Heading or topping a bare-root fruit tree in its first winter helps it to establish more successfully in its new home. It also encourages side branches to form at the correct height when the tree starts growing again in the Spring. If you planted a one or two year old bare-rooted tree in the autumn and didn’t carry out any pruning at the time of planting, (and the nursery didn’t either) now is the time to do this initial pruning while the tree is still dormant.
A one or two-year old trees – known as a maidens – are sold as feathered or unfeathered. They are cheaper to buy and a more flexible option than more mature trees, in the sense that they can be pruned into a whole variety of different shapes – standard, half standard, bush, fan, espalier and cordon. [Word of caution – check that the tree you have purchased has been grafted onto the correct rootstock for the size and shape of tree you want to achieve]
Feathered maidens have been allowed to develop side shoots from the main stem. In a previous blog Pruning Young Trees , we discuss the correct pruning regime in the first winter which will help produce a strong trunk. However, unfeathered maidens, trees without side shoots, may also need pruning if they have reached the desired height.
Before we go any further, it is important to understand how a tree grows. It is a misconception that trees grow from the bottom up. Rather, they grow from the top. This means the height at which the framework branches are established remains the same for duration of the tree’s life. Heading or topping is therefore a long- term decision and needs some careful thought.
Essentially, how big do you want the tree to grow? If you are growing it for fruit production, do you want to be able to pick the fruit without using long ladders? Consider how the orchard floor will be managed. If the orchard is grazed by cattle, the framework branches will need to be higher than if it is grazed by sheep. If you intend to use a mower you will need sufficient headroom to be able to pass under the tree’s branches easily to prevent damage to the tree and to yourself.
The three most common shapes for free-standing fruit trees are standard, half-standard and bush.
To train a maiden into a standard tree allow it to grow to about 3 metres in height. Cut the top off just above a bud at around the 2 metre mark. The head of the tree will add an additional 3 metres. Ladders and possibly even a cherry picker will be needed to harvest the highest branches when the tree is fully mature.
The trunk height for a half standard tree is between 1 – 1.5 metres. The canopy will add a further 3 metres in height and width making the tree’s mature height roughly 4.0 – 4.5 metres. Half-standard trees can be harvested with a long ladder.
A bush tree is a free-standing tree with a short trunk. A maiden should be headed at 0.5 metres. They are perfect for smaller gardens and orchards and allow for harvesting without ladders.
When making the cut use sharp secateurs. Locate a healthy, well-placed bud and make a clean, sloping cut about a quarter of an inch above the bud slanting away from it.