Why are apples typically grown as central leader instead of vase?

About 99% of books/articles/experts recommend growing apples as central leaders while stone fruits are recommended to be grown as open center vase shaped trees. I’m just curious as to why? I would think that in a situation where you want trees to remain small that an apple with open center would have the exact same advantages as stone fruit trees with open center. It would increase air circulation to the center of the tree and provide more sunlight to the fruit.

Curious about your thoughts.


I have tried to figure that out. It seems like central leader allows for larger branches on larger trees which has benefits for yield, resistance to environmental pressures, and longevity. It’s a fractal pattern optimized for size and density. Stone fruit on the other hand have two concerns apples and pears generally don’t, which is disease pressure prioritizing air flow, and the extra need for rejuvenating cuts. Open center keeps the pruning easier, the growth largely near ground level, and maximum airflow through the tree.

For the home grower, shape is purely decided but what you want to maintain and what your space supports.

Spindles are the new rage for density and quick productive growth, and also work well for home nooks and corners. Stone fruit seem to be alright in a multiple spindle system with different aged spindles.


Maybe because central leader form is more structurally sound than open center and apples are in general heavier than stone fruits, so this way the tree withstand heavier loads.

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I prune mine like stone fruit it keeps the tree shorter.

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Doesn’t stephen hayes grow his apple trees in an open-center format?


I believe it is because the commercial industry propels the literature which spills eventually into popular gardening magazines and books. The reason commercial growers have been encouraged to train trees to central leader is because it is the most efficient way for a tree to harvest light and convert it to apples- same land, same number of trees managed the same way and you will harvest more tons to the acre with a central leader tree than an open center.

I’m sure it also helps reduce sunburn of fruit in the warmer climes, but generally open center works just fine for apples and requires less skill to maintain. I am almost at the point of recommending it for home orchards as Don Yellman used to at GW- he recommended handling all common species in open center form.

The only less complicated method is to turn the upper tier of a central leader tree into a weep and eliminating the lower scaffolds. But this may not get you quite as good quality of fruit.


You really only need to follow the advice that is right for you.:slightly_smiling:

Backyard Orchard Culture doesn’t make any special exceptions for apples. Here are some nice examples of BYOC apples in an experimental block for DWN:


Yes he does

I asked the same question of the PHD tree fruit specialist a few weeks ago during a pruning seminar, but did not get a solid answer.

I have noticed a lot of old commercial apples pruned open center in a part of SW Virginia. I would guess these are standard size trees about 50 years old that are still in production.

One possible explanation I heard was that with open center apple trees it’s possible to cut out a major scaffold with a massive fireblight infection and still preserve the tree.


I’m not much of an apple guy, but I’ve grown apple trees as central leader and vase. My current preference is mod. central leader for apples. Not that there’s a huge difference, but I think it’s a little easier to train my semi-dwarf apples in a modified central leader. Some years ago I was hopeful/trying a vase shape, but I’m moving away from that for apples. Peaches are a no brainier for me to train to a vase in my situation.

You can do whichever you want. I was in a 90+ year old apple orchard [only some trees were that old] a couple of years ago and ALL of their trees were open center.

Historically, I don’t know why commercial outfits seem to have gone to central leader. Lately, I would assume it is because of the dwarfing rootstock combined with trellised high density planting strategies.

The recent push to dwarf high density central leader is because those systems produce high fruit yields and minimal wood. Energy that goes into producing wood is a waste. The excess wood has to be pruned out and disposed of. That’s expensive and labor intensive. Turn that wood into fruit via a more efficient production system and it can be sold.

Commercial orchards don’t want people pruning all winter. Alan can do it for his high dollar clients and their beautiful orchards of large trees. But not commercial orchards.

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I recently bought an old apple orchard with 90 year old trees all pruned to open vase. What a maintenance nightmare! If we didn’t put poles under the branches they would snap from the weight of the fruit, and many did just that last year. I would never prune apples this way if I was starting a new orchard.


The answer about the efficiency of the trees harvest and use of light is the academic answer that I’ve read several times including in the book “Training and Pruning Apples and Pear Trees”, by Forshey, Elfving and Stebbins and published by the American Society for Horticultural Science.

I expect if your guru had come out of Cornell or WSU he would have answered your question in terms similar to this. The central leader configuration is simply more efficient according to carefully researched evaluation.

Since both peach and apple trees are living “machines” that turn sunlight into fruit, why is the central leader form the most efficient form for apples, but the open vase is the most efficient form for peaches?

One reasonable non acedemic answer is the one provided by Joehewitt, where the apple trees in a vase configuration can not support the weight of the fruit.

Fruitnut’s comment about forcing the trees energy toward producing fruit rather that wood that has to be pruned out also makes a lot of sense. I prune about 100 times more wood from my open vase peaches than I do from my tall spindle apples. I see a lot of discussion about quad V and perpendicular V on peaches, so perhaps open center vase is not the best for for peaches. The new “Penn State Tree Fruit Production Guide” has a beautiful color picture of a peach orchard on the front cover. The peaches are pruned perpendicular V in this orchard.

Because the open center helps keep the interior of the tree producing new wood. Peach trees are very difficult to manage as central leaders because shaded parts of the tree become permanently unproductive.

I can sustain a productive central leader peach tree for a few years if I employ adequate summer pruning and reduce the center every winter to only moderately vigorous fresh shoots.

I like to keep peaches as central leaders for the first 3 years because I train them with about 4’ of trunk before the scaffolds start to keep the fruit above the deer browse line and to allow the placement of squirrel and coon baffles. A central leader allows me to employ branch spreaders, which is quicker and more convenient than tying branches to near horizontal.

Thank you Alan! Makes perfect sense.

And isn’t efficiency is in the eye of the orchardist? Is efficiency measured by speed of harvesting because of labor costs? Some pruning styles promote this as an advantage. Is efficiency measured by bushels of apples per unit area? As in most endeavors we come across the ‘time vs. money’ decisions and with each orchardist it is different. For my little orchard, I prune such that I can protect the fruit from raiders that Alan mentioned, that is, align trees and size to fit inside chicken wire and under bird netting and at the same time being mindful of how to catch the most sun. It turns out looking more like a fat espalier. :slightly_smiling:

I do central leader for apples because its the easiest way to pull branches down horizontal, which is essential to make the tree bear and calm the runaway apical dominance common in warm and tropical climates. If the tree was a vase shape, there’s be a bunch of branches crossing in the middle. The apical dominance isn’t as pronounced in stonefruit in a warm or tropical climate, and so I let those revert to vase shape, which it seems to want to do anyway.

Thanks to your input @applenut , I’m going to keep an open mind on the subject. :slight_smile:

I would welcome seeing some pictures or videos of exemplary central leader apple trees on vigorous roots that don’t require ladders for pruning or harvesting. The apples in the video I posted from DWN are all on M111.