Mohawk college staff and volunteers learn fruit tree pruning with Susan Poizner (centre front) in the campus orchard.

Mohawk college staff and volunteers learn how to prune fruit trees – and keep them small – with Susan Poizner (centre front) in the campus orchard.

If you’re in the market to buy a new apple tree, you may be tempted to splash out and pay extra for an larger, more established tree. Your reasoning? Certainly older trees will look prettier than younger, smaller fruit trees. And then there’s the perception that with a more mature tree you will enjoy an earlier harvest.

It is true that a larger, nursery-grown fruit tree will produce fruit sooner because it is already at a fruit bearing stage of its life cycle. In contrast, you may have to wait three to five years for a young, year-old “whip” to produce fruit at all. And yet, I’d say that in the long term, that small fruit tree whip will adapt better to your site, it will be more resistant to pest and disease problems – and it will be more likely to thrive.

In a recent, day-long fruit tree pruning workshop at Mohawk college, offered by Mohawk College’s Sustainability Office in partnership with Environment Hamilton, the group saw another reason why it’s better to plant younger fruit trees – It is easier to prune and shape young trees in order to create a solid, fruit-bearing structure  that will last for the tree’s lifetime.

A volunteer pruning one of the larger trees in Fennel Orchard. When you plant a larger tree, it's harder to create the ideal shape for growing fruit.

A volunteer pruning one of the larger trees in Fennel Orchard. When you plant a larger tree, it’s harder to create the ideal shape for growing fruit.

Mohawk has a beautiful orchard with 23 recently planted apple and pear trees. Many of the trees are small. They were just a year or two old when they were planted in 2014. Others were very large trees that may have been five or six years old at planting.

So, after our morning session indoors in which the students learned the principles of correct fruit tree pruning, we took our tools and went out into the orchard and we started to prune the trees.

Our goals were:

  • To create a solid fruit-bearing structure for the trees
  • To improve tree health
  • To spur vigorous tree growth

The younger trees in Mohawk’s Fennel Orchard were easier to prune. Their branches were softer and with correct annual pruning it will be easy to give these trees a healthy, open structure that will be ideal for optimal tree health and a generous harvest.  It will also be much easier to keep the trees a manageable size. Larger trees are harder to prune, maintain and harvest.

It's easier to prune and maintain a smaller tree. While these trees start off small, they will grow more vigorously and adapt to their new conditions sooner than a larger calliper tree. Photo credit: Mohawk College

It’s easier to prune and maintain a smaller tree. While these trees start off small, they will grow more vigorously and adapt to their new conditions sooner than a larger calliper tree. Photo credit: Mohawk College

The older trees, although beautiful, posed more of a challenge. The branches of course were thicker and the branch structure was already set. The trees were taller than we might want for ease of care and harvest. And since you can only prune about 20 percent of an older tree each year, we were able to clean up those older trees a bit, but we had to leave a lot more of the pruning work for years to come.

Each of the participants had the opportunity to prune at least two trees using their newly acquired skills and they did a great job. They will also be comfortable pruning these and other fruit trees next year, both in Fennel Orchard and in other orchards to be planted in Hamilton through groups like Hamilton Victory Gardens.

As for yourself, will you choose to buy a more mature fruit tree for planting? Or might you consider planting a young whip from a specialist fruit tree nursery? It’s up to you. But if you want to learn more about how to select a fruit tree that will thrive in your unique conditions, check out Orchard People’s “Researching Your Fruit Tree” online workshop – part of our Certificate in Beginner Fruit Tree Care.

Teach me fruit tree pruning today!

Susan Poizner

Susan Poizner

Director, OrchardPeople.com Fruit Tree Care Education Online

Susan Poizner is the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards and the creator of the award-winning online fruit tree care training program at www.orchardpeople.com. She is also the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast.  She is an urban orchardist, journalist and film maker living in Toronto, Canada.