Are tree hedgers in your future?

The shape of apple trees in today's high density orchard is different. Growers are training trees into a fruiting wall by investing in taller nursery trees and trellis supports, and spending time training trees in the early years. A key driver for this change is the need to reduce labour costs and move toward efficiency in the orchard. Mechanizing orchard tasks will be the next step, and tree hedgers look promising to reduce pruning costs.

Many growers grimace to remember the hedgers used in the 1970's, which severely sheared large trees, and promoted excessive regrowth and more problems. Today's hedging will be used gently - more for shearing and shaping rather than "knocking down" big trees.

Research in Europe and in the U.S. has shown that hedgers can be precisely timed to achieve different results. Each grower may decide which time to hedge for different aged trees or different cropping history:

  • Dormant to early spring - used to stimulate growth on weaker trees.
  • Late June (as fruit bud initiation begins) - cutting new shoots to encourage shoot regrowth and some additional fruit bud formation.
  • August - used to improve sunlight penetration.

Caution must be taken to prevent several potential problems:

  • Freshly exposed fruitlets can quickly sunburn. Apply sunshade products before hedging.
  • Fire blight bacteria can infect open wounds. Do not hedge if fire blight is present, and choose warm, dry days to hedge for quick wound healing.
  • Trellises must be straight, and drive rows need to be smooth to avoid damage to hedging equipment or trellis.

Hedging may replace most of the pruning requirement for one or two years, while the third year may require full hand pruning to re-establish the correct tree structure and limb renewal. This could be a significant advancement in reducing costs while maintaining high fruit quality for today's high density orchard.

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