Maintenance of Fruit Trees

The level of care in the first five years after planting is important in helping the fruit trees to become established.

  1. Watering. Newly planted trees require watering in the first weeks. The ground should be kept wet to ensure the water reaches the roots. Depending on soil and weather conditions, further watering may be necessary during the first few summers. Failure to water may lead to poor growth, smaller and fewer fruit or even the death of the tree.
  2. Guards, ties and stakes. Guards should be checked every few weeks to make sure that dogs, cats and other animals have not moved them to reach the tree. While in place, the stake should be checked at least every six months and the tie loosened if it starts digging into the tree bark. After 1-2 years, provided soil and weather conditions have not impeded them, the roots should have grown enough to anchor the tree and the stem strengthened sufficiently for the stake to be removed. To check if a stake is still needed, the tie should be released and the tree pushed gently to one side. If it does not return to an upright position, the tie can be refastened and the same tried again the next year. If it does, the stake should be removed carefully without being shaken as this may damage the tree roots. The resulting hole should be filled in with soil.
  3. Weed control. Weed competition for water and nutrients can severely restrict growth and cropping of fruit trees, particularly young trees. The area around the base of a new tree should be kept weed free for at least three years after planting. Rampant weed growth, especially dominant perennials such as bramble and other scrub, can also affect mature trees. These should be kept under control and not allowed to overwhelm the orchard. In areas that need to be cleared the first step is to physically remove the growth, by hand or mechanically. Subsequent control of re-growth may be by hand, machine or grazing. Chemical control through the use of herbicides should only be practised when absolutely necessary.
  4. Management of grassland. Once the trees are well established the sward can be allowed to grow up to the trunk if desired, although tall weeds, bramble and ivy should be removed from around the trees. The grassland should be cut regularly to keep the sward at an acceptable height. Care must be taken to avoid damaging trees if using strimmers or mowers (cone guards will give protection).
  5. Formative pruning. All young fruit trees require careful pruning in the first five years of their life. The aim is to develop a balanced strong branch system with an open habit. This will allow light in and air to circulate which will free the leaves and help ripen the fruit. There are certain guiding principles:
    • Apple and pear trees should be pruned in the winter months when all the leaves have dropped and the tree is dormant. As stoned fruits (plum, gage and cherry) are extremely susceptible to Silver Leaf fungus, their pruning should be kept to a minimum and confined to the summer months while the tree is actively growing.
    • The height of the tree's central leader (trunk) does not increase from the base as the tree grows, so the height at which each branch forms remains the same throughout the tree's life. The only way to raise the height of the laterals is by removing them in favour of higher growth. In practice it is best to leave at least 20 cm of trunk between each branch.
    • To create a half-standard tree, the central leader is stopped lower down leaving secondary leaders to form a multi-stemmed tree. Each of these stems can form its own scaffold.
    • During the first few years the pruning will be relatively severe in relation to the amount of wood present on the tree. Start by removing suckers, water sprouts and branches that are crossing, rubbing, weak, dead, diseased, damaged or dying. Generally speaking, the leader of each branch should be reduced each year by between a third and a half of the season's growth. Thin shoots should be pruned to short spurs of one or two buds only. This will stimulate new vegetative shoot growth.
    • As the tree matures, the emphasis of pruning shifts away from shaping its vegetative growth and towards fruit production. A healthy tree needs a balance between mature fruiting wood (to keep generating healthy crops of good quality fruit) and vegetative growth (to rejuvenate the tree and become fruiting wood in the future). Problems can develop when this balance is not maintained. To maintain the balance, strongly growing shoots (more than 25cm annual growth) should be left alone, moderately growing shoots (10-25cm annual growth) should be pruned lightly; and poorly growing shoots (less than 10cm annual growth) should be pruned hard.
    • The traditional practise for cobnuts is to grow open-centred trees about 2m high. Six to eight wide-angled framework branches are developed on a central stem (or sometimes a multi-stemmed bush) about 60cm high. Shoots and wands below this height are removed. The central leader should be shortened once it has reached 1.1m. As the tree grows, some of the central branches can be cut away and others shortened to reduce their dominance in favour of more desirable, outward-facing buds or branches. After about six years the tree should have developed its goblet shape. After this point the aim is to maintain the framework branches, removing crowded and upright growth and producing an ongoing supply of new cropping wood - the shorter, weaker branches which can be removed rotationally over the years.
    • Pruning should always be to just above a bud. This is the growing point and any material left above it will die back, leaving a potential source for disease and infection to enter the tree. Cutting back above a bud encourages it to grow. Plant hormones force the top bud to be a sink for nutrients and so it is from this bud that most of the next season's growth will occur. The lower buds will only produce limited growth or remain dormant. Similarly, removing a dominant shoot will cause the shoot below it to take over in its place. Care is needed when doing this to avoid unbalancing the tree.
    • Pruning of branches should be done carefully to avoid damage to the tree. Pruning cuts should ensure that only branch tissue is removed and the bark ridge and collar are not damaged. Flush cuts, flat against the trunk, should not be made. This leaves a large wound within the trunk wood which is less likely to heal over. A short piece of wood, wider at the bottom than the top, containing the branch bark ridge and branch collar should be left behind. This will not die back, but seals off the wound, minimizing disease and decay. The pruning cut should begin at the top, just outside the branch bark ridge and angle away from the stem of the tree following the edge of the branch collar. If large branches are cut off in one go, they may break under their own weight before they have been completely sawn through. This can split the branch collar or tear a large strip of bark from the trunk as it falls.