Other tree training techniques: spreading, bending, notching, girdling, etc

There’s a lot of emphasis placed on making major pruning cuts when the trees are dormant and then very little said about summer pruning, limb bending, notching, etc. It’s hard to find consistent information on some of these techniques so I wanted to put them all down here and maybe get a discussion going on peoples experience with them.

I will update this post periodically as I experiment with some of these techniques and observe their results.

Summer pruning

Used to control the size of a tree, extensively used in Backyard Orchard Culture. Since it can encourage the development of strong upright shoots, its best to do summer pruning around the summer solstice or when 2/3rd of the branch tips have fully set. Light summer pruning can be done at any time to prevent the formation of unwanted branches. Heading cuts are not advised with early summer pruning because it creates a lot of bushy branching at the tips of the cut branch (though they can still be used if you follow-up on removing the unwanted growth 2-4 weeks later).

See also

Other good posts: here, here and here

Pinching

A form of summer pruning (as a heading cut) that is said to redirect resources from the continued growth of branches and new leaves to fruit formation and earlier ripening, can also be used to encourage branching. Used early in the season to promote branching into a more productive / bushier form (ex. on flowers & peppers) or later in the season to encourage earlier ripening of fruit (ex. on figs grown in colder climates).

See also

Other good posts: here, here and here

Limb spreading

Using something to spread younger limbs and reduce their vertical orientation. A scaffold limb spread to a wider angle will have better balance between vegetative growth and fruit production. (more info needed :memo:)

Limb bending

In addition to the basic technique of limb spreading to get a good angle, there is the advanced technique of intentionally bending the limb so it’s growing tip is at or below horizontal reducing its apical dominance and growth rate and encouraging earlier fruiting (depending on the time of the year the limb bending was done (more info needed :memo:)). Could be a good alternative to completely pruning out a competing central leader or as a way to slow growth of specific branches during summer time without having to remove them completely. It could be used to “turn” the direction of branches; e.g. curving a young scaffold branch pointing in the north direction into a west / north-west direction. Limb bending to encourage fruiting should be done around the summer solstice (source).

See also

Other good posts: here, here and here

Bending older limbs with hinge cuts

More posts here and here.

Notching

Using a hacksaw blade or file to cut the phloem just below the bark surface making a 1" wide (or 1/3rd way around the branch) notch below or above a bud. When applied above a bud it can encourage a shoot to form by cutting off the flow of growth regulator hormones. When applied below a bud it can encourage the production of a flower by sending the flow of carbohydrates from the leaves to the bud instead of the rest of the tree. Once the wound callouses the effect is gone.

See also

Hormone Application

Administering hormones in specific ways to coerce trees to branch in very specific ways, can be used in combination with notching.

  • 6-Benzylaminopurine (6-BAP): used as a mix of 2% BAP Powder with 98% Lanolin, promotes branch formation, more here.
  • Indole Acetic Acid: (more info needed :memo:)
  • Gibberellic Acid (GA3): (more info needed :memo:)

Partial girdling (spiral girdle)

An alternative to making a pruning / heading cut, used to redirect resources from the continued growth of the branches above the girdle and to encourage branching below the girdle. Also used to encourage fruiting above the girdle. Using a hacksaw blade or file, cut the phloem just below the bark surface in a spiral pattern leaving a small section of bark connected. Once the wound callouses the effect is gone.

Notes

Size of connecting section and width of girdle depend on the size of the branch. For a 1/2" - 3/4" thick branch I use a hacksaw and leave a 1/4"-1/2" gap.
If you want to just slightly reduce the vigor of a specific 1 yr old branch using your pruning sheers and slicing a complete ring around the branch without removing any bark might be effective - but this needs more testing.

See also

Root Pruning

(more info needed :memo:)

[Update 01-14-2019]: Added info on hinge cuts, cleaned up text to remove ambiguity.
[Update 04-22-2021]: Made limb spreading its own section, cleaned up text to remove ambiguity.

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There have been various discussions of these topics, maybe not recently though. I am a big fan of limb bending myself. I also use it like you suggest, to make the scaffold go where I want it. I have a lot of closely-spaced trees and I am often using a neighboring tree to tie a branch one way or the other. I used to do a lot of summer pruning but its hot here in the summer and so I am usually just doing the necessary things now. Once you have the tree growing properly there is not as much need for summer pruning. Limb bending is considered helpful for early fruiting, not sure where you heard inconclusive on that.

On trees that are far too vigorous I also use girdling cuts. Not too often but it helps when nothing else is working. I don’t do any notching or pinching but if I was starting over I would look into all of these things as a way to train trees.

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Other techniques that are almost never mentioned is considering the root cause of why trees branch in particular ways or have a tendency to central leaders or heavy branching.
It is the hormonal relationships of auxins, gibberellins and cytokinins. Administering these hormones in specific ways can allow trees to branch in very specific ways.

For instance, applying Keiki paste (a paste of 2% BAP-- a cytokinin in Lanolin) can allow a tree to branch. I’ve used this technique to promote branching in apple and fig trees to promote a lower branching and more aesthetically pleasing tree.

Simply tipping/pinching a tree or notching doesn’t always work. A small amount of plant hormone might do the trick when pruning doesn’t do it.

Paste was applied to dormant node and within 1 week, this dormant node woke up. Specific application of cytokinin can promote a desired structure.

Another approach is administering an auxin such as Indole Acetic Acid to nodes to establish a central leader. I havent tried this technique yet.

Gibberellins can be used for branch elongation and to help a branch grow quicker etc.

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I have a few questions about summer pruning also. I have a pear tree that last year lost its central leader due to borers. I had been pruning it while dormant for years and have been battling suckers and too much growth. It now looks like a bush. I had grafted a seckle pear to where I want the central leader to be and it has taken, but is not the dominant branch. I want to proceed with a summer prune.

Is now an okay time in zone 7 to do so?

How much can I take out? I would like to remove upright branches, which were suckers last year. Can I remove all of them, or break it into chunks, some now some later?

Is now a good time to do a thinning cut on the end of longer branches that are growing into the other trees?

Can I do heading cuts on the branches competing with the seckle to make the seckle dominant. I can’t really bend them out of the way because the tree is so full already.

any experience would help. thanks.

Yeah, I did see those discussions you mentioned. Updated my original post to include links to the most relevant ones. In regards to limb bending and early fruiting, my inconclusive note was based on @fruitnut comment here.

I’m in the same region as you an summer pruned a week or two ago, mostly to reduce height and encourage central leader dominance.

I would leave structural pruning for when the leaves are gone, mostly because its a lot easier to see the structure then. For continual summer pruning I think spreading out large pruning jobs is a good idea, you want to let the tree grow back some part of what you remove before continuing, IMO. Also, keep in mind that the trees are likely under stress from the heat-wave were having.

In regards to summer heading cuts, usually they aren’t recommended because it causes bushy growth. But I have a theory that if you make heading cuts, mark where you made them and then come back two weeks later to remove the undesirable side shoots (leaving the tip growth) they will not regrow and you will have effectively reduced the branch length without the down-side of bushiness.

Keep in mind this is only my second year managing fruit trees so take all that I say with a grain of salt.

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Thanks Dimitri,

I went ahead and did some pruning last night. I worked to removed upright suckers, growth into the center of the tree, and crossing branches, making mostly thinning cuts. The pear trees look much better at least and I am sure I increased the airflow and sunlight around the pears I do have growing. I did avoid making any major structural changes. The heading cuts I did make were to keep the apple trees from growing into each other.

This weekend I plan to get out my ladder and prune the tops of the tree to three upper scaffold branches.

Thanks

my pot growing friend works at medical weed facility. he turned me on to the these techniques . theres alot of info. on pot growing websites that works on most other plants. if you have a limited space small orchard its a good idea to learn these techniques to improve the yields of the plants you have. my buddy said he can take 1 plant and make it produce the amount of 4 naturally grown plants! he’s shown me the pics. its phenomenal! and the place he works at is all organic nutrients. check out growweedeasy.com under manipulating marijuana to increase yield. also check out subcools super soil recipie thats featured on the same site. i use this super soil as a additive to the lower 1/2 of the soil in a pot or add some to newly planted trees and bushes. you won’t have to fertilize for 2 years with most plants.

I planted 2 small apple trees this past spring, and dove right into training them onto espalier. The main framework pruning and training seems straightforward to me, and is addressed here & elsewhere nicely. I have the book, “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” which as made me not at all squeamish about pruning in general.

BUT, I need some pictures & education on the work of summer pruning. I get taking out water sprouts and cutting back the main branches (if needed/desired), but for other (small but growing) branches off the main branch, what do I do with them? Somewhere I read “cut back to 3” or so" but I don’t know where and I sure don’t understand it well enough.

I know I want fruiting spurs (these are spur-bearing apples), and I will eventually be grafting on a few varieties, but in the meantime I need some guidance. A book that’s comprehensive would make me happy! A good website would be nice, too. Or a link here on this forum. I have looked around but not found my pot of gold yet. Thanks in advance!

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You might read the book “Grow a Little Fruit Tree.” Author last name Ralph.

Hm, well, I did say I had that book in my original post & it made me not so scared of pruning. However, what she’s doing doesn’t translate well to me when staring down at a growing limb on my espalier. (I also have two little apple trees where I’m using her methods pretty well so far, though it’s just their first summer . . . ) I suspect I’m supposed to leave some kind of branches, however short, on the espalier main branch, But where? How? Which ones? How long? Etc.

Have you browsed youtube espalier pruning videos? Probably some good stuff there.

Going to rant here a bit, but for a book that has “Simple pruning techniques for small-space, easy harvest fruit trees” written on the cover it is VERY light on the actual details for how to do this. It basically boils down to: select dwarfing rootstock when possible, prune to knee high at planting, spread limbs for good crotch angles, winter prune for structure, summer prune (around summer solstice) for size management. I swear, the part on summer pruning gets like a page or two at most.

@Momlongerwalk Watch the two YouTube vids below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxCP91DZzo0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OQNzj0Rvf4

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The book seems to cover the ground pretty well, IMHO, though the espalier-specific information IS light. And she does NOT recommend dwarfing rootstock!
Thanks for the links to videos. Helpful. I think I’m on the right track now!

So I can confirm that notching is a viable technique for selectively inducing the growth of a shoot. My neighbor mowed my lawn for me while I was on vacation and it looks like he may have backed up into my pear tree because there was a good size gash about 1" wide (about 1/3 of the way around the trunk) and 1/2" high on the trunk. Sure enough several months later there was a vigorous branch growing out just below this gash. Turns out he did me a favor because its in a pretty good location.

EDIT: Also, it definitely seems like mid-summer pruning seems to stimulate shoot growth of you do heading cuts. The locations that I did the pruning (around summer solstice) put on about 2-3" of growth.

Curious how your pruning went @growjimgrow

Hey Dimitri,

I made thinning cuts to my Bartlett pear tree in the summer. I know I also did so in the dormant season, later winter. I have way too much growth on this tree, which looks more like a bush. It did produce about 12 pears, which tasted good. I think I will wait to prune in the summer next year to avoid all the water sprouts and vigorous growth.

The summer pruning on the apples seemed to do better with less vigorous growth and I am happy how my apple trees are shaping up.

I thought this was a good site with a lot of basic pruning information

I heard someone suggest rubbing off buds on a whip intentionally to encourage scaffolds at the desired height and orientation from the start. Is this practice recommended?

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That’s a very useful article and probably ought to be added to the library, if anybody knows how to do that (I don’t).

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That website is pretty good, the only part I disagree with is

Prune to the lateral bud that will produce the branch you want. The placement of that bud on the stem points the direction of the new branch. An outside bud, pruned with a slanting cut just above the bud, will usually produce an outside branch. A flat cut above the bud allows two lower buds to release and grow shots.

I don’t think the angle of the cut matters that much, pretty sure its a myth.

Thanks for the link! Great read :+1: