Fruit tree rootstocks?

Highlands_Croft(6)November 29, 2012

Hi all! I'd like to plant several fruit trees this spring (apples, peaches, cherries, pears) but am hopelessly confused about rootstocks. Does the rootstock truly matter as far as tree size? In other words, is it possible to purchase a standard cherry tree and keep it pruned to a manageable height (8-12 feet) without affecting the health of the tree? I'd rather not have to deal with supporting smaller sized trees if possible. Any thoughts and/or advice is most appreciated!

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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Yes, rootstock makes a huge difference in tree size. The dwarf trees are not only easier to manage; spray, prune and thin; but also bear sooner, sometimes by 2-4 years.

For the home grower of cherries the Gisela rootsocks are a godsend. The same with M9 or M26 size apples vs standard.

My smaller trees haven't needed much support. A T-post at most. That is much better than fighting a big tree.

    Bookmark   November 29, 2012 at 3:59PM
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dmtaylor(5a (WI))

Apples, pears, and cherries all have semi-dwarfing rootstocks available, some of which require no staking. Do a little research up front to identify the rootstocks that will work best for you. Cummins and Raintree are just two examples that have good websites with good rootstock options. You *can* grow trees on bigger rootstocks and keep on pruning them back hard each year, it *can* work, however like fruitnut says, you'll be fighting hard to keep them down to your desired size each year.

With peaches, this is really the only option regardless -- you'll have to buy a standard, and be prepared to prune it like 5 times per year for the entire life of the tree if you want to keep it under 12 feet. Not a big deal if you enjoy pruning, but if god-forbid you should ever get sick, or sell the house or whatever, the peach may grow out of control. Of course, at that point, you might not care anyway....

    Bookmark   November 29, 2012 at 4:17PM
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alan haigh

Pruning isn't a fight, it's a peaceful negotiation. In defense of fruit "trees", more vigorous roots create a stronger tree that have certain advantages, especially if your trees are growing in an area with wildlife issues- from deer to squirrels. Even voles are more likely to girdle dwarfing apple trees in my experience. 111 for apples can thrive in a wide range of soils tolerating drought and excessive water better than most others.

Dwarfing root stocks do save you most of the complications of learning how to prune, but when you plant a vigorous tree you plant a legacy.

Spurry, precocious varieties will require little pruning even on vigorous root stocks. It's important to know that what's growing above ground affects vigor as much as what's growing below.

If you have a small yard and little presence of wildlife, adequate water on the tap then dwarf rootstocks may well be the most practical thing for you. No matter how you prune you will need more space per tree with more vigorous root stocks but summer pruning can go a long way to keep trees in bounds.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 5:50AM
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Thank you all so much for the input! While I don't mind spending time caring for the trees, I'd rather not have to coddle them. We live in WV - 80 acres, wildlife is abundant, and the soil is clay. Obviously space is not an issue but I'm a little concerned about being able to harvest the fruit from larger trees safely. Is this a valid concern or am I over thinking the issue?

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 8:40AM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

Some good advice given.


I have a traditional one acre backyard planting and a new larger planting on some farm ground.

At the new location, I put in about 20 new apple trees last spring (on mm111 mostly) and 15 cherry trees on Mahaleb.

I now wish I'd ordered them on more vigorous rootstocks (i.e. standard seedling for apple and Mazzard for cherry). It's just such a vicious environment out there. Grasshoppers constantly try to defoliate young apple trees. Deer trashing/rutting young cherry trees. Wind is more severe and whips the trees around constantly. I'm finding it much harder to get apple, cherry and plum trees established than what I'm used to. Peaches are vigorous enough that they've done fine out there so far.

For the most part, the advantages of letting trees grow tall are aesthetics and to keep the tree above the browse height for deer.

The disadvantages are that it can take longer for vigorous trees to fruit. Pruning and thinning must be done on a ladder, or raised platform.

Whether or not to work from a ladder seems to be an issue of personal preference. Hman practically makes his living pruning from a ladder. As I recall, he's kind of a thin wiry guy which probably helps climbing around on a ladder. My own personal preference is to keep my feet on the ground (I'm only 47, but I've noticed this desire has increased with age.)

The maximum size you want to allow for your trees is a big question and one you should put a lot of thought into.

Obviously more vigorous rootstocks require more space b/t trees at planting.

Vigorous trees can be kept at any height through pruning, but as dmtaylor mentioned, keeping vigorous trees low requires aggressive pruning. Although it does require a lot more pruning, it's it's less time invested than working off a ladder (unless you're really fast on a ladder). If your location has a lot of deer pressure and you choose to keep your trees low, you'll have to fence to keep the deer off your trees.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 10:49AM
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alan haigh

Training a tree low doesn't necessarily mean more pruning although a bit of extra tying down will be necessary. What you have to understand is that while establishing the trees new growth is upwards. Towards the end of the growing season you can pull that growth outwards.

What complicates this is if you need 5' of trunk before first branches to allow a good baffle system to help keep squirrels off. For coons you only need about 3' of trunk and same for deer (as long as you use a fence circle for first 3 years until tree is well enough trained above the browse line).

I don't believe seedling rooted trees offer any of the advantages you expect, Olpea, over MM111, as I don't find seedlings that much more vigorous out of the chute. It's just that they maintain sapling vigor for longer due to later sexual maturity. At least that's my take, although I've only grown about 30 seedling rooted apples from whips over the years and it was at a single site.

I did buy some trees from Cummins that were on an experimental root stock that was as vigorous as a most vigorous seedling (seedlings themselves vary a great deal on vigor) but fruited younger. Didn't notice a big difference with these trees either over 111.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 11:31AM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

Perhaps the difference is in the location then. I've seen a difference in Mazzard and std. apple rootstocks in my backyard vs. the less vigorous rootstocks at the farm, but the difference may be the harsher environment at the farm instead of the vigor of the rootstocks to which I had attributed the difference.

My point on the pruning is that vigorous rootstocks require a lot more pruning to keep them low vs. non-vigorous rootstocks Additionally, I agree that tying down is a useful tool (and I use it plenty) to pull down growth, but for my part there is still more pruning involved in keeping trees shorter (at least w/ vigorous rootstocks) vs. letting them grow tall.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 4:43PM
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alan haigh

There's one way I guarantee you can lower a trees growth pattern and also reduce vigor. Pull the entire tree to a more horizontal position on its second or third year. I bet this would work pretty well at very windy locations where you could pull the tree into the predominant wind. This also accelerates bearing.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2012 at 4:53PM
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alan haigh

Olpea, also, I'm talking about long term, not initial training, which is a complex subject as far as cause and affect. Once trees are in production the height of the tree will not in itself be an important factor in the relative vigor of any given tree, in my experience.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2012 at 6:00AM
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