The time for dormant-season pruning has passed for Central Illinois fruit trees. While yearly pruning is important, training the branches of young trees is necessary to shape a tree into an optimum position to support the weight of carrying fruit, reduce disease, and fortifying the tree from wind or storm damage.
There are two types of training systems commonly used for fruit trees: the central leader system and the open center system.
The central leader system is best for apples, apricots, pears, and both sweet and tart cherries. These trees are pruned to have one main trunk 5 to 8 feet tall, and a series of five to 12 scaffold branches (the strongest branches that make up the tree’s structure), which are 4 to 8 inches apart vertically.
The crotch angle of scaffold branches should be between 45 and 60 degrees, but many cultivars tend to grow vertical branches with narrow V's between the trunk and the scaffold.
Growers can use spreaders, weights hung on the limb, or a rope staked into the ground, to increase branch crotch angles. Wider crotch angles (wide V's) slow shoot growth and strengthen the branch angle.
If you have a new tree without branches (a “whip”), head the tree about 30 inches above ground. If your new tree has branches, head it eight to 12 inches above the top good lateral branch.
The second system, the open center, is used for sweet cherry, peaches, prune, and plum. This system has a single trunk topped 18 to 30 inches high with and two to five scaffold branches close together vertically. This system is also nicknamed the “fruit bowl” because the center remains open and the scaffold branches grow vertically, forming the sides of the bowl.
At planting, if the tree is an unbranched whip, head the leader 26 to 30 inches above ground when the buds start to swell in early spring.
The first winter, select three or four scaffold branches located 15 to 30 inches above the soil line, preferably one at each compass point. Cut each branch back by half to an outward-facing bud. Remove any branches on the southwest side of the tree. This will allow for maximum light exposure and increased airflow.
Remove all branches less than 15 inches above the soil line and top off the trunk just above the topmost-selected scaffold.
The process of training a fruit tree will take several years to get the desired shape and angles. During this time, support trees by staking or trellising to protect from elemental and animal damage. Training young trees helps to promote a stronger structure to support heavy fruit loads, reduce the number of weak or fragile limbs, lessen the amount of annual pruning needed, and lengthen the life of your fruit trees.
For more information about fruit tree training or other questions about fruit trees, contact your local Extension office, or check out Oregon State University Extension’s publication Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard at https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/pnw400.