Too Mulch of a Good Thing
May 11, 2016
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Gradually Reducing Size of Fruit Trees


Gradually Reducing Size of Fruit Trees

A wise old garden writer once said, “People prune young trees too little, and old trees too much.” (Stubbins et al HP Western Guide to Fruits Nuts and Berries) As with most woody plants, fruit trees don’t follow a linear growth path, they start off slow, innocuous…

Just when you’ve ben lulled into a sense of security, around three years, the tree starts a growth spurt–still manageable–maybe just prune it a little. By year four and five, that adorable little tree has become enormous! But, still manageable, right? You prune it a little. Then a decade goes by. At ten years, without good training when young, the tree is now officially too big. Too big to prune, too big to pick… Oooof! Now what?

Resist the temptation to chop that tree down to size! There is no way to make a big tree small again: the best you can do is redirect growth. So, take it slow.

Meet Chloe, our virtual plum tree, who was left to her own devices for several years. Now, she has abundant growth at the top of the tree, but not much fruit, and the thick shade thrown by leaves at the top limit the sunlight needed for fruit on the inside of the tree to ripen.

So, for the first year dormant season, we’ll thin out the vertical growth in the center of the tree, but leave a few stragglers, so the tree doesn’t push out lots of suckers in response.

See, this is Chloe after her first haircut, and she feels FABULOUS!

 By next spring, Chloe will begin trying to grow back to her pre-pruning size, so you’ll see an abundance of new shoots, but many of these are now lower in the tree–right where we want them.

  By leaving a few taller branches uncut, Chloe doesn’t freak out and send up a bunch of tall strait water sprouts.  The branches now bend a little, producing side branches–perfect for reduction pruning.

This thinning is best done during the growing season, but it is quite a challenge to draw all those leaves….. If you thin fruit trees at ‘fruitlet’ stage, you can also thin out the fruit then. Supple young shoots can often just be rubbed out. Or use good, sharp shears. 

  Ah, now Chloe has regained her youthful shape! The tree’s response will be more budding and branching lower in the tree, and fewer wild and crazy shoots at the top that shade all the fruit below. 


This is Chloe a year and a half later. The following winter the Maekover is complete.

 Like a good haircut, you really don’t notice the change right away. But after two years, Chloe, the Prodigal Plum, has returned: