Fruit Tree Limb Spreading
Mike McGrath, the garden guru (formerly of Organic Gardening Magazine, now has a garden show on WHYY in Philly called “You Bet Your Garden”) seems to hate fruit trees. He discourages anyone from planting them. They take a lot of work, he is right about that. Like Mike, I would recommend that novice gardeners try the small fruits first, that is raspberries, strawberries, and blue berries, and that the first tree you plant in this climate be a fig. But I would not flat out discourage planting large fruit trees. Despite the difficulty of growing large fruit trees (apples, pears, cherries, peaches, etc) home growing is the only way to get copious amounts of organic fruit without a huge cost. In addition, some of the “work” is fun, if you like gardening! The fruit may not be the ready for a grocery store ad, but it will taste great! (So far I have an apple tree, 4 peaches, two pears, 5 figs and lots of the small fruits too).
I planted two disease-resistant pear trees a few years ago (“Moonglow” and “Crisp ‘n Sweet”) and they produced fruit for the first time this year. Then they shot up all summer trying to be tall columns. This is not the ideal shape for fruit trees- whenever you look at trees in a commercial orchard, you see that the limbs are spread out and the tree is relatively short. Indeed, the trees look gnarled and twisted, limbs splayed out versus erect. To achieve this, you must prune the tree early in its life and continue regular pruning throughout. In addition, orchardists recommend that, early on, you use limb spreaders to spread out the limbs of the trees from a more vertical to a more horizontal direction. You can buy commercial limb spreaders, can simply tie a limb to a brick (not too drastic a bend or the limb might just snap off as I discovered-but I saved the limb! And make sure that mowers know the brick is there and move it back into place should they disturb it) or tie the limb to an empty container and fill it with water until the desired bend is reached. Or you can do what I did in the photo above- make your own limb spreaders out of tree branches (sticks). The best stick to use is one with a fork at one end and some sort of V at the other with another limb. Then just slip the stick into place between two branches, and tie it off with a soft cloth. You can get fancy and actually whittle two v-shaped notches in either end of a stick and tie off as suggested. You will need to remove it after the growing season, do some more pruning, and reposition new spreaders until the final desired form is reached (though the pruning really never ends!) And, this is the time of year to do this, now that the trees are dormant. My method will not always be possible, i.e. if there is no opposing branch to brace one end of the stick spreader, so I will use the other methods as well.
Coming soon- what to cut off and how much?