave stubs. Stubs won’t heal and could be a starting point for wood rot fungi.

• Thinning out and heading back (figure 11)

• Thinning out results in long, flexible limbs that bend down when loaded with fruit. Heading back causes limbs to branch laterally and stiffen. Light heading stimulates branching when you train young trees.

• Bend nearly vertical limbs 45 to 60 degrees from vertical to stimulate fruit production earlier in the life of the tree. Bend limbs to the desired angle and secure them in place by using weights, tying them with twine, or using notched limb spreaders in the crotch of the branch. Keep the bent limb in the desired position for one growing season to allow the branch to stiffen and stay at that angle. Take care to bend but not break the branch. The thicker and more upright a limb is, the more benefit it receives from bending. Bending helps keep a tree small and manageable by channeling the tree’s resources into fruit instead of shoot growth.

Tree training systems

Open center training (figure 5).

Choose three or four shoots to form main scaffold branches the first winter. Remove other shoots that might form competing limbs. Or, head them by removing one-fourth to one-third of their length if they’re long and not branched.

When you remove large limbs, first cut part way through the branch on the underside, then make the top cut. Don’t leave stubs.

To keep a tree small, prune moderately every year and don’t apply a lot of fertilizer, manure, or compost.

Central-leader training (figure 6).

If a nursery tree has few or no branches at planting, head it at 24 to 30 inches above ground. To train trees to a central leader, choose a vigorous shoot near the center of the tree after planting.

During spring or early summer, remove shoots near the leader that will compete with it (because of their upright aspect and vigor) (figure 7). In the dormant season, head the leader by one-third, and tie down or remove competing shoots.

Each year, spread limbs that are too upright (figure 8). Repeat the process in the following two seasons so that no side branches become vigorous enough to compete with the central leader.

Some dwarf apple varieties (such as Liberty, shown in figure 6) have wide-angled limbs naturally and don’t need heading or spreading if they’re supported. Delicious, Newton, and other varieties with narrow crotches or upright limbs—or both—do require spreading. The central leaders of non-supported trees need annual heading to develop short, stout limbs.

Modified central-leader training

A modified central-leader training system follows the same steps described for central-leader training (figure 6). The central leader causes the lateral branches’ angles off the trunk to be wider, which increases the crotch strength and helps induce early fruit production. Once you’ve chosen and established the main scaffold branches (figure 1), the central leader is no longer necessary. You can remove the central leader in the third or fourth year of growth. Now, you’ll be training the tree to a multiple-leader system.

Espalier training

Espalier training develops trees in two dimensions only. In a home garden, you might use it to save space and to enhance the aesthetic appeal of your fruit trees. It also creates a tree form that is easier to pick, prune, and spray thoroughly for pests.

You can grow dwarf apple trees on a post and wire trellis in a hedgerow. Posts may extend from 6 to 10 feet above the ground.

Treated posts are best, but sound, untreated 4 x 4 cedar posts may work well. Anchor the end posts against another post driven several feet into undisturbed soil at an opposing angle.

Use galvanized wire, 12-gauge or heavier. The lowest wire should be about 4 feet above the ground, with higher wires at 2-foot intervals. Tie the main trunk to these wires, using a loop big enough to allow the trunk to grow without being girdled. If you attach the trunk to the trellis wire with 5⁄8-inch box staples, it will graft to the wire and not girdle.

If you use individual posts at each tree, make sure they extend at least 6 feet above the ground, and drive or sink them at least 2 feet into the ground. Wooden tree stakes should be 2 inches or more in diameter.

When training the tree, select buds to form the branches at the proper height and cut off the tree just above them. As these buds grow—and before they’ve produced enough wood to become stiff—fasten the shoots that grow from them to training wires or sticks with masking tape or other suitable material (figure 9).

Palmette is a specific pattern of espalier training. Develop the lowest branches first, angling them at about 30 degrees at the start. Widen this to 45–50 degrees when they’re as long as you want them (figure 10).

Head the central leader just above where you want branches, and develop one or two higher pairs of branches, keeping them shorter and slightly more spreading than the lower pair. It’s best to have at least 18 inches vertically between branches.

Fruiting habits

Figure 12 shows the difference in fruiting habit between peach and apple. Peaches bloom only on 1-year-old wood; apples usually bloom on spurs or shoots from 2-year-old wood. Figure 13 shows a mature apple tree’s fruit spurs, which bear the fruit crop. Cherries, plums, pears, and apples all produce their fruit on spurs.

Spurs require good light exposure in order to be fruitful. Thinning cuts that open up the tree to light penetration help to keep fruitful spurs throughout the tree canopy.

Pruning tools

Long-handled pruning shears (figure 14, center) are the most useful tool for almost all pruning jobs.

Hand shears (figure 14, bottom) are useful for training young trees.

If you need to make large cuts, use a pruning saw (figure 14, upper left).

If you must use a ladder, use only a sturdy stepladder. Set it firmly on the ground to prevent accidents.

Applying the basics

Fruit trees

Fully dwarf trees

You must support fully dwarf trees, or they’ll bend to the ground under the weight of their fruit. You can use individual stakes with each tree or build a trellis support system (see “Espalier training”).

Training fully dwarf apple trees to a central leader supported with a post or trellis (figure 6) can produce highly productive 6- to 10-foot trees. This system helps avoid bush-like trees only 4 or 5 feet tall that are bent down with the weight of their fruit.

In the spring following planting, when shoots are 3 to 4 inches long, select the uppermost vigorous shoot and remove other shoots near it. Return several times in summer and remove or tie down any shoots that could compete with the lead shoot because of their upright aspect and vigor. Head the lead shoot by a third in the dormant season.

Keep three to five branches that are 18 to 30 inches above ground to form a basic set of permanent branches. If they’re upright, tie or weigh them down to nearly horizontal. Position higher limbs to below horizontal to reduce their vigor relative to the permanent basic set.

Semi-dwarf trees

You can train a semi-dwarf tree to a central leader or develop it as a multiple leader tree, depending on the tree’s vigor. Central leader training is best for weak-growing varieties on poor soil. Train vigorous varieties with multiple leaders (three or four lead branches) (when trained to central leaders, they may become too tall). When they’re 4 to 6 inches long, spread these shoots using cocktail-style toothpicks or spring-type clothespins placed in the crotches of the branches. On a windy site, support the tree with a sturdy stake for the first 10 years.

In the following years, spread or tie out the lead limbs to about 30 degrees from vertical. Weigh down the side limbs that arise from these or spread them to horizontal to stimulate early production. As the tree begins to bear fruit, limbs may require propping or tying to prevent breakage.

“Spur type” trees

This type of apple tree forms many small spurs on young growth rather than the usual long shoots and leaf buds (figure 15). This is how it got its name. Because these trees fruit at a young age and are smaller than standard strains of the same variety, they make ideal home orchard trees.

Each spur bears a flower cluster. The leaves are close together, the tree branches are less frequent, and the tree grows slowly.

Spur type trees are available on both vigorous and dwarfing rootstocks. If you grow them on vigorous rootstocks, they may not require artificial support until they are in production.

Because they branch sparsely, leave more branches in a spur type than in a tree of standard growth habit. To train them to a central leader, space the lower set of limbs several inches apart vertically on the leader, and reduce their number to four or five (figure 6).

Standard trees (full size trees on seedling rootstocks)

Fruit trees on seedling rootstocks are excessively vigorous, so they are not as suitable for home orchards as trees on growth-controlling rootstocks. If you choose to use a seedling rootstock, cut back the newly planted trees to 24 to 30 inches from the ground. Train them to the modified central-leader system.

It’s best to have only four main scaffold limbs, spaced equally around the trunk and vertically several inches apart. Develop the main scaffold limbs to just a few degrees above horizontal. Make sure that all secondary branches also have a gradual upward aspect (figure 5).

The branches of a mature, non-dwarf apple tree may spread over 40 feet in diameter and reach a height of 30 or 40 feet.

Prune regularly and tie down upright limbs in the top to maintain a height of 12 to 15 feet.

Prune to make the lowest limbs the most vigorous and productive in the tree (figure 16).

Shorten, thin out, and bend down the upper limbs to accomplish this. Remove risers (these grow straight up) and hangers (these grow straight down) from the permanent limbs to open a vertical space of about 3 feet between the lowest limbs and those above, so that light can penetrate.


Initial research shows promise for growing pears on a trellis, but most commercial pears in the Pacific Northwest are grown with a central leader or modified central-leader training system. If you feel adventurous, you can try growing trellised pears. The following recommendations describe the standard way to train pear trees.

Head pear trees at about 24 inches at planting. If the top is branched, keep three or four branches as leaders. Select these leaders early in the first summer and spread them. Do little or no pruning except to head and spread the leaders annually until the tree starts to bear.

Don’t head side branches. Heading would maintain their upright position. Spread or weight all vigorous shoots except the lead shoots.

Open ladder bays between scaffold limbs of mature trees, and regularly reduce tree height to what you can reach from your ladder. Shorten or remove upper limbs so they don’t shade the lower limbs. Thin out the branches of mature trees, and do the heaviest pruning in the top.

Remove long shoots in the center and top, but leave some short shoots and most spurs. Remove horizontal branches in the top so they won’t produce suckers.

Invigorate slow-growing spur systems by cutting them back to about half their length, or remove them and replace them with new shoots. On Anjou and Comice varieties, cut back most of the spur systems and some shoots to increase fruit size.

Sweet cherry

At planting, head nursery trees at the height you desire for scaffold branches. Train sweet cherry trees to the open center system (figure 5) with three to five scaffold branches. Young sweet cherry trees often grow vertical limbs 6 to 8 feet without branching. You must head them to induce lateral branch formation.

Prune in summer to reduce the re-growth of vigorous trees. If a young tree is growing very rapidly, cut off a foot or more of new growth after about 3 feet of growth has been made in the summer. This will cause branching. You can hasten production by tying down or weighting limbs to horizontal.

To promote branching on trees not pruned in summer, head every shoot in winter to about 2 feet.

After 5 or 6 years, stop heading and thin out crowded branches.

Bacterial canker, a common disease of cherry trees, frequently causes gumming and dead areas or “cankers” on limbs. If it infects the crown or trunk, it can kill the tree. If a gummy, dead area encircles most of a limb, you must cut off the limb.

Bacterial infection can enter through pruning wounds. To avoid this, prune in August. You usually can avoid death from bacterial canker by budding or grafting a variety about a foot out on the rootstock limbs.

Mature trees require little pruning except as needed to reduce tree height. If birds are eating a lot of the fruit, you may want to net the tree.

Sour cherry

Sour cherry wood is quite brittle, so give special attention to developing wide-angled crotches in young trees. Either select wide-angled shoots to form limbs, or spread shoots to widen the angles. Three main scaffold limbs are enough for a sour cherry tree. The modified central-leader system helps form wide-angled scaffold limbs without having to spread them.

In the first and second summers, remove excess shoots so that all new growth is on the permanent scaffold limbs. In mature trees, only occasional thinning out of excess branches is needed to keep a good balance of light and fruitfulness throughout the tree.


Cut off peach trees about 12 to 20 inches above the ground at planting. Train trees to the open center or vase type system (figure 5). Develop no more than three or four main scaffold limbs. Select shoots that have the widest angles where they attach to the trunk and that are not all at the same height. Peach limbs with poor crotches split out more frequently than limbs of many other fruit trees.

Remove scaffold limbs that may compete with the three or four originally selected. Do this in the spring of the second year and again in the third year if necessary. Head the scaffold limbs in the first and second dormant seasons to cause branching until there are 6 to 8 secondary scaffold branches and 12 to 16 tertiary branches.

Peach trees bear only on l-year-old shoots (figure 12).

Every year, prune enough to stimulate new shoot growth for the following year’s crop. Peach trees branch readily, so they will have too many weak shoots unless you prune them properly. Thin out shoots, leaving those of moderate vigor. Remove all weak or very strong shoots.

Prune hardest in the top and near the ends of the major limbs. Cut top limbs back to side shoots to stiffen them and reduce tree height. Peach trees crop more consistently and have larger fruits if they’re pruned heavily. Commonly, up to 50 percent of the previous season’s growth is removed each year.

Prune and plum

Train prune and plum trees to the open center system (figure 5) with three or four main scaffold limbs. Prune very lightly for the first 5 years.

Head only the limbs that will be permanent scaffolds, remove scaffold limbs that may compete with the three or four originally selected, and do little else. Weighting or bending limbs stimulates early production.

In mature trees, thin out the top every few years and remove dead limbs as they appear. Most plums and prunes have ample bloom every year, so you only need to prune enough to control height and spread, keep the trees fairly vigorous, and prevent limb breakage.

Japanese varieties (such as Shiro, Redheart, and Burbank) have many long, thin shoots, so heading is far more important in them than it is in most European varieties.


Apricot trees usually develop many branches in the nursery. Select some of them to be scaffold branches at planting time. Cut these branches back a few inches and remove other branches. One year after planting, cut back long shoots to induce branching. Train the tree as you would for peaches.

Pruning bearing apricot trees is mostly a process of thinning out excess wood and heading long shoots. After a side shoot has produced for 3 or 4 years, remove it and let a new shoot grow in its place.


Fig trees can be grown in a multiple or single-trunk form. If you live in a region with severe freezing weather, consider growing the multiple trunk form so you can thin out trunks that suffer freeze damage. In other regions, a single-trunk form with three to five scaffold branches is suitable.

A mature fig tree can reach the size of a walnut tree. Be sure to prune the top for good light penetration into the canopy. Figs produce fruit on the current season’s shoots, so heading branches to stimulate shoot growth is helpful.


There are two types of persimmon trees, American and Asian. The Asian persimmon tree is smaller when mature than the American and needs less maintenance pruning to contain its height. A multiple scaffold system with three to five main scaffold branches is suitable for persimmons.

Pruning an old, neglected fruit tree

A tree that hasn’t been pruned for several years has a dense thicket of upright shoots in the top and many weak, pendulant (downward facing) spur systems further down (figure 17). It’s best to prune the tree back into shape gradually over several years, rather than trying to do the whole job all at once.

After you identify the main scaffold branches, saw out any excess large branches. Cut ladder bays so you can place your ladder in the tree’s center. Climb as high on your ladder in the tree’s center as you intend to pick, and cut the main scaffold limbs down to the height that you can reach.

Remove limbs that overlap or hang down into other limbs. Thin out most of the upright shoots, leaving some of the smaller ones. Cut back weak, pendulant limbs. Gradually invigorate the spur systems by cutting back some and removing others. Keep the center of the tree fairly free of limbs so that light can penetrate.

Don’t head shoots. Remove them entirely, or let them bear fruit and rely on the weight of the fruit to bring them down. Thin off shoots on the inside of upright branches so that fruit will pull them to the outside.

Nut trees

Cut off a newly planted walnut tree 4 or 5 feet above the ground. If you don’t make this cut, the tree won’t grow much for several seasons. The lowest limbs of a walnut tree have a habit of drooping, so they should originate fairly high on the trunk.

Select three to five main scaffold branches in the first and second growing seasons and remove excess branches at that time. Use a modified central-leader system to help form wide-angled scaffold limbs.

After the scaffold branches have developed, no further pruning is required. Pruning doesn’t hurt walnut trees, but they’re so large that it’s difficult to prune the top (where pruning would do the most good). Pruning will invigorate most old, weak walnut trees.


In nature, hazelnuts grow as bushes, but you can force them to grow in a single trunk by annually removing the sprouts that grow at ground level. Train the tree with three or four scaffolds, similar to training peaches (page 10).

To be most productive, a hazelnut tree should make 6 to 8 inches of new terminal shoot growth every year on shoots at shoulder height. Frequent pruning helps maintain this growth.

Prune hazelnut trees like peaches, but less severely. Hazelnut wood is especially susceptible to wood-rotting fungi, so it’s important to make cuts at the branch collar with limbs or trunk.


Pruning methods for walnuts also work for chestnut trees. Head a newly planted tree around 4 feet from the ground, and select three to five scaffold branches after the first season of growth. Use a modified central-leader system to help form wide-angled scaffold limbs. If scaffold branches have not produced lateral growth in the first 3 feet, then head the scaffold to stimulate lateral branching.

In mature trees, prune in the top to ensure good light penetration throughout the canopy. Fully mature chestnut trees grow to 40 feet tall.

This information is provided for educational purposes only. If you need legal advice, please consult a qualified legal adviser.

Trade-name products and services are mentioned as illustrations only. This does not mean that the Oregon State University Extension Service either endorses these products and services or intends to discriminate against products and services not mentioned.

Use pesticides safely!

  • Wear protective clothing and safety devices as recommended on the label. Bathe or shower after each use.
  • Read the pesticide label—even if you’ve used the pesticide before. Follow closely the instructions on the label (and any other directions you have).
  • Be cautious when you apply pesticides. Know your legal responsibility as a pesticide applicator. You may be liable for injury or damage resulting from pesticide use.

© 2011 Oregon State University.

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How trees grow

In this section you will find information on the various formats of fruit trees, maiden trees, bush trees; on the rootstock and its role in determining tree size; and on the possibility of growing fruit trees in containers. Just click on the headings in the interactive menu below.

Fruit trees and how they grow

Organic magic
If you can’t find manure…

Maiden trees and bush trees
Tree size and rootstocks
Rootstocks for apples
Traditional large bush trees

Growing fruit trees in containers
Size of the container
Soil and fertilizer
When to feed and how to water your trees in containers
Which types of fruit tree can be grown in containers?
Cherries in containers

Organic magic

All living creatures are interconnected, in ways that often we would never have imagined. For example, manure, which is classed as an animal waste product, is an essential food source to living creatures in the lower part of the evolutionary chain, such as fungi and bacteria, including those that live in the soil, in symbiosis with tree roots. So live manure is a superb form of food and nutrients to trees, in our case fruit trees.

Trees love organics: it can come out of a bottle, for example liquid seaweed, or out of a container, natural herb mixtures, or out of a bag, such as dried chicken manure, or straight from the stable such as farmyard manure.

For trees this is pure magic and I have seen the undeniable results as regular as clockwork many times during my life! The real essence of organics is linked to the thousands of nematodes, microbes, fungi and bacteria which work in close harmony with the trees, permitting the uptake of nutrients and giving the trees a real tonic. This in turn improves leaf quality and reinforces the immune system.

If you can’t find manure…

If you like your fruit trees to carry regular crops of fruit, do not let them go short of food.
On the market there is a superb product called SUPER DUG. It is totally dried organic natural manure. It comes in a 25 kilo bag. It is a wonderful tonic for all type of trees, shrubs and vegetables. When you plant fruit trees, follow the instructions on the bag, put a couple of spade-fulls in the wheel barrow and mix it well with the soil that you are going to put back into the planting hole. More details at

Rootstocks and fruit tree size

Maiden trees and bush trees

One particularly important factor when purchasing a fruit tree from a supplier is whether it is a Maiden or a Bush tree.

A Maiden is generally a tree in its first year, consisting of a single stem. For a few varieties, this may have a few initial side branches, but most will not. The buds on a maiden are mainly wood buds. So there is no chance of any fruit crop in the year after planting.

A Bush tree is a 2 to 3 year-old tree, usually with several side branches, usually with a good number of fruit buds. Fruit buds are essential for early cropping. A bush tree is also helpful because the side branches are ready to develop into the main framework of the tree, with a “fruit table” positioned for comfortable picking. Not all fruit trees form side branches in the second year, but, if it is an apple, in any case the tree will start to produce fruit on the central stem. By nature, pears, plums and greengages always take longer to come into production . Therefore in particular with these fruit types it is wiser to start with a 2 to 3 year old tree. With a bush trees, cropping usually begins the year after planting. They are sturdy, strong and healthy, with good levels of reserves in the tree structure. This helps them to resist diseases caused by the fungal spores that are always present in the air.

The height of the tree is not a feature which encourages early cropping.

Tree size and rootstocks

It is mistaken to think that tree size can be controlled by pruning. The fundamental factors involved in determining tree size are the rootstock and the depth of the soil. When ordering trees, the choice of variety is important, but tree size is also fundamental to ensure that the final trees are right for your garden. The major factor involved in determining tree size is the rootstock. Most fruit trees consist of two parts. The first is the “rootstock” or “stock,” which comprises the root system and the lower part of the stem, normally from soil level (the so-called “nursery mark”) to about 15 cm above the ground. The second is the “scion” which comprises the rest of the stem and the branches, and so it is this part that bears the fruit. Trees are created by grafting a tree variety – say Cox apple or Victoria plum – onto a rootstock.

Rootstocks for apples

This system is adopted to control the size of the tree and to improve cropping. So, for example, for apples, the rootstock named MM106 gives rise to a tree reaching a height of about 10 feet, while M26, M9 and M27 produce progressively smaller trees. M27 and M9 are therefore known as “dwarfing rootstocks.” However we do not recommend the use of M27 and M9 for apples for the average garden situation, primarily because in the average garden, M27 and M9 create a root system that is too weak to keep the tree upright in later years, when it is in full production. In addition, M27 and M9 trees tend to over-produce fruit in one year, with no, or very little, fruit the following year. For successful apple tree growing, MM106 is the best choice. It has proved itself over many years, and it forms a healthy tree which fruits at a young age. MM106 is suitable for all soils, including heavy clay soils, provided the soil is not waterlogged.

Other factors in addition to rootstock are involved in determining the height of a tree at maturity. These include type of soil, height of the location above sea level, exposure to cold winds or frost pockets, and the winter rest level of water in the soil. Equally important is tree spacing. The further trees are spaced apart, the greater their final height will be. This is why the figures shown below are provided as approximate guidelines only.

Another fact to remember is that the size of a tree at the time of planting does not affect the size eventually achieved.

Average tree heights obtained in garden/allotment situations

Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
MM106 10-12 feet 12-14 feet medium
M26 5-7 feet 8-10 feet medium-small
M9 4-6 feet 7-8 feet small – not recommended
M27 3-4 feet 5 feet small – not recommended
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
Quince A 8-12 feet 12-14 feet medium
Plums, greengages
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
St. Julien A 8-10 feet 12 feet medium
Pixie 7-9 feet 10 feet medium
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
Colt 8-10 feet 10-12 feet medium
Gisela 5 5-7 feet 6-8 feet medium-small
Peach, apricot, nectarine
Rootstock Planting distance Final tree height Size description
St.Julien A 10-12 feet 10 feet medium

Please note that the tree heights described above are given only as general guidelines. The final tree height depends greatly on depth of soil, site, and quality of soil.

You may ask, why can’t we be specific about planting distance? Why 8-12 feet and not, say, 10 feet? This is due to the many factors involved. Apart from the rootstock used, the variety of fruit, the depth of the soil, the available light and moisture throughout the growing season, all will influence the crop load and therefore the size of the tree. A heavy cropping tree will put on less new growth (extension growth) compared with a light-cropping tree. As an example of variety difference, Bramley’s Seedling makes a larger tree than, say, James Grieve. Trees grown on deep, water-retentive soil become larger than trees on drier or shallow soils. Trees grown in the shade crop less, and so tend to get larger than trees growing in sunshine. Fruit trees which go short of moisture during the summer months stop growing earlier each year, and will make shorter shoot extension growth. Fruit trees which are poorly pollinated will produce less fruit and therefore the annual extension growth will be much greater.

Finally there is the influence of the tree’s overall health, the site, microclimate, grass, weeds around the tree, depth of planting, nutrition, type of pruning, and the season in which pruning is performed. In fact, late summer pruning (in late July and August) tends to reduce the rate at which a tree will grow, whereas traditional winter pruning (November-March) produces strong regrowth of long new shoots.

So it’s a complicated equation. One rule of thumb that always applies is: if you have room, give the trees as much space as possible, so at the top end of the space range as detailed above. This gives them the chance to develop a fine tree canopy.

Apple trees are the fruit type for which there are most rootstocks. We can safely say that MM106 is by far the best and most robust stock for a mini-orchard. In addition, MM106 is suitable for all soils.

We don’t recommend the use of the dwarfing rootstocks M27 and M9 for several reasons. Firstly, for the average garden, M27 and M9 create a root system that is too weak to keep the tree upright in later years, when it is in full production. Secondly, the correct type of stakes necessary to stop the trees from blowing over are often unobtainable in garden centres. Third, M27 and M9 trees tend to over-produce fruit in one year, with no, or very little, fruit the following year. Lastly, the bark of M27 and M9 apple trees are the most appetizing to mice, rabbits, hare and deer, which nibble the bark in winter, leaving sick trees with too small fruit.

And so to summarize, the best rootstocks to use for apple trees are MM106 for semi-vigorous trees and M26 for semi-dwarfing trees, as well as for fan, espalier and stepover trees. We do not recommend the use of M27 and M9, because they require a regime of detailed care that is generally not possible in the usual garden or allotment situation. For successful apple tree growing, MM106 is the best choice. It has proved itself over many years; it forms a healthy tree which fruits at a young age. MM106 is suitable for all soils, including heavy clay soils, provided the soil is not waterlogged.

Traditional large bush trees

Modern fruit trees are generally grown on a dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstock that keeps their size down to manageable levels and can be grown to produce a fairly flat table at a height convenient for picking without ladders. But sometimes we get requests for the traditional old English fruit tree, the sort that grows to an appreciable size and ends up with gnarled branches that young children can even climb. An ideal tree for a village green with a good space around the tree to do Maypole-type dancing is the Granny Smith. The fruit hangs on the tree until Christmas without dropping and looks spectacular. However somewhere in a garden nearby there has to be a pollinator… otherwise no fruit!

A much better tree for a very large lawn or a village green is a John Downie crab apple. The fruit looks good and makes wonderful crab apple jelly.


Pollination requirements for apple trees

A sunny spot will help obtain good-tasting fruit
Good cross pollination is essential to achieve regular cropping. For this reason, the choice of varieties of the different fruit types is of great importance. Cross fertilization can only be achieved by means of a secondary variety of the same family of fruit trees. For example, two different varieties of apple are needed to achieve fruit set. Only a few varieties are self fertile and can therefore be planted without a pollinator.
Secondly, it is also important to remember that in some years, with very warm and favourable weather conditions during blossom time, some fruit trees can produce a crop without the help of another variety. However one cannot rely on this characteristic, if you want to have fruit every year.
For these reasons, fruit trees prefer to be planted in a spot with lots of sunshine. Planting in the shade of other trees or buildings is never a good thing. A sunny spot and regular moisture availability will produce good tasting fruit. If in doubt, get expert advice on which varieties are suitable for your particular site or garden.

Video: Grafting a pollinator to improve cropping

Video: Cherry tree pollination – how to improve it easily

Fruit trees in containers

It is important to ask the question: are fruit trees suitable to live and produce fruit in containers? Just visualize the enormous change we humans present to fruit trees. Under normal conditions the trees can explore and find the nutritional elements they need in a great volume of soil. If they cannot find what they need close by, the tree roots grow either deeper or further outwards until they finds the major/trace elements essential for their wellbeing. If however we plant our trees in a container, then we dramatically curtail root growth and make the trees very much dependent on us for their nutrition and moisture requirements. Some plants are more fruitful in containers. Take for example the fig. If it is planted in good, well-drained soil without any root restriction, it will tend to produce wonderful leaves. But this is often, under our climatic conditions, at the expense of fruiting.

Growing fruit trees in containers

To plant a fruit tree in a container is easy enough. To keep the tree growing well and cropping well over a number of years is easier said than done. The reason is straightforward. By its very nature, a fruit tree is capable of looking after itself very well, providing the tree’s root system can fully explore the soil at considerable depth and width all around. The tree cannot do this if we restrict its rooting environment to a pot or a container of any size. It is therefore very important to realize, once the tree is planted in a container, that the tree is no longer capable of looking after itself during the growing season. Obviously, the larger the container, the greater the volume of soil available to the tree. This in turn will mean that there is more soil available for the tree to explore. Assuming the tree is provided with a regular water supply, by some means of irrigation, a larger tree can be maintained. Therefore the first principle to take in account is what final tree size is desired for the long term. Container size is therefore a very important decision. Also one needs to consider the fact that by means of tree training and summer pruning, a smaller tree canopy can be maintained. Espaliers, cordons, and fan-shaped trees are all realistic possibilities. A fruit tree in a smaller pot will by nature remain a smaller plant and therefore needs less pruning and is easier to maintain. However a small tree will have a reduced cropping capability. It is as well to remember that in general terms about 30 healthy green leaves are needed for each apple, bringing the fruit to maturity and optimum size.

Size of the container

Regarding the size of the pot or container, you can start with a pot with a rim size of 15 to 20 cm. However after year two, the tree needs to be re-potted to a larger pot with a 25 to 30 cm rim. The ideal container needs to be at least 45 cm in width, with a minimum depth of 40 cm. Also it is just as well to remember that if the tree is placed on a patio or near a wall, it is liable to blow over and therefore needs to be secured. This of course is of less importance when the tree is placed inside a building. In that case it is just as well to remember the tree will need plenty of light in order to do well.

Type of container

There are numerous choices available in the form of containers for fruit trees. Containers have a great effect on the wellbeing of fruit trees. To begin with, the size/volume of the tree is in direct relation to the size and capacity of the container. The bigger the container, the larger the tree, of course as long as soil and water are readily available for the tree roots to explore. Secondly, not only the dimension of the container used is of influence. It does make a difference whether it is a clay pot, plastic or made from another material. Roots of fruit trees like to stay cool. Thin plastic pots are not suitable. Double-walled plastic is fine. Plastic pots should not be placed in full sun as the roots like to be growing in moist compost of moderate temperatures, and plastic in the sun gets hot and transfers the heat to the soil. Plastic pots in the shade are fine. Half an oak barrel or the equivalent is fine too. Smaller wooden containers have a tendency to dry out too quickly. Metal containers in the long term are less suitable. Large clay pots are very well suited for fruit trees.

Whichever pot is chosen, the drainage holes must never be blocked. Excess water in the container kills a tree just as quickly as drought. Therefore make sure the holes are loosely covered with broken clay pot pieces. A good size container will have a depth of 45 cm and a diameter at the top of approximately 40 cm. After a couple of years, repot the tree in a larger pot, using a soil-based compost.

Make sure that whichever container is chosen, there are good-sized drainage holes in the bottom, loosely covered with pieces of terracotta pots to stop the holes from closing in future years.

Soil and fertilizer

The type and quality of soil is of the greatest importance. What is a good quality soil? A good soil has a crumb-like structure, and the sand and clay particles are present in such a ratio to make it possible for the tree to take up everything that it needs; oxygen, water and the essential nutritional elements. Soil-based John Innes compost number 3 comes the closest to fulfilling these requirements. It is an advantage to mix some grit into the compost in order to keep the soil-based compost open enough for water to travel right through the container and not just along the sides. Mix some slow-release fertilizer into the compost. Follow the instructions on the packet. Too much fertilizer will harm the tree and weaken the root system. When filling the container, leave some room at the top without compost to make watering easier. Do make sure that the compost is thoroughly wetted after planting, and maintain the moisture content of the compost throughout the growing season. As mentioned above, the tree will need to be fed annually. The best time to do this is in the spring. During the summer months, foliar feeding is of great benefit to the tree, provided you follow the instructions on the packet closely.

When to feed and how to water your trees in containers

A watering can is not ideal. Particularly in containers one needs to pay attention to the fact that more often than not the water, when applied using a watering can, escapes via the sides of the pot or container. The water comes through the drainage holes and one thinks one has done a good job of watering. The centre of the pot stays dry and the trees suffer from water stress. It is better to apply the water via a drip system, which applies little water each time it drips. Also, soil is often very difficult to rewet if allowed to dry out too much.

Apply water and nutrients at regular intervals, definitely before wilting occurs. For fruit trees, apply a general purpose fertilizer such as Growmore in the early spring. To strengthen fruit buds, apply a light dressing after picking the fruit. Slow release fertilizers can do a good job. You can also foliar feed your trees with very good results. Fruit trees like good light conditions and if possible a sheltered position.

Some cooking apples will do reasonably well if partly shaded. However cherries, pears and peaches do best when grown in full sunlight. Plums do also well in slightly shaded positions. No fruit tree does well if put completely in the shade of a wall or another tree.

Which types of fruit tree can be grown in containers?

Single stem trees such as cordons usually do well. More demanding are espalier and fan types of trees. Pears and apricots are ideal for growing as espaliers. Cherries, peaches and plums do better when grown in an open fan shape.


It is very nice to grow a good crop. If you overcrop the tree, the following year the tree does not crop at all or only a little. It therefore pays to thin the fruitlets, whichever type of crop it is.


Regarding pests, it is important to control greenfly/aphids and caterpillar. Fungal diseases such as mildew, scab, canker and brown rot can sometimes be a problem. Garden centres stock various products which will help to control these diseases.
All types of birds love to peck or eat fruit. Have a net handy before the fruit is at the vulnerable stage.

Fruit varieties for growing in containers

Apples, pears, plums and cherries all can be grown in large containers. However the variety and rootstock used need to be chosen with care.
Good advice is a help once the particular situation and spot for the tree/trees are known. Pollination requirements need to be taken in consideration if regular fruiting is desired.

Cherries in containers

From the point of view of controlling bird damage, you are far better off growing a cherry tree in a container. The tree will stay relatively small and is therefore easier to cover with a net, to stop the birds eating your cherries. Mind you, the size of the container is crucial. It needs to be at least 50 cm across and 45 cm deep. This container needs to be filled with the best top soil available. In the bottom of the container you need to have a couple of 2.5 cm sized drainage holes, which need to be covered with broken terra cotta pot fragments to stop the holes from silting up.

As cherries themselves are 90 percent water, you must make sure the trees never dry out! Water the trees at least twice a week with 5 litres of water each during the growing season. When very hot and dry, 10 litres of water each. Feed the trees with “Growmore” and follow instructions on the packet. Pruning is best carried out when harvesting is completed. This to avoid the pruning wounds becoming infected by the spores of different fungi such as “Silver leaf,” and not to forget the disease called Bacterial Canker.

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