GROW A LITTLE FRUIT TREE. IT’S TIME TO PRUNE THAT ESPALIER.

If you’re going to buy one and only one organic item at the grocery store, for the love of all that is holy, make it your apples.  There are enough pesticides on a standard apple to knock the balls off a bull.  Up to 48 different pesticides on a single apple to be precise.  Now, in defence of the farmers, it isn’t that they’re willy nilly wanting to spray pesticides all over our food because it’s fun to see their customers grow arms out of their foreheads, it’s that apples are notoriously difficult to grow. They have scabs and worms and rot.  Apples.  The crack whores of the fruit world.

I wish I could say that that’s the reason I decided to grow my own apple trees, that I wanted to be as natural and health conscious as possible, but the truth of the matter is I just think apple espaliers look cool.  Plus I love growing the food that I eat; only partly because it’s all organic.  A lot of the appeal for me is the actual work involved in growing food and the convenience of being able to pick it right from my front yard.   Other than one particular cantaloupe I grew last year I’m not even convinced the food I grow tastes that much better than grocery store produce.  Also my corn was pretty great.  And my tomatoes.  You know what?  Scratch that last part, it does taste better, I don’t know what I was thinking.

pruning apple espalier

The thing that held me back from growing an apple tree for years was the sheer size of one plus taking care of one seemed intimidating.  An apple tree would be stinking huge on my lot, plus you need a couple of them for pollination.   Enter the apple espalier.  An apple tree trained to grow flat against a wall or fence taking up no more space than a pool noodle.   Apple espaliers were only available at specialty nurseries for the longest time, making your only other option to graft and train one yourself.  Things took a turn for the better for me last year when I happened across apple espaliers at my local Home Depot for around $70 each.  I bought two, brought them home and wired them up.  (There’s a very specific way you have to train espaliers so they thrive, stay small and maintain their shape … I wrote a post on how to do it here.)

THIS year, I had to master the next step.  Keeping my apple espaliers small, and encouraging them to produce fruit … not leaves and branches.  Read on.

pruning apple espalier

I’m no expert, this being my first year trimming my espaliers but I AM a kind research enthusiast and learner; so even though I don’t know everything about apple trees or keeping them small I’m confident in this tiny bit of information I’m about to impart on you.

pruning apple espalier

  1.  The time to prune apple trees if you want to keep them small is during the Summer Solstice.  June 21st of this year ’round these parts.  This is true of an apple tree, pear tree or any other fruit tree.  It’s also true of espaliers or regular fruit trees.  Summer pruning will keep the tree small.  Winter pruning will encourage it to grow BIG.

This is my tree moments prior to pruning it this year on June 21st.  You can see the long “whippy” branches growing up from the main stems.  THESE are what need to be pruned.

 

pruning apple espalier

2.  Prune the thin, whippy branches, not the shorter fatter ones. Thin ones are just branches, the shorter ones are spurs that will produce fruit.

 

pruning apple espalier

3.  Don’t cut the entire whip off.  Find the “basal” leaves (the cluster of tightly packed leaves near the base of the whip and count 3 leaves up.  Cut just above the 3rd leaf from the basal cluster.  This will keep the tree small and encourage fruiting.

 

pruning apple espalier

So which ones are the regular leaves compared to the basal leaves?  Well sometimes it’s hard to tell because the basal leaves don’t aways grow literally in a cluster at the base.  Just look for the first leaf that is obviously further away from the first pack of leaves on the stem and count that as your first leaf.

pruning apple espalier

4.  Cut the whip just above the 3rd leaf along the same direction as the leaf is growing.

 

how to keep an apple tree small

It’s very much like cutting a rose bush.

Leave the spurs (easily identifiable because they’re shorter, fatter and might even have fruit hanging off of them) because they do not grow back and they’re what the fruit grows from.

Here’s what my little espalier looked like one year ago …

how to keep an apple tree small

 

And here it is today.

how to keep an apple tree small

I think I’ll cry if these things die on me.  I have one on either side of the walkway up to my front door.

That’s it. That’s all there is to a basic trimming of your apple tree.  Do the exact same thing if you’re trimming a standard tree.  If you trim like this and show no mercy you can keep your regular apple tree no taller than 4 or 5 feet if you want.

If you’re looking for more detailed information on growing little fruit trees you HAVE to read the book Grow a Little Fruit Tree.  It’s really well written (i.e. it isn’t boring) and she goes into detail about how to prune, how much fruit you can expect and the story of how the whole world was pruning its fruit trees incorrectly until one stubborn and adventurous man changed things.

how to keep an apple tree small

I only have about 5 apples growing between my 2 espaliers this year, so even if they were covered in pesticides and I licked them clean I’d probably still live a long healthy life.  However, just to be safe I will not be spraying them.

I will proudly be growing 5 of the cutest little crack whore apples in the world for me, the birds, the bees and the bugs to enjoy.

No bulls balls were harmed during the growing of these apples.

 

44 Comments

  1. Lois Baron says:

    “It’s very much like cutting a rose bush.” RLFMAO. As if I know what to do–or have ever done anything to, with, or for–the rose bush that someone gave me 25 years ago when my son was born. I count it a miracle that it’s alive at all, AND blooms.

    I love your little apple trees. They are adorable.

  2. billy sharpstick says:

    I’m not sure how this will work on my papaya and banana trees. Please advise. (hungry in florida)

  3. TucsonPatty says:

    I helped my friend and her husband prune in their apple orchard one year a long time back. Either I didn’t hear correctly or I didn’t listen (most probable explanation) closely enough, or else something else…at any rate, he had to go back over all the many trees I pruned and do them over. That episode taught me how to prune, and now I can do it with the best of them! I wonder if he remembers this with the same fondness? ; )

  4. KATHLEEN HARTZELL says:

    Golly, I’m trying to get thru that book and finding it really hard. So, after digesting a couple chapters, I went out to my plum and started lopping off these really tall branches thinking I’m making a littler fruit tree, and probably did it all wrong and the tree will Never again give me plums. This evening I tried to wrangle bird net on it so my plums will still be there when they ripen. Last year critters got my first ever 50 fruit between my discovery that they were almost ripe and two days later. (It’s a young tree). Of course with the net how the heck will I get the plums?

    My really tiny Asian Pear got a total net of really wide tulle, black, from Joanns. Now that will be easy to manage!!! Next year I will get colorful tulle, but I figured I wouldn’t embarrass the tree and stuck to black.

    • Karen says:

      You’re right. It would embarrass the tree. I mean … come on … allow it a little dignity. 😉 ~ karen!

    • Miriam says:

      Kathleen, if you can thread and hang old cd’s on a few tree branches, that keeps the birds away. They don’t like the reflection of the sun on the metal of the cd! Worked like a dream on my raspberry bushes.

  5. Paula says:

    I planted 2 apple trees 2 years ago and the first winter, one of them died. This spring, I decided that I had to pollinate them myself. There is a house down the road with a small orchard in their side yard so I walked down with my eyeshadow brush and a small glass bowl and knocked on the door. There was no answer and as I live in a very small town, I didn’t think they would mind if I took a little pollen. So I began and then from behind me I hear a very indignant “Can I help you?” The look on her face was priceless! I quickly explained that I only had one apple tree and I needed some pollen and she was very happy to help. Lol I got 11 apples this year, unfortunately I only have 4 left after storms, winds, insects, etc. but I covered the remaining 4 with Ziploc bags to protect them and they seem to be doing quite well.

    • Karen says:

      I’ve already lost over half of the apples since shooting these pictures, lol! I covered with netting. :/ I’m only going to end up with 3 if I’m lucky. ~ karen!

  6. Danni McLaughlin says:

    I was literally staring at my own apples trees that are espaliered today. I knew to cut off the whips but beyond that was flummoxed, so I just scurried past. Mine are three years old. No fruit yet, I might have cut off spurs in earlier years. Thanks for the post!!!!

  7. Just what I want, so I can grow a small apple tree under a cage to protect it from the marsupials. It’s great to see how much yours grew in just a year and the photos make the pruning really easy to follow. Not that I have anything to prune yet, but I hope to plant this winter, i.e. in the next couple of months.

    • Karen says:

      Marsupials are at least a fun problem to have. 🙂 Well, at least it seems fun for someone who doesn’t have marsupials. ~ karen!

  8. Donna says:

    I bought an espalier apple this year as well, but only one. Guess I better go find another!

  9. Valerie says:

    We have over 30 apple trees on the property here and your descriptive of creating espalier branches on apple trees Karen is correct and many of the apple trees currently available in nurseries are suited to this technique. This trimming technique will create small trees that love to produce fruit.
    A few hints to follow if you are just starting out growing an apple, pear or plum tree.
    If you can afford to do so, purchase two trees and plant them within 15 or 20 feet or so of one another. Prepare the ground well by digging deeply. Gently remove the little tree from its growing pot by cutting away the plastic pot with scissors or a knife. Be very gentle at this point in removal. Two persons are best at this stage – one to cut away the pot and another to gently hold the branches. Place the tree ball in the ground and have the finished level of the earth in your finished and prepared area no higher than the earth level that was in the pot the tree was grown in. Do not fertilize the first year in the ground. Once planted in the ground place a sturdy long stake beside the trunk of your little tree and tie this to the trunk. Strips of old cotton sheeting (second hand store) are a good choice for ties; not too tight but secure enough so the tree will not move at all in the wind and rain. Choose a sturdy piece of wood to do this as this stake remains with the tree for many years. This step is important and often neglected. If you live rurally you must surround your little tree with wire fencing (in a circle) or deer and other animals will eat the branches and leaves and the tree will die. Leave the fencing around the small tree for a few years until it has grown tall and beyond the head level of the deer. Water plentifully each and every single day for the first month replacing soil into and around the little trunk with your hands or a little shovel if the water washes away into the soil in your prepared area. Water as much as you can manage the first year you plant the tree. If you do not intend to grow the tree against a porch railing as Karen has done but rather out in the yard make sure there will be clearance in future years to manage and travel a circle on a ladder around the tree. All fruit trees should be planted in areas where they will receive sun for most of the day. Planting in shady areas will not promote blossom and hence fruit growth. Put the label that comes with the tree in a safe spot in the house – I put mine in my sewing box. You will get fruit the year your tree produces blossoms. Don’t pick the blossoms, let them fall naturally.
    Bon chance.

  10. Susan Claire says:

    I have one apple tree in the front yard. It’s a small tree, I have never pruned it. It always gives me fruit, but this year the dogs discovered it. My boxer strolls outside, looks around to see if anyone is watching, and grabs an apple. Then he comes back into the house and plops down in front of me to enjoy his ill-gotten gains. He will do this until he can’t reach anymore, or his belly is full. His hound dog partner tries, but for some reason can’t figure out how to do this, so he raids the avocado tree. He also comes back inside to show me, but has the grace to look guilty. ( I replace his avocado with carrots). Yes, I know I can make them stop, but they make me laugh-that’s worth losing a few pieces of fruit.

  11. Alice says:

    In France we saw kitchen gardens surrounded by “fencing” that was entirely espaliered apple trees (about 1.5 – 2 feet tall).

    We have a big ol’ apple tree in our yard that produces loads of fruit (in alternate years). Unfortunately, said fruit (besides being wormy, because I don’t spray) is small, mealy, and utterly flavourless. (It also falls off the tree in early August.) Occasionally I think we should get rid of it. But the cloud of blossoms in the spring buys its life!

    • Karen says:

      Ohhhhh I’ve seen pictures of those kitchen gardens with the espalier fencing. So, SO nice! You’re lucky to have seen them in real 3-D life. ~ karen

  12. Cheryl says:

    Hi Karen. Thanks to your recommendation of the book, Grow a Little Fruit Tree, I too have been doing some small fruit tree research. It led me to this great website and a doable tip for keeping your apples pest-free. http://www.hardyfruittrees.ca/tutorials/2015/03/4/bagging-how-to-get-perfect-fruit-without-pesticide. Thanks for letting us watch and learn!

  13. Nicole says:

    Tiny brag moment: I never have any gardening stuff to brag about because… I don’t garden. Not my thing. I like to read about it, but there’s bugs and stuff outside. Ick. But I apparently have a yard full of hard-to-grow things that appreciate being left alone. Like rose bushes and apple trees.

    I have a full-sized apple tree (no clue on age, except it was full-grown when I moved in 15 years ago) in my front yard (the neighbour does too, so they pollinate or whatever). I prune the tree by cutting off the branches that start hanging over the path when they get to the point that they’re risking the safety of the mailman. It gets no pesticides… or fertilizer. Yet damn if that thing doesn’t give 80 billion apples every other year. The squirrels get some. The mailman gets some (hazard pay). And I venture out there to pluck some from branches I can reach without a ladder.

    Anyway, that’s my brag moment. For 15 years, I’ve lived in a house where some previous owner planted hard to grow things and did such a fantastic job of giving them a good start that even my neglect can’t kill them! Go me!

    • Jenifer says:

      NICE!! I hate to ask but…do you know what kind of apple tree you have? Sounds like my kind of tree! I’m always worried that I will prune it incorrectly or say something that pisses them off then I’ll have to listen to my husband bitch about having to mow AROUND them…big baby. Any way…I’m curious about these maintenance-free, fiercely-independent apple trees you have!

      ~Jenifer

    • Karen says:

      Go you! Any idea what kind of apple tree it is? ~ karen

      • Nicole says:

        No clue. Red. Edible.
        Hmm. Working off a picture I took of one two years ago and comparing it to apples on the applename website… it might be Jefferies? Or Lady Apple? Or Fameuse? The latter apparently have good winter hardiness, and I’m in Boston, which gets winters on par with what I remember Toronto getting when I still lived there. Maybe a bit more snow and less slush? Amusingly, they’re from Quebec, as am I, originally. 🙂 I’ll have to pick an apple and really dissect it later this summer to try and classify it (I don’t like to garden, but I love to THINK about gardening and research plants).

  14. Mary W says:

    You make me want to grow espaliered trees so much. (I’m surprised the auto spell check didn’t red underline my spelling first time – shocked!) Off subject, kinda, is my note on bull balls. I was in a western art store years ago – honest they do have those. I spied a great, textured flower vase that hung on a wall filled with dried flowers and just had to have it. It was $35 and way over anything I needed but it came home with me as it was so unusual. I was shocked again when I paid for it since the lady told me it was actually bull ball sack that had been preserved and hardened like stiff leather. No matter how I describe it, it sounds naughty. Sorry. So instead of hanging it in my house, I immediately knew that it was the perfect gift for my son – it really was very huge (have you ever noticed them on live bulls in a field?) and I thought he would enjoy hanging in his office at work – he worked for a NASCAR racing team and it just seemed appropriate. He was very confused when he opened it since he didn’t understand why I got him a vase, but his two younger sons knew immediately what it was and of course, it was the present that got the most attention that year. I also taught them to burp the alphabet when they were small. See, now you know why I love Betty so! She is my kind of gal.

    • Susan Claire says:

      I have one of those-I use it as a receptacle for keys. I took it to work one day and nobody could guess what it was. When I told them I was asked (not very politely) to get that thing the heck out of there. Nice to know I am not the only one with great taste in home furnishings.

      • Mary W says:

        I’m glad to know that your co-workers had at least one person among them with the ability to laugh at life and enjoy themselves! Thanks.

    • Karen says:

      I need one of those. I need it now. ~ karen!

      • Mary W says:

        My Cowboy Art store went out of business but you may be able to find them on-line. I would have grabbed one up quick for you if I could. In keeping with this theme, I heard someone on TV saying the latest moronic news coming out of DC would blow the balls off a bull. Just thought I’d pass along what I think is a very descriptive and funny line.

        • Karen says:

          They said that?! Really?! I have never heard it before and was quite impressed with myself for coming up with it, lol. ~ karen!

          • Mary Werner says:

            You should be impressed – I think it truly expressed her feelings better than any other phrase could have. She probably got a prior look at your blog through Russian Fake News and tried to beat you to the punch line.

      • Susan Claire says:

        Karen, I also bought a bull’s penis walking stick as a Christmas present for my brother-in-law. Took him quite a while before he figured it out!

        • Mary Werner says:

          Speaking of wee wee’s – I’ve seen those walking sticks (I do live in rural America) and they are a bit hard to tell. I’ve also seen ‘coon whistles’ at the old gas stations hanging next to a batch of rabbit’s feet lucky charms. They are racoon wee wee’s, tallywackers, willy’s, etc. and you can really whistle and I know you will ask – NO I didn’t try! Do you live in NW Florida? Seems we hang at the same places. LOL

          • Susan Claire says:

            I don’t think I would be willing to try to make a raccoon willy whistle, but it would be a heck of a conversation piece. I am in southern California, I found my curiosities in a catalogue many years ago. It was a Gary [forgot the last name] catalogue, had all kinds of neat stuff in it.

  15. Anne B. says:

    What a coincidence. I’ve just finished reading Grow a Little Fruit Tree which I picked up from our library. I wish I’d had this book forty-five years ago when we moved to our present home and planted fruit trees. Which have become LARGE! and well beyond our abilities to keep in check. Fortunately I’ve been able to find a service that comes and prunes and dormant oil sprays. However I would like to echo your recommendation for the book. Easily understood and easy to follow.
    Love your blog and love your readers! They often make my day!

  16. Eileen says:

    Please please please be careful if you decide to use bird netting. There was just a discussion on a local garden club list about all the things that have become tangled/injured/killed in that netting: birds, chipmunks, snakes, rabbits….Some alternate suggestions were: tulle, garden fleece, deer netting (stretched tightly). If you do use the bird netting, check it at least daily.
    And the year I used it on my peach tree, some critter managed to get under it anyway and stole my first “real” crop of 20 peaches.

  17. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    This just amazes me…six different types of apples one tiny tree…enjoy them girl!

  18. Jody says:

    Thanks for the update. I’ve been wondering how the espaliered apples were doing. With your huge community garden plot do you still grow veggies in your front garden or has it reverted to flower?

  19. Jeri Oakes says:

    Okaaaaay. Before you point it out, I am aware that this post and this thread is about apple trees. That acknowledged I would like to make a comment about Idris Elba.
    Karen, I have been reading your blog for several years now and have heard you mention Idris Elba occasionally, usually indicating that he would not be turned away at your door, should he show up. I am sorry’ to say I was not really aware who he was then. But now, I am watching the BBC crime drama “Luther” and I have been enlightened. SO MUCH….
    I will not doubt your assessment skills again. Sigh…

  20. Darcy says:

    Your posts are the best! Love this one. I have to tell you though, your post on how to clean cutting boards made my day. I have a love for cutting boards but was always a bit hesistant buying used ones. And the recipe for board butter, ❤️. Anyway I thought I died and went to heaven when I found this cutting board. I, like you, love chickens! Jackpot!!!! Thanks Karen! I now know how to re-furbish this beauty!

  21. MartiJ says:

    Let me know when you figure out how to draw fruit out of my very lonely but beloved and beautiful avocado tree, Theodora.

    These do look fun, though, and I ate the first cherry tomatoes off the bush in my stairwell today. It’s the only one that is indeterminate and “staked” to grow tall. I need to take a picture and post it for you.

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