In a natural setting, trees find the moisture level, sunlight and spacing needed to develop into balanced, fruit-bearing trees. However, when young fruit trees are planted in a commercial growing situation it’s important to carefully plan and strategically follow through with regular maintenance to ensure the trees have the best opportunity to thrive and produce bountiful crops.

Prior to planting any fruit trees it’s important to select varieties suited to the local climate and soil conditions. Once you’ve determined which fruit tree species are well-suited for your property, it’s important to provide regular maintenance.

Getting started

“People often wait too long to plant their trees,” Marvin P. Pritts, Professor, Small Fruit Production, Cornell University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, School of Integrative Plant Science, said.

Trees need to be planted as early as possible in spring. Saplings and rootstock should be planted as soon as the soil has thawed and drained enough to work in without destroying the structure. Ideally, the soil should be prepared for planting the prior year in anticipation of an early spring planting.

Before planting, inspect the plants for broken or injured roots and trim off any that are damaged.

Then, hydrate the young trees. Saplings that arrive in the mail can especially have dry roots. Soak the tree roots in a pail of clean water for six to 12 hours. It is critical that newly planted trees receive adequate watering to survive the first year.

“Water is much more important than fertilizer that first year. In fact, fertilizer is rarely needed upon planting, especially if the site was prepared properly,” Pritts added.

Pruning and training

Pruning is an important step in establishing young trees so that they are healthy and productive. Unless a newly-planted tree has damaged branches, it won’t likely need pruning when it’s first planted. However, after that annual pruning, encourage lots of productive fruiting wood – one-year-old wood for peaches and two- to three-year-old wood for others.

“Apples, pears, cherries, and plums produce their best fruit on two- to three-year-old wood. Peaches bear fruit on the last year’s vegetative growth,” according to the “Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home.”

The act of pruning is both a skill and an art. It is the practice of selectively removing specific parts of a plant to benefit the overall health and development. Typically, shoots and branches are pruned off a tree, but it can also include roots, flower buds, seed heads or fruit. How you prune the trees affects how they grow and produce fruit.

Pruning can be done for several reasons. Pruning can dwarf a plant or make it grow taller; it can open up the canopy of a tree or make it more dense; and for fruit-bearing trees, it can improve the performance.

It’s important to remember that any time a tree is pruned, a wound is inflicted on the tree. While it’s critical to the overall health of the tree, it’s also important to prune carefully, properly and with sharp tools to limit the size or severity of the wound.

For most fruit-producing trees, except peaches, it is important for the tree to have one, and only one, dominant central leader, from which the side branches grow. Allowing multiple leaders to grow affects the overall health of the tree and prohibits the tree from maturing properly.

“If there are insufficient lateral branches, pruning back the leader will promote these side branches,” Pritts explained. “The more the leader is pruned back, the more side branches will be encouraged,” he added.

Typically, the goal is to encourage ornamental trees to grow into its natural shape. Removing dead, diseased or damaged wood, or branches that are rubbing together – and simply letting the ornamental tree follow its natural tendencies – is the recommended approach.

When and how often to prune?

Most people tend to prune too much. Prune what needs pruning, but don’t over-prune either. Pruning in the late winter stimulates growth. Pruning in the late summer reduces the vigor of the trees.

“Late summer is a good time to prune if you want to remove wood without stimulating regrowth,” Pritts said. “Late winter is a good time to prune to remove undesired or injured wood and to promote side branches or leader growth. It is also easier to see the shape of the tree when there are no leaves.”

Most of the pruning on younger trees will likely happen in late winter. As the tree ages, more pruning is done in late summer.

The “Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home” outlines the three basic types of pruning cuts for fruit trees:

* Pinching: removing growth near the apical meristem (the growing tip of a shoot) while it is still young and succulent.

* Heading: removing some, but not all of a branch or shoot (called a shortening cut on older wood)

* Thinning: removing an entire shoot at its point of origin (called a renewal cut on older wood)

“Normally, when pruning trees of all kinds, make your cut flush with the branch collar that forms where the shoot meets the branch or trunk. Where larger branches meet the main trunk, it’s important to undercut the branch a few inches away from the trunk, then finish the cut from above. Remove the stub by cutting close to the branch collar. This helps prevent damage to the bark on the trunk,” according to the “Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home.”

Careful, selective pruning produces a healthy, beautiful and productive tree that provides a profitable crop or a tree that will enhance your landscape for years to come.

Worth the work

The first few years of growth are the most important in training and encouraging a strong, healthy tree that is bountiful in production and strong enough to withstand local weather conditions. The structural developments in a tree during its first few years remain evident decades later when the tree is mature and well-established.

Different species of trees may require a different approach to how often routine care is provided. Local cooperative extension agencies and a plethora of online resources are available to offer guidance. The “Cornell Guide to Growing Fruit at Home” is a good starting resource. It can be found at http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/fruit/homefruit.html.

Katie Navarra is a freelance contributor based in Clifton Park, New York, and writes about agriculture and the equine industry regularly.

COVER PHOTO & ILLUSTRATION BY LILLISPHOTOGRAPHY & BYALEX BELOMLINSKY/ISTOCK