Only two laterals on young apple

Last year I headed a friend’s year old apple whip to force out laterals. During 2015 only two laterals (and a nice leader) emerged. I have read that if less than three laterals emerge, cut them all off and re-head this year, i.e. start over.

What would you do? I know notching is an option to force out a third or fourth lateral but would those notched branches ever catch up to the two older laterals? My best guess is those two older laterals would dominate and unbalance the tree as they are not opposite each other- are 90 degrees apart.

Do you have the 2 laterals and a central leader? Or just 2 laterals? If you have 2 laterals and a central leader I would leave what you have and go from there. Depending on root stock you dont want your scaffolds stacked too close together any how.

You could use maxcel in paint and paint the buds you want to force. Works well alone or with notching.

BTW - Maxcel is just 6-BAP which you can buy cheaply (<$10) on eBay. Dissolve in alcohol, and add to latex paint.


Yes it has a good leader and two nice laterals at right angles to each other i.e.not opposite each other.

Do you think the new laterals would ever catch up to size, dominance of the existing laterals?

They should catch up in size. Think about it - can you tell the difference between a 4 and 5yr old branch? How about a 9 and 10yr old branch? As long as the new laterals aren’t shaded out they’ll do just fine.

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OK thanks, will try notching and hope see if new laterals can compete with the older two laterals. I have this same issue with about six trees. May re-head some and notch others, watch results.

Maybe you could bend the two laterals to close to horizontal and tie them there with string (don’t tie the loop tight or it will girdle). That should slow down their growth, as well as speed fruit bud development. And notching sounds like a good idea.

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Thanks Bob, great idea. Amazing how many curves trees can throw at you.

There are parts of Japan where standard training is to have just two scaffolds which break into 2 equal sized branches (by stub cutting back to two small shoots early in training) to create an open center tree. The method is highly productive.

I only mention this to illustrate that there are many ways to train a productive apple tree, and the 3 tiered central leader is just the one adopted for commercial growing in this country- at least for free standing trees.

As far as your tree- as long as you aren’t trying to establish the third branch on the north side of the tree you shouldn’t have any trouble establishing it. Equality is eventually achieved by limiting each branch to its territory with all three branches “owning” 120 degrees of the circle of light interception. You simply prune back the violating secondary branches and over time diameter will balance out between the three. It only becomes a violation when the offender is crowding the owner- if the space isn’t needed yet by the owner let the branch be so as much light is harvested as possible.

Don’t be in a hurry to make the tree perfect because the less you prune the sooner it will be productive, as long as you promptly remove branches of excessive diameter.

Notching should work to get the branch started where you want it.


Very helpful advice Alan, thank you. Someone once said “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” In another thread you said to eventually find the tree within the tree after it starts bearing. That paints a good picture.

I’ve had amazing results with combined above bud notching and disbudding on apples. If the whip is long enough, I can usually get everything I want in one year. I don’t remove all of the buds I don’t want, but leave small groups of them and notch the one I want to grow. It seems less reliable in older wood, but can still often work really well. I’m definitely over just heading back and praying shoots grow where I want them. I put them exactly where I want them and it seems to work almost all the time. I’m just a hobby orchardist, so small numbers, but so far it seems remarkably reliable. If I have one that seems heavily competitive, I’ll head it way back. I’ve also tried partial girdling of the strong ones to slow them down a little bit, but the jury is out on that one…


@SkillCult - very interesting. Do you notch roughly at bud swell or green tip?

Re: heading back over-strong laterals, I thought that hard heading back encourages it to grow even more aggressively.