Training the New Apple Tree
Finally! Your trees are in the ground and well watered in. The best nursery trees will have 10-12 feathers, and the leader will tall and undamaged. Minimal pruning at planting is recommended to allow the tree continue to grow calmly and produce fruitful feathers.
Here are the important tree training tasks in Year 1:
- Do not cut the leader. Plan to return after budbreak to remove competing side shoots if needed (Figure 1).
- Remove broken or damaged branches.
- Remove feathers lower than 18”.
- Look at the diameter of the feathers, and remove feathers that exceed 50% the diameter of the leader. This is critical to preserve the dominance of the leader (especially in Ambrosia). Using a bevel or Dutch cut may allow a weaker side shoot to develop (Figure 2).
- Tie down feathers to below horizontal, especially if they are vigorous.(Figure 3) Tying can be especially effective with high vigour cultivars like Spy, more vigorous rootstocks, or in the highest density plantings.
- Install the support system as soon as possible and attach the tree to it (Figure 4). At minimum, get the tree supported to prevent wind whipping or damage to the roots. Removing the effect of wind will encourage early cropping.
Remember your goals for this tree for its first year:
- Grow the leader as tall as possible, hopefully reaching the top wire by Year 2. Tall leaders maintain dominance over the tree’s growth, encouraging calm growth and early fruiting.
- Encourage terminal growth on feathers of at least 6-8”, allowing the tree to fill its allotted space. This requires protecting the leaves from diseases and insects so they can produce carbohydrates to feed the tree.
- Establish an effective rooting system to absorb the water and nutrition needed for large crops. Ensure that soil test shows adequate levels. Water the trees regularly and deeply so roots explore the entire soil profile (Figure 5).
- Set fruit spurs and initiate flowers for early cropping. Feathers on nursery trees and early-growing feathers in the planting year should be able to carry some crop in Year 2. Remember that apple trees begin initiating flower buds in July, so the tree needs to be well established by then.
This is a major change from our previous practice of heavy pruning at planting, which caused the trees to grow vigorously and produce stronger wood. Because the trees are planted closer, with smaller spaces to fill, we are instead directing the tree’s energy to growth toward the top wire, and producing many feathers that will crop early.