How to plant and when to plant
People who work in garden centres know that plants sell best when they have flowers on. In the same way, customers often start thinking about planting fruit trees in spring, when days are warmer and the sap is rising. In the winter, people like to be warm and cosy. Fruit trees are different: they like to be handled when it is cold and all the leaves have come off.
Trees evolved their life cycle to survive harsh winter conditions. In winter, there is far less light for photosynthesis, and the low temperatures can easily freeze and kill the leaves. So in the winter months, the tree shuts down, shedding its leaves and virtually halting its uptake of water from the soil, because sap movement has come to a standstill. That’s why January, February and March are the best time to plant fruit trees.
The dormant period
A tree is different from a conventional product that you can buy say at a supermarket because it follows the rhythms of nature. From late October a tree begins to prepare for the winter shut-down. Carbohydrate reserves built up in the leaves are sent down to the root system for storage. The tree then sends all the substances it wants to get rid of to the leaves (contributing to their autumn colours) so that leaf drop is like a purification process. By late November or early December, metabolism has reached its minimum throughout the tree. As the spring approaches, the root system uses some of its reserves to rejuvenate its micro-feeding roots, tiny, microscopic rootlets invisible to the naked eye, the structures that do the job of absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. And so by the start of April the tree is ready to start its new season.
Time to plant
There is a lot of confusion around the topic about which is the best time to plant. Many people believe that March to May is the best time to plant. In actual fact, by far the best time to plant trees is in the period from early December to the middle of March. And in that period it is most important to choose the right moment to plant, soil wise and weather wise. It is a mistake to delay the planting until the last moment. The weather is very variable and unpredictable. The best way of doing it is to have the trees on site, from early January onwards. When you receive the trees, heel them in, near the house, in a trench 8 inches wide and 8 inches deep, cover the roots totally with soil, and leave them until that moment when weather and time are opportune for planting. These moments of ideal planting conditions may only last for a day. If the trees are on the site one can make use of these ideal opportunities , which occur spasmodically during the winter months.
Now, why is it so important to plant early? It is a mistake to think that when the trees are put in the soil they start to grow from that moment. However gently you transplant, the micro-feeding rootlets are all destroyed. Trees need time to adjust and closely associate with the soil, while rebuilding the micro-feeding roots. This process can take as much as from 3 weeks to a month, depending on soil temperature. Without these roots being functional, the trees are totally dependent on the reserves stored in the thicker roots and in the woody parts of the tree above ground. Once those reserves are used up, the tree, if not planted early enough, starves, and will look miserable for the rest of the season.
Finally, don’t put big lumps of soil on top of the tree roots. Micro roots cannot grow in this. Instead, visit your garden centre, and buy some of the best tree planting compost such as John Innes compost number 3. Cover all the roots with it, move the tree gently up and down to enable the crumbly soil to filter in between the roots, then secure the tree to the stake or the wire or the fence and make sure that the union of the tree is 5 cm above the soil. Apply a mulch around the tree and water weekly with 5 litres of water once growth has begun around April time.
Advance preparations for planting
It is advisable to prepare the planting site well before the planting season. Check the pH of the soil. It should be between 6.3 and 6.6. Garden centres stock inexpensive pH meters.
Set out the planting positions, with tall bamboo canes, well before the trees arrive. You’ll have worked out the planting plan and the distances between trees with your supplier. Remove one square metre of grass sward for each tree position and remove this grass totally from the planting position. The reason is that the grass roots compete fiercely with the tree, and tend to stop the tree from establishing itself on the new site. Newly-planted trees and grass are BAD companions!
Grass roots are very bad for the trees in the early years, when the trees need all the water available. Break up the topsoil and loosen the subsoil over 1 square metre for each tree. This is very important as tree roots hate stagnant water during the winter months. Keep the soil of the tree positions free from weeds for the rest of the season and for two years after that. The planting hole needs to be at least 1’6” in diameter and approximately 6” deep. Only put the best top soil on top of the roots. No subsoil. Loosen the subsoil with a rigid tine fork, before you plant the tree.
While the soil is reasonably dry, this is the best time to put the stakes in place near the planting positions. Set a stake upright in the middle of each 1 square metre. The stake needs to be 2” in diameter, 1’6” in the ground and 4’6” feet above the ground. Total length 6 feet.
If you think that you won’t be able to plant the trees straight away when they arrive, you’ll have to heel them into a shallow trench 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. So in this case, this trench should be prepared.
Good drainage is absolutely essential for the trees to thrive. If drainage is suspect on your site, the trees will have to be planted on a mound. The height of the mound needs to be at least 10 inches above soil level and 3 foot wide in diameter. Only use the best topsoil to construct the mound.
When the trees arrive
If the soil is not frozen, and your planting site is ready, you can go ahead and plant them. If not, you can wait for a few days, leaving the trees in the pack in which they arrived. They will survive for 8 days in a cold but frost-free place. Open the top of the orchard pack to allow fresh air to enter. Protect the trees from rabbit damage. Do not plant when soil is frozen. Instead keep the trees in a cold, but frost-free shed or building. Dampen the roots after 7 days. Before you plant the trees, it is a good idea to put the roots in a bucket of water for 6 to 12 hours. This will invigorate root growth and restore the moisture content of the feeding roots.
Dig a trench of a couple of feet long, 8” wide and 6” deep, cover the roots completely with damp crumbly soil, and your trees will be very happy to sit in that trench, until you are ready to plant them.
Surround the trees with wire netting so that no rabbits or cats can do damage to the bark of the trees. If you have a half-size oak barrel or similar container, take the trees out of the pack, put some soil onto the bottom of the barrel, place the trees into the barrel, and cover the roots totally with soil. Make sure the soil is moist. Do not heel in the trees close to a hedge as mice damage may occur.
Heeling in means giving yourself plenty of time to plant the trees, when you have got the time to do a good job and the weather is cooperating, so that you can pay attention to the details of planting. Never forget that the soil is the tree’s permanent home. The better the soil is prepared for the transplanting operation, the better the tree will grow. Its food and its drink come via the soil. Transplanting for a fruit tree represents the same level of stress as the upheaval of moving house for us humans.
Weather conditions during the planting season will vary greatly. Once you have received the trees, of course the best thing is to plant the trees within a couple of days of arrival. If that is possible, just put the roots of the trees in a bucket of water overnight before you plant the trees. This will restore the optimum moisture content of the tree roots. When you plant the trees during November-April period, when the trees are dormant, plant them at the same depth as they were in the nursery. You will see the soil marks on the trees. Keep the union well above soil level, around 2 inches. Cover the tree roots with a 50/50 mixture of good quality multi-purpose compost and the soil from the planting hole. Do not put any artificial fertiliser in the planting hole. Firm the soil well, but do not stamp it tight. Tree roots need air as well as water. Plant the tree 3” away from the stake. Tie the tree to the stake with an adjustable tie. Do not forget to adjust the tie each year, as the tree stem gets thicker. Do not strangle your tree.
Cover the entire square metre with 4” deep mulch of well-rotted garden compost or old matured farm yard manure. It is very important you keep that area free from grass and weeds as the trees begin to grow. A soil membrane which lets through the rain, but stops the weeds and grass developing around the trunk of the tree, is a real help and a labour-saving investment. If you don’t prevent the growth of grass and weeds, the goodness in the soil goes to the weeds and not to the trees. Put a tall enough spiral guard around each tree trunk to avoid hare or rabbit damage. Adjust the guards every 6 months. Too tight a guard is a shelter for pests and disease to develop. Special guards are needed if livestock has access to the tree crown.
To stop deer having a go at the young foliage, hang a piece of strong-smelling soap on an S-hook on each tree and replace it as soon as the scent has worn off. Replace the soap every 3 weeks. A 1” square piece is large enough.
During dry periods during the growing season, ensure that the trees get extra water. Two full watering cans a week will keep them going. At all times ensure that the ground is moist. Water is the life-blood of the tree!
Tree roots need lots of oxygen. This is often forgotten and applies at any time of the year. Tree roots standing in water literally suffocate and if this situation is not alleviated, it will cause the tree to die. If drainage is suspect, always plant your fruit trees on a mound. The height of the mound needs to be at least 10 inches above soil level and 3 foot wide in diameter. Only use the best topsoil to construct the mound. Trees subject to flooding during the spring/summer time, when the tree is full of foliage, are particularly sensitive.
The main points of successful transplanting fruit trees are:
1) Don’t plant fruit trees in the shade, choose a spot in full sunlight.
2) Don’t plant fruit trees on top of other roots of living trees, or on old orchard land.
3) Stay away from any type of hedge. The distance depends on the height of the hedge: for example if the hedge is 3 metres tall, plant the tree at least 3 metres from the hedge canopy.
4) Plant fruit trees in a crumbly soil, which is essential to enable new roots to gain access to the soil’s nutritional storehouse of goodies.
5) Don’t plant fruit trees in water or a waterlogged soil. The tree will suffocate as it cannot get hold of the essential oxygen for the roots to live and work properly.
6) Prepare the planting spot well before the tree’s arrival.
7) Before you put the tree in the ground, knock in a good quality, 6-foot stake, so that the tree can become established well. The tree should be staked at all times from planting, right through its life. Use a 2”diameter, round, treated stake, 6 feet in length, treated against wood rot fungi. Put the round stake upright in the ground, to a depth of 1’6”.
8) Then dig a decent-sized planting hole at spade depth. Approx. 1’6” diameter. Loosen the sub soil with a rigid tine fork. Keep the union of the tree above soil level. Put the top soil in a wheelbarrow.
9) The soil is the tree’s home. Only the best will do. Mix the topsoil with some blood and bone meal, or well-rotted manure, or John Innes compost number 3 as a soil improver, at a 50/50 ratio. Ideal pH: 6.3- 6.8.
10) Put that wonderful mixture on top of the roots, move the tree up and down, for this mixture to filter in between all the roots, firm it gently, making sure the union of the tree is 5 cm above the finished soil level.
Always make sure crumbly soil is put back on top of the roots. Not big lumps of stiff clay. Firm the soil with your boot.
11) Tie the tree with a flexible adjustable tie. An old nylon stocking is perfect.
12) Put a rabbit guard on the trunk. If deer are a problem, use the appropriate guard.
13) Apply a mulch of wet hay or straw, or better still well-rotted manure around the trunk of the tree, without touching the stem, for an area of at least 1 square yard.
14) Keep 1 square yard of soil around the trunk free from grass and weeds, during the growing season, from April to September during the next 4 years. If you think that regular weeding is going to be difficult, use a soil membrane from the garden centre. Without this, the trees will struggle. Grass is the worst enemy of young fruit trees.
15) In the spring, when the tree is beginning to show green, make sure your tree has the benefit of one watering can full of water, on a weekly basis, during its first year in your soil. A full watering can for each tree. The first 3 years are decisive for healthy tree development.
16) Prevent aphids from damaging your trees. This applies in particular just before flowering time and soon after that. Any garden centre will stock what you will need for this. Use an approved organic method in order to save the ladybirds, lacewings and earwigs. These are excellent predators and the earwigs remove lots of caterpillars.
Newly planted trees and night frost
The cropping prospects of your newly-planted trees will be greatly influenced by the level of frost. If temperature at night does not fall below freezing point, then don’t worry, everything will be fine. If on the other hand, night temperatures drop significantly below zero, to between -2 and -5 degrees Celsius as forecast, the blossom will freeze, and the crop will be severely reduced.
There is a remedy. Cover the trees with a double layer of garden fleece during the coming cold nights, and the blossom will be saved. The crop will then not be affected.
The staking of fruit trees, a necessary evil?
The amazing thing is that apple trees on MM106 rootstock, if planted well as free-standing trees, usually can do without a stake. The same applies to pears, plums and cherries on semi-vigorous stock. But fruit trees on semi-dwarfing stock such as M26, Pixie, Quince C or Gisela, will most definitely need permanent support. The reason is that dwarf and semi-dwarf rootstocks have usually plenty of feeding roots but only a limited amount of holding roots. Moreover, fruit trees on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks are more shallow-rooting. This is also the reason why grass, if left to grow right up to the trunks of these trees, is too fierce a competitor, particularly if the good-quality topsoil is shallow.
It is simply impossible for dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees to perform well without a good stake. The wood must have been treated to stop the stake from rotting off at ground level.
You may ask why the stake has to be 6 feet in length. A very good question! The answer is that without a stake of sufficient length, the central leader of the tree will quickly lose its dominant position. The tree will then become a semi-bonsai. In other words, fruit trees on strong rootstocks only need a 4-foot short stake and then only in the early years. Semi-dwarf trees, like M26 for apple trees, will need a permanent tall stake, as highlighted above.
Ideally the stake will need to be set in the soil before the tree is planted next to it. It is important to plant the tree 2 to 3 inches away from the stake, to give the trunk room to expand.
The free-standing tree
A fruit tree consists of a rootstock, onto which the fruit variety is grafted. The best rootstock for the average garden is MM106, but if space is limited, M26 may be more suitable. In fact the rootstock determines the final tree size.
It should be remembered that different fruit varieties generate differing tree shapes. For example, apple trees are naturally more spreading, while pears and plums tend to be more vertical in their growth
If the tree has been properly planted, and grass and weeds are kept at bay in the area in which tree roots are trying to become established, new shoot growth should appear during the summer months (the tree will have been planted during dormancy, from December to March). This new shoot growth is the material available to form the tree’s permanent framework as shown in the diagram. Shoots 1, 2 and 3 are new shoots. Shoots 4 and 5 are those already present on a 2-year old tree when planted.
At this early stage, pruning should be absolutely minimal, because pruning delays cropping. Minimal pruning is recommended for years 1, 2 and 3 after planting.
These operations should be carried out in the period from December to March. Branches 1, 3 and 6 in the diagram should be tied down and spaced out using string running from the base of the stake. The leading branch 2 should be left upright. Branches 4 and 5 are tied down almost flat, and they will become the first cropping wood.
Framework branches 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 should be pruned only if growth has been weak. In this case, they should be cut back by a third of their length. The central leader should be pruned so that it is no higher than the length of a secateur above the average height of all the upright branches.
As shown in the diagram, continue to build the crown of the tree by spacing the branches for maximum light utilization, again by tying down branches. The tree will now be cropping.
The espalier is a useful method of training fruit trees, and it is becoming increasingly popular in the garden because it is ideal for positions adjacent to a wall or a fence, and occupies a minimum space. It can also be used as an attractive separation or screen between different parts of a garden. In the espalier system, the tree comprises a central stem and horizontal fruiting branches. It is very important to train the tree correctly in order to achieve a tree that produces good fruit on all the horizontal branches for the next 20 years or so.
North-facing walls are only suitable for Morello acid cherries or damsons. Pears need a higher input of warmth compared with apples. A south-facing aspect is best for pears.
Do not train the branches – bringing them down to a near horizontal position – until the sap in the tree is running vigorously. This means that training can be performed from around mid-May.
Frequent watering and mulching are essential as south-facing positions can get very hot at the height of the summer months. A south-facing wall is also suitable for peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots.
Next, one has to decide about the support system used in such situations; if it is a wall then the height of the wires is important. If it is a fence, then the spacing of the supporting stakes is also of importance.
For example, with apples, you first have to make up your mind whether you want to grow your trees on M26 or on MM106 rootstock. M26 (a rootstock that creates a weaker tree) will need a stronger support system compared with MM106 trees.
For espaliers on M26 trees, the planting distance should be 10 feet, with the union just 2” above soil level.
For espaliers on MM106 trees, plant 12–14 feet apart. The union can be any height above soil level.
The stakes will need to be 8’ tall and 1’6” in the ground. Only if your soil is very sandy, your stakes will need to go 2 feet into the soil.
Space the stakes at the same distance as you space the trees. Make sure the stake wood has been treated against wood rot fungi.
Another important point: install the first wire only after the trees have arrived. All trees are different and so the height of the first wire from the ground can vary from 40 cm to even 70 or 80 cm.
It is likely that the first wire will be 15 to 18 inches height above soil level, to coincide with the natural side branches of trees, already formed.
Moreover, to put the first wire at 12” above soil level is a mistake, as fruit rot can be a major problem due to soil splashing during heavy rainfall.
If the soil quality is really good, then I would plant trees on M26, three meters apart.
If there is any doubt about the depth of good dark, well aerated earth, then plant FERTILE apple varieties on MM106, four meters apart. The fruit variety choice will be critical, to avoid excessive wood growth in later years. Peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots can also be spaced four meters apart.
In the first year of training, you will form the first tier of the espalier, and therefore you will create a tree with three branches: the two side branches, and the upward leading branch. In mid-May, tie the two lower side branches to an angle of about 60 degrees (from the horizontal). The first two branches will be anything from 40 cm to 75 cm above soil level, depending on the variety, purpose and positioning of the tree. At this stage, you can remove all other competing branches from the tree, so that growth will be concentrated in the three branches you need (fig. 4).
Wait until the second week of August, and only then, lower the two side branches to the horizontal. This delay in timing is very important. If you lower the branches to the horizontal position too early in the growing season, the upright vertical leading branch will absorb all the nutrients and the first tier of the espalier will be too weak in future years.
During the last week of August, remove all surplus upright growth from the espalier framework. Then cut a notch in the upright branch above the first horizontal tier, at a height corresponding to where you would like the next tier to be formed the following year. This is usually about 18 inches above the first tier. The depth of the notch should be about a third of the thickness of the upright branch. It stimulates the tree to produce branches at exactly that point. Please note that the measurements on Fig. 5 are approximate, and as mentioned above, will vary according to variety, purpose and position.
The following year, build the next layer of the espalier, following the same routine as the previous year (fig. 6). Prune in spring as shown in fig. 6.
The following August, establish the final tier of the espalier, selecting two branches and training down to a 90-degree angle (fig. 7).
The tree should be fertilized with a tree feed such as “Growmore”, following the instructions on the package. Spread the product evenly over an area of 3 square feet around the trunk .
During the growing season (May-October), keep the area under the tree canopy free from weeds, and from grass in particular.
Only prune in the winter once the tree is in full production and therefore is in need of spur replacement.
A common mistake, and one that can have serious consequences, is forcing the tree to grow upwards too quickly, without giving enough time to properly establish the lower limbs of the espalier. The most useful espalier which requires least maintenance in later years, is a tree in which the diameter of the lower arms are of double thickness compared to the top arms of the espalier. Good quality fruit is then produced at all levels of the espalier, and not just on the top layer.
This can be achieved by means of skilful pruning, bearing in mind that shoots in an upright position always grow more strongly than more horizontal ones.
Morello cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines and apricots, so-called stone fruit trees, are often more suited to fan training than espalier or open bush patterns. This to a degree depends on the vigour of the trees and the place where they are going to be planted.
The fan is really a variation on the espalier, except that instead of being held horizontally, branches are trained into a flat fan shape, with two main branches growing outwards at 45°. This angle makes it easier to control growth, when compared with the espalier. In addition, over a number of years the number of branches in the fan can reach from 8 to 10, ensuring good light penetration into the tree structure.
If the tree you are using is a one-year old tree, cut it back to 15 inches above soil level. This should be done in February/March. Remember to seal the pruning cuts with a sealing compound to prevent infection by the spores carrying various tree diseases.
In early June (see fig. 8), select two strongly-growing shoots, close to the tip of the tree, and tie them to canes set at an angle of 45 degrees. Remove all other shoots. Always use bio-degradable tying materials, to prevent the risk of the ties growing in and strangling the two selected branches. As the two branches develop further during the growing season, tie them again along the upper part of the bamboo canes.
If the two trained branches have grown well, in the following February, cut both branches back to twelve inches from the point where they started to grow last February (fig.9). This will provide in total 10 buds, which we will now use to develop the main frame of the fan shape. New shoots will start to grow from these buds. Select four shoots on each side of the fan and tie them again on bamboo canes set out in such a way that they fill the fan space over the 180-degree arching area available (see fig. 10 below). However, leave the centre of the fan unoccupied, in order to maintain good growth in the basic framework.
Once this has been successfully completed, cropping will follow, mainly on one year-old wood. Once that wood has carried a crop, it needs to be cut out to make room for the new one year-old wood. The best time to do this is not during the winter months, but immediately after the crop has been picked. If any sub laterals develop, cut them back to 3 to 4 inches, if there is room available.
The cordon system
Where space is limited, most apples and some pear varieties are suitable to be trained as cordons. A cordon is a tree planted at an angle of 45 degrees, supported and trained along a fence or a wall. Along the wall or fence, horizontal wires are positioned at a height of approximately two, four and six feet. A six-foot bamboo cane is fastened to the wires at a 45-degree angle, at two-foot intervals. These trees are based on the maintenance and supply of short laterals along the main stem of the tree. The first laterals should be in place at approximately 40 cm above soil level. It is essential that the union of the tree is 1.5 to 2 inches above the soil level. For very deep and fertile soils, the M9 rootstock is suitable. However for most situations, M26 is the best rootstock for a cordon tree. On very hungry soils, it might be possible to use the stronger stock MM106 to good effect.
Plant the trees 60 cm apart after having made very sure the soil does not lay wet during the winter or summer months. If drainage is faulty, the trees will suffer badly from tree canker. As a result, the life of the tree is short and the fruit will have a short shelf life. It is also essential that the soil is well prepared in advance, during September and October, while the soil is still warm and friable. Dig over, for each tree, an area of at least 60 x 60 cm. Before you add the essential organic matter such as well rotted farmyard manure to the soil, make sure that the subsoil is well loosened with a rigid tine fork, so that water can always drain away quickly. Tree roots need lots of oxygen and where water is standing around the roots, oxygen is not available. The trees literally suffocate, if this is not corrected!
Summer pruning is essential to ensure that the tree stays within the limited space available.
Pruning must not be carried out during the late autumn or winter months. The cordon tree performs best when pruned during the summer months. The first pruning should be performed by the middle of July in the south of England. For the middle and north of England, start pruning seven to ten days later. Cut all the newly-formed shoots back to five leaves lengths. One newly-formed shoot per growth point is enough. When doubles occur, bring them back to single shoots. By the middle of September, cut the same shoots back to three-leaf lengths. As sub-laterals are formed in later years, cut these back to one leaf lengths. The aim is to create strong fruit buds on two to three-year old wood, as well as spurs. These well-budded-up lengths of wood can be up to nine inches long. Leave these lengths of wood intact as fruit buds will have formed along these two-year old shoots. Some varieties will produce fruit on one-year old wood. All the same, in order not to exhaust the trees, it is best to halve these shoots by the first week of June. Thin the fruits to one fruit per cluster. The fruits will have to be spaced six inches apart to form good-sized fruits.
When the cordon has reached the top wire, it is important to make sure that all new growth does not occur at the top of the tree only. To that effect, lower the complete cordon, initially to a 40-degree angle. In later years, it is possible to lower it to the final angle of 35 degrees. As the trees become older, thin out the fruit spurs and encourage new replacement wood to form in its place.
Please note that the diagonal ochre posts are in fact 1.80 metre lengths of bamboo canes. The trees need to be tied to these canes, firstly because it is essential to maintain the 45 degree angle. This can later be lowered to 35 degrees, if growth is unevenly spread over the total length of the tree. The bamboo canes are also used because trees tied to wire are at risk, because the trees can very easily grow into the wire, which can cause severe damage to the trees, resulting in canker and branch breakages. In addition, it is important that the union of the trees is at least 4 cm above soil level.
Points to remember in cordon training
1) Trees can be contained in growth by using dwarfing rootstocks, if available. But this should be accompanied by the correct application of the summer pruning principles. Winter pruning must be omitted, except the cutting back of the leading shoot, when it has grown too long.
2) Plant the trees at a 45 degree angle. Fasten the trees to 6-foot long strong bamboo canes. These canes themselves are held in that position with the aid of three horizontal wires, which are strained between two strong end posts.
3) Maintain an adequate moisture level in the root zone of the trees during the growing season. Also make sure the union of the trees are approximately 1.5 inches above the soil level.
4) Avoid over-cropping by carrying out fruit thinning by the middle of June. This applies after the trees have been 2 years in the ground.
5) The worst pest is aphids. Easy to control if done early. Once the leaves have curled up it is too late. Be on your guard over the next 3 to 4 weeks.
6) Watch out for any holes in the new leaves. Remove caterpillars as these spread out, and go on to damage more leaves.
7) If there is a lot of rain in spring, early new growth of laterals and sub laterals may be strong. Pinch out the growing tip of these shoots by mid June. Don’t cut back the central leading shoot just yet. About the end of June is right for the central leader.
There are certain apple varieties which can be used to plant along the edge of a bed, or next to a path. The trunk of the apple tree runs horizontally at something like 8 inches above soil level. The formation of this tree form can be done in various ways. However the most important requirement is that the formation pruning is never carried out during the winter months when the trees are dormant. Various stages of summer pruning are carried out, in order to encourage formation of fruit buds all along the main stem. Secondly, ideally, moderate new growth needs to occur along the whole length of the stem. Depending on the soil depth and soil quality, the rootstock suitable for these types of trees are M9 and M26. Tip bearing varieties are not suitable, nor are very vigorous varieties. Spur type varieties are the most useful ones to use for this type of tree.
Good results have been achieved by the use of the following varieties: James Grieve, Katy, Greensleeves, Egremont Russet, Lord Lambourne, Ellisons Orange, Sunset, Pixie, Red Pippin, Red Falstaff and Royal Gala.
Formation of the structure of a stepover tree
Always make sure the union of the tree is at least 3 inches above soil level. As the union of the tree will greatly swell in size over time, the risk of scion rooting should not be underestimated
Ideally the two newly-formed main branches should be of the same thickness and the same length. This can be achieved by pruning the tree back, after it has been planted, at a height of approx. 10 inches. Of the new growth appearing in the early summer months, two shoots running parallel with the edge of the bed, need to be selected and the remaining shoots rubbed out, early during the growing season, early in June. These two shoots should be left to grow, uncut, but gradually lowered to a final horizontal position by the end of September.
The following season one will see new growth appearing all along the horizontal branches. It is very important to pinch out the growing tips of the newly forming shoots as soon as 6 inches of length has been established. By the middle of July these shoots are cut back again to 4 inches. New growth will occur again. The shoots are now cut back again, by the middle of September to 2 inches in length. All being well, fruit buds have now been formed along the base of the main horizontal stem.
The trick is to make sure these fruit buds set fruit the following season. This can be achieved by making sure good cross pollination occurs every new season. For that reason two compatible diploid varieties need to be planted. The stepover trees should be planted approximately 5 to 6 feet apart, depending on the quality of the soil and the rootstock used.
Stepover trees in containers
There is another method of growing stepover trees. I have often seen heavily laden mature fruit trees that have been blown over by strong gales, level to the ground. As long as 10% of the roots are still undamaged, these trees may start a new life, with the trunk actually lying on the ground. This knowledge can be used with good effect for the construction of stepover trees. As long as trees are well watered and fed, sizeable containers can be used, in which two young maiden trees can be planted, WITHOUT HAVING TO CUT BACK THE TREES. It is essential that these containers have large sized drainage holes from which new roots can find their way into the soil. Often the new shoot growth occurring along the full length of these trees, is easier to control, compared with the treatment of the trees as outlined above.
Apricot Fan Training
Here are the instructions for fan training an apricot tree:
Start with 2 side branches
Cut these back by about 2 inches. Remove all other growth. (March)
Promote strong growth. (Water, nutrients, warmth).
Seal all fresh pruning cuts with “Heal and Seal” compound to prevent bacterial canker infection.
Select 2 shoots on either side.
Tie in with bamboo canes at 45 degree angles
Cut back the original side branches and the extra 4, by about a third of their length.
Continue to feed well (slow release fertilizer, Osmacote or the equivalent).
February/March of the following year
Select the final 2 branches.
Carry out the same procedure as in the previous year.
After cropping (August), cut out the wood that carried a crop. Tie in new canes to replace the wood that carried fruit. Develop fruit spurs.
Apricot crops best on younger wood, but it does crop on the older spurs.
Never prune plums, cherries, apricots, peach and nectarine during the winter months but ALWAYS as soon as you have picked the crop. This to avoid disease build-up.