Tree Shaping and the Benefits of Early Tree Training

Wondering how to get your apple tree to produce more fruit and lean in a certain direction? The answer is elemen-tree. Early training and pruning encourage trees to grow tall and strong. By pruning your tree a year after you plant it, you can direct the tree to provide shade exactly where you need it.

_MG_6855 Pruning and training young apple trees

There are plenty of other benefits of early tree training.

  • Fruit trees will produce sooner and live longer.
  • They’ll bear fleshier fruit
  • Need less trimming and maintenance as they mature
  • Training enables trees to fight off pests and diseases.
  • Pruning keeps their size manageable and allows light and air to filter through.
  • Strong wind and snowstorms are less apt to damage sculpted tree branches.
  • Removing diseased, damaged, and dead debris encourages healthy growth.

Tree topping and pruning are easier when trunks are trained to a good shape. Knowing how and when to prune each seedling is the key to a lovely landscape.

The Right Tools

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The best way to landscape starts with the right pruning tools.

Bypass snips and pruners take care of the lighter jobs. Use these to cut branches up to 3/4 inches in diameter. The Virginia Tech extension office recommends avoiding anvil pruners, which tend to give you a sloppier cut. Loppers, pruning saws, trimmers, and pole saws will handle the heavier branches. These tools are available at your local garden center, along with instructions on how to care for them.

It’s not enough just to store these tools in your shed. Proper cleaning is essential to avoid spreading leaf spot disease from one maple to the next. The tools should also be sharpened yearly to avoid cutting with a dull blade, which will injure your tree. Most local nurseries offer tool sharpening services.

Planting and Training

Tree species and growth habits determine the training system to use. Virginia oak trees have a strong central leader stem (the trunk). Visualize what the tree will look like as it grows and thickens. Decide which scaffolding branches to keep and which to remove. Branches do not rise above the ground; they always retain their position on the trunk.

Pro tip: Trim scaffolding branches vertically and radially to help them grow like “shelving”.

Seasonal care depends on the type of trees on your property. The process of training typically begins a year after the sapling is planted and continues for three to five years (or until the tree is well established). Most training is needed only during the growing season. (Prune after the tree enters dormancy in late fall and early spring).

Pruning Systems

Arborists recommend three pruning systems:

  1. The Open Center Training System features a vase shape where the trunk center has no actual main branch. OCT systems are mostly used on fruit trees.
  2. Central Leader Systems train trees to have dominant trunks and scaffold “shelves” in different angles. Shapes are like Christmas trees and are typical of most natural growth habits. Some trees with a dominant central leader trunk include oaks, sycamores, maples, and some fruit varieties.
  3. The Modified Central Leader System is a combination of the OCT and the Central Leader System. Young trees follow the central leader method, but when the main lateral branches develop, the central leader is removed. Forked main trunks are trained like this.

Tree Types

Benefits of Early Tree Training

Just like a fingerprint, no tree is exactly like another. Various species have different growth patterns — the environment plays a part, too. Some trees like mulberry, maple, and flowering dogwoods quickly grow all season. Pines are trained when their “candles” finish spring growth. (Pines can be trimmed into shapes when the candles are still tan in color). Train pine trees before new needles appear.

Caring for trees and bushes should be on your outdoor to-do list. Creating a maintenance plan helps, especially when storms damage trees on your property. The best part about training a tree is that, unlike a dog, trees won’t jump up on you for a treat afterward.

Jim Seth climbed his first tree at the age of 3, and has been in love with saplings and conifers ever since. As a certified arborist, he spends a lot of time at the top these days, pruning and caring for trees, but his parents say it’s a lot easier to get him down these days.