Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Training an Orchard

Well, first things first... It turns out that I've been describing this thing all wrong.  For over a month now I've been promoting this event as a free "pruning" workshop to prune the new orchard at Mountain School.  After two blog posts, multiple Facebook mentions, and dozens of flyers distributed, I found out that there would actually be no pruning taking place at all.  At the start of our free workshop, the first thing I learned was that with first-year saplings you don't prune the trees, you "train" them.  So, despite my inaccurate description of the event, the day went on as planned for the first annual Gasquet Orchard Training Workshop.

Just as a reminder, this is the third installment in a series of blog posts I've written about the Gasquet Orchard Training (formerly Pruning) Workshop.  You can read the other posts here and here.  And I would like to sincerely thank Deborah Giraud from the UC Cooperative Extension for making the drive up from Eureka and braving the rain with us to teach us such a useful skillset.

And we certainly did brave the rain.  This day has been coming for over a month now, and due to the busy schedules of the planners, this was the time we could do it and we were going to get out there, rain or shine.  Luckily there has already sprung up a small group of Gasquet residents who are committed to this project and are eager to take part in any and all activities related to the new Gasquet Garden and Orchard.  We were also joined by a couple of US Forest Service firefighters who heard about the workshop and were curious to learn about pruning (excuse me, "training") from a pro.  We got pretty fully soaked through in the two hours we spent in the orchard, but spirits were high and we all had a good time and (hopefully) learned something about fruit tree maintenance.

Before heading and trimming
And what did we learn?  Well let me clarify the pruning vs. training situation.  The first thing Deborah taught us was that you don't "prune" first year trees.  Pruning is the practice of cutting back, or "heading" (more on that later), vegetative growth on mature trees in order to promote better fruit production.  Training is the practice of establishing proper structural support in your young tree by controlling the growth of the branches and trunk.  Proper training in a tree's first year ensures that it will not grow excessively bushy with weak limbs; sunlight would not get evenly distributed, the branches would not be able to support the fruit, and most importantly, the fruit would be too small and not taste very good at all.  After all, the main objective of training and pruning is to control the distribution of the tree's resources in order to produce big, delicious fruit.

After heading and trimming
 The way you train trees is by going to work on them with a pair of pruning shears.  The objective is to give your tree a strong trunk or central leader, and to have a few strong branches that are evenly spaced apart on the trunk.  Our fruit trees had already grown a number of small, first year branches from the nursery, so we had to remove quite a few branches and cut back the branches we were keeping.  When you're training your tree, there are two types of cut you make: heading and thinning.  Thinning a branch is when you cut it off at the trunk, ensuring it won't grow back, and giving your keeper branches more space and access to sunlight.  Heading is when you shorten a branch down in order to help it grow stronger and have more girth.  As you make your heading and thinning cuts, you keep in mind the type of structure or arrangment that you want to give your tree, and there are a few different options.

The basic options you have for arrangement are central leader, open center, and y-shaped.

Central Leader

    Open Center

  • Central Leader might be the most recognizable, as it most resembles basic "tree" structure.  You have a strong, predominant trunk with your scaffolding limbs (branches) evenly distributed around around the trunk.
  • Open Center is an effective arrangment for having even sunlight distribution coming to the tree.  There is no central leader, and instead has 3 or 4 main scaffold limbs that are (in theory) evenly spaced apart around the trunk.  This method also makes future pruning and harvesting very easy since the trees don't grow as tall.
  • Y-Shape: similar to the open center except you leave only two primary scaffolds.  This is a good way to utilize space in an orchard, if you train the "Y" to be perpendicular to your row of trees.
Each of the different types of arrangments will work best for different types of fruit trees, but those are the basic shapes you want to give your tree and each one of them will work well.  The method we primarily used for our fruit trees was the "central leader" but a few of them will most likely end up being "open center" depending on how they are pruned next year and the following years.  We just went with the natural shape that the trees already had.

Another technique used in controlling your trees' arrangment, beyond just properly training with the right cuts, is to use spacers between your scaffolds.  If you are trying to create an open center tree but your scaffolds are too close together, or if the angle is too tight and the scaffold gets too close to the leader, you can wedge something between them in order to get the shape you want.  We used this technique on a few of our trees, including this one which we want to be an open center:

We ended up getting all 24 of the fruit trees trained in well under 2 hours, which really went by in a flash, despite the rain.  You may have noticed at the top of today's post, I called this event the "first annual" Gasquet Orchard Training Workshop.  That's because we intend to continue with this event each year to make sure they properly develop; one of the most important lessons we learned is that fruit trees need to be maintained and observed every season to ensure a healthy tree.  Continuing the tradition each year will also open up the possibility of learning new things.  This entire workshop centered around how to train first-year trees, but the practice of pruning fully mature fruit trees is a whole other set of skills and knowledge.  We'll carry on with the orchard and make sure that it develops right.  Hope you can make it next year!

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