Cherry tree pruning

tmc2009April 10, 2011

Should all cherry trees only have one central leader? Most of the videos on Youtube show a central leader while they are demonstating pruning but they also mention gisela root stock. One guy show how to prune a neglected cherry tree that is open in the middle and the major branches come off of the base at about 2 feet up. My two tree sort of have competing leaders so should I pick the most vertical and cut the other one off? I'll take some pictures and try to post so you can see what I mean.

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alan haigh

Cherry can start as central leader but often if you are in a part of the country that gets rain during the growing season you'll want to change it over to an open center once it starts bearing- anyway that's what I do.

The trick with cherries is producing small wood which is difficult to get developed quickly without the use of Promelin, a snynthetic hormone product that encourages secondary branching. Traditionally heading cuts have been used but this is only partially useful and delays fruiting.

When I cut back a branch I always do it to a small shoot to reduce the problem of delay and excessively vegetative response. Scoring is suggested as a way to get buds further back on a branch to grow. When trees are in bloom you use a hacksaw or knife and cut a small notch above the bud you want to grow. This cuts the flow of hormones from the growing shoots at the end of the branch that keep such buds dormant.

Commercial growers sometimes do this in addition to painting the branches with a Promelin solution and still often fail to get the response they want.

I'm still learning best methods to get these difficult trees to bear young and heavily on a compact tree.

I'm curious about he experience of others as I don't work on a whole lot of cherries.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2011 at 5:55PM
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Open center worked pretty good for me on sweet cherries. So much so that I adopted the practice on my apples... bad idea. Anyway, I found that cherries predictably branched when headed back and that was useful. Notching to induce a branch did not work for me. Oddly enough, I found it easy to produce a well formed cherry tree by removing the center and creating an open "vase" shape. My bigger issues were spur loss, brown rot, bacterial canker, birds and split cherries from rain. I took them out and replaced them with an asparagus patch.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 12:52PM
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alan haigh

I think open center works fine for apples- maybe not quite as efficient in modern production systems, but the Japanese use an open center method on vigorous rootstocks (equivalent of maybe 111) and mature orchards there produce the yield and quality of the best managed dwarf orchards in the world.

That's something you won't hear about in the common literature. Anyone interested I can send the study that documents this.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 7:03PM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

It took me a long time to figure out how to prune cherries, they don't branch quite like any other tree and I could not find any good instructions so I had to learn through trial and error. I could not grow them nearly as closely together as I was growing my other fruits so I took out every other tree and now have 6' spacing which is manageable. My simple cherry pruning approach is any new non-branched limb gets headed at about a foot (in both dormant and summer pruning). It will send out 5-6 branches at that point. Then those guys will be thinned out over time 4-3-2 and even 1 sometimes. With repeated heading there will always be good renewal wood to rebuild the upper scaffolding in some new direction in a few years. I keep the trees open center in a Y shape since my spacing is still pretty close. There should never be a dense cluster of limbs anywhere, if there is then you get hardly any fruit and lots of diseases. So, lots of thinning is needed given how the heading cuts are producing so many shoots. If the spacing is fairly open every single inch of wood away from the scaffolds is packed with cherries.

I use open center on all my trees except some which I planted too close and turned into 1-arm open centers ("crooked spindle"?? :-) ).
" Scott

    Bookmark   April 12, 2011 at 8:55AM
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alan haigh

Scott, repeated heading cuts may be the best option for the patient home grower, especially with the kind of dense planting you do, but I find it very dissatisfactory as far as results in getting trees to bear early.

I get reasonable results by eliminating the thicker scaffolds and as much as possible avoid heading cuts. I don't get a dense efficient tree quickly but eventually scaffolds will fill up with small wood if you remove all other.

I have to admit, though, I never really adequately tested frequent heading throughout the season starting from year one. Maybe it works better if you start before they've developed a vigorous root system. However the complaints about the method I have made here are reflective of the literature I've read on the subject, for whatever that's worth.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2011 at 10:33AM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

Could try the Spanish Bush...

lot of good stuff here:

    Bookmark   April 12, 2011 at 11:00AM
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alan haigh

Thanks franktank. Agreed.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2011 at 12:02PM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

Frank, thanks for that link. The Spanish bush is surprisingly similar to how I have been pruning my cherry trees. There are a few differences, for instance they leave the center limbs longer, and thats a good idea since keeping a dominant limb or two will help the tree decide to grow more out instead of up. I also never do any tying or spreading and I don't stub back for renewing fruiting wood. I don't know how my fruiting wood is getting renewed in fact, I think random side buds are turning into branches. But the stubbing is probably a better way and I will probably start doing that.

Harvestman, I have found heading cuts work very well on cherries and peaches and Jap plums, but on other trees they are not nearly as useful, especially dormant heading cuts which are often quite a bad idea. I used to do many of those on apples but now I almost entirely do thinning cuts and I don't even do many summer pruning heading cuts anymore on them. This year I finally have a whole row of blooming Euro plums, it took me long enough but I finally figured out how to prune them. They need a lot more thinning and less heading than I was doing.


    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 8:40AM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

PS when I went to save the above pdf I found I already had it in my cherries file from way back in 2003. So, I probably did absorb some ideas from this document given how many similar things I am doing.

That old-timers disease gets a little stronger every year..


    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 8:45AM
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alan haigh

Scott, thanks for your shared experience. I have always been reluctant to use the heading technique on Jap plums because it just is so against my arborist training of always going for a more natural looking result. I've read, however, that it's a good way to get to a compact productive tree for them. Peaches are no problem at all for me and I see no value in heading them- except back to a vigorous shoot to keep them strong and compact.

If you know the result you're looking for you can use many different paths to get there but some are longer than others. The cherry trees I manage generally end up just where I want them but it takes longer than I'd like so I'll be using this new info.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 9:01AM
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Scott F Smith(6B/7A MD)

In Good Fruit this month there is a picture of a modern peach orchard with pretty intense stubbing. Its in an ad for a mechanized blossom thinner:

I like looking at that picture because then I feel like my stubbing practice is mild in comparison :-) This is too intense for cherries, you need a lot more bearing wood since cherries are smaller fruits.


    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 9:23AM
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alan haigh

Peaches are easy. All the new wood is fruitful and stubbing won't change that. This technique in the photo, however, would not produce largest peaches going by the guidance in the link Olpea provided a few weeks ago. I tried to place it here but can't get a copy.

In it, research that reveals highest quality peaches tend to form on the ends of 12 to 18" shoots is mentioned and such structure is advised (well spaced 12-18" shoots, unstubbed). These short shoots would not produce highest quality peaches going by those recs.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 11:44AM
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hoosierquilt USDA 10A Sunset 23 Vista CA

I am reading this thread with great interest, being very new to cherries. Interestingly, with all the new stone fruit trees I've just bought this year, the two cherry trees (Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, very low-chill varieties) are MUCH more vigorous in growth, with the 2 to 4 main branches already reaching about 6 to 7 feet. Which is interesting because they're both on Colt rootstock which is supposed to be somewhat dwarfing. Probably not so much in my DG soil, though. I was sort of shocked at how fast they're growing while still in pots, in fact, and was trying to figure out how to prune them, as they're supposed to go in my "walk and pick" orchard on either side of my paver walkway! They will definitely be going down at the bottom of the walkway, where there is more room. I may take some photos once I get them planted, to see if I can get your opinions on where to top these branches to keep the growth habit reasonable. They are very, very different than any of my other stone fruits and apples.

Patty S.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2011 at 4:01PM
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I bought a dwarf cherry tree this spring. The leader keeps growing, and growing, with only the branches it had when I bought it. Do I cut off the leader? How mjuch?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2011 at 2:56PM
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