Tree-Training Systems for the Home Orchard
Three patterns of tree-training are appropriate for the home apple orchard:
All three patterns are suitable for trees on well-anchored rootstocks, which basically means any rootstock more vigorous than the very dwarfing M.9 and maybe G.11. For Malling 9 and stocks of similar or less vigor, though, only the spindle and espalier are suitable because the brittleness of the rootstock tissue and the heavy cropping too often combine resulting in serious breakage.
Central Leader. This is suitable for trees on very vigorous rootstocks -- Antonovka, Bud.118, MM.111, MM.106. The first 3 or 4 or 5 years are spent essentially in building trunk and scaffolds. At planting, the leader is cut back to about 6 inches above the highest branch or, if the tree is a whip, to about 36 inches above ground level. I like to cut back the side shoots by about 1/3 too. When new growth from the top cut is 4-6 inches long, "single out" to one top shoot; this will be the new "leader". Next dormant season, cut back the central leader by about half; later, single out the new leader. Use spring-type clothespins to adjust new side shoots to about 90 degree angles.
Trellised Trees. There are literally dozens of different versions of trellising, and every one works, at least for the grower who advocates that particular system. For the home orchard, though, the total effort and expense required to set up a trellis, with end posts, anchors, tension adjusters, etc., is really too much to be practical, in my view. Espaliers have been grown for centuries, though, on boundary fences, and certainly the blossoming of an espaliered tree attached to a wooden fence is a beautiful sight in the spring.
Post-Supported. These methods are basically simple and easy to use and, above all, they work!! Trees on any of the dwarfing rootstocks -- Malling 9, Budagovsky 9, Geneva 11, G.16, M.27 -- and for Geneva 30 should be given permanent support. For the home orchard, the easiest approach is to set an 8-ft pressure-treated post two feet deep at planting time, about 6 inches to the west or south of the tree trunk. Initial pruning is similar to that described above for Central Leader, but the initial cut of the leader is only about 1/3 of the leader length. The tree is tied to the post with figure-8 loops, one about a foot above the base, and more at 12-15 inch intervals. After that first cut, I like to do very little pruning except to take out over-vigorous side shoots. This pruning system results in a somewhat zigzag appearance, but this helps to keep the tree's growth under control. Growth of branches is kept in bounds by cutting back to a lateral. Oftentimes it is necessary to tie up branches that are carrying a heavy crop load.