So ... you have a young tree. Whatever the species, at the end of its first, or maiden, year it is furnished with buds; rather flat and capable of producing new shoots. These are called wood buds. Even though anatomically identical, the buds will not develop equally the following year. Those at the top will give new leafy growth in spring, the length and thickness of which will decrease, the further it gets away from the terminal bud.
No-one quite knows what it is that causes an apple tree, or any other tree, to begin fruiting. Some think it is controlled by hormones. Others think it is regulated by the ratio of carbohydrates to nitrogenous compounds in the tree fluids. But from our point of view, it doesn't really matter, because the principles of getting trees to fruit have been known for centuries.
In apples, the first sign of fruiting is the appearance of conical buds. You will also see new twiggy growth: spindly shoots looking quite unlike the vigorous vertical shoots at the top of the tree. You will first see them on the lower part of the lower branches. The shoots are known as dards and brindilles.
In old age, the formation of wood shoots slows down and finally stops. Fruiting continues, but little by little the branches die back, the leaves become smaller and paler, and pests and diseases multiply. This stage can continue for a very long time.
METHODS OF BRINGING TREES INTO FRUIT
When fruit trees are left entirely to themselves their branches are often bent down under their own weight, and take the form of an arch. From that stage onwards, fruiting laterals grow out along a great part of their length, and fruiting follows. In "arching", the shoot, whatever angle it forms with the vertical, is bent over so that its tip is lower than its base. This is the simplest and quickest way of bringing a shoot into fruiting.
Click on Pictures to enlarge.
Incompetent pruning may stop your tree from producing fruit. The danger is that you cut off the fruit bearing organs and buds. It is possible to write a hundred pages on pruning and, indeed, many have done so. But if you learn to look for the fruit bearing wood, and the associated buds, you will be able to work it out for yourself.
One word of warning: don't prune out every last bit of new woody growth. The odd strong vertical shoot helps keep the sap going through the tree. You will use the vertical shoots as new branches if you get die-back on the older wood. And don't let the tree produce thousands of fruit bearing spurs; cut out the excess. They will harbour disease and the tree, being overloaded, will lose most of the crop.
3. ROOT PRUNING
This is done when the tree is growing too strongly. Suppressing the roots weakens the tree's powers of absorption. There will be less nitrogen available to the tree and more carbohydrates, since the leaf system remains the same. This encourages the formation of fruit-bearing wood.
4. OTHER METHODS
Garrotting is sometimes used, or bark ringing, but only on large, vigorous trees. Root constriction is good for peaches and figs, but is not generally used for apples.
WHEN SHOULD YOUR TREE START TO FRUIT?
It depends on how big the tree is going to be, and this will depend on the rootstock. If you've bought a "full standard" or "half standard" - you plant it and leave it alone. It will be 7 years old before it fruits. Pruning it is not an option; it will want to be large, and if you prune, you will delay its maturity and fruit bearing.
If you have a smaller tree (on M27, M9, M26 or MM106) it can fruit within 3 years. On these trees, a vigorous branch will generally fruit within 2 years of arching.
APPLE TREE FORMS
There are many ways in which an apple tree can be trained: espalier, cordon, double cordon., goblet... I am particularly fond of the goblet tree, where a large crop can be carried, none of it more than 3 ft. from the ground.
A well-shaped fruit tree can also be very beautiful.
I will be writing about this when time permits. E-mail me if you wish.
Nigel Deacon 14th May 2002
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