Smart Fruit Tree Training, Toward Better Methods and Clearer Goals

Hello friends.  I've been out of it lately, forgetting to post stuff, but  I'm back with something paradigm shifting.  If you don't already expect to see next level, envelope pushing content from me on a semi-regular basis, you can start any time lol.  Here are 3 videos that are a first installment on the subject of training up fruit trees. 

You can also keep up with the Smart Tree Training Playlist for this subject on youtube here.  All videos related to training trees will be added there in the future.

People of my personality type think that everything can be improved.  We can seem contrary by nature, sometimes to a fault, but that is just an immature expression of our nature to question and experiment.  Now that geeks and freaks are more and more influential via technology and the information age, the new paradigm is open source.  It's not just a practice, it's a way of thinking.  It's my way of thinking and it's about time it started gaining some traction!  This new paradigm can come about because we now get less of our information through dogmatic, institutional channels which act as filters and tend toward conservatism.  Also, people that have knowledge and ideas to offer can much more easily get those ideas out.  Information can not only proliferate quickly and easily now, but we have forums to hash out ideas and share experience and experiments, which creates a crucible for testing information and ideas.  In spite of the huge preponderance of weak and incorrect information proliferating on the internet, this more positive side of the information age is having a profound effect on human knowledge and progress.  It is my hope that we will continue to mature in our thinking, and in our vetting and processing of information.

We can't think about and become experts on everything, but we also don't have to buy everything that is handed to us as if someone has figured it all out.  We should be skeptical and critical in a constructive way.  In the case for fruit tree training methods, the same basic rudimentary approach has been in use for a very long time, with minor variations and minimal dissidence in spite often achieving poor to mediocre results over an unnecessarily long span of time.  I used those methods for years and found them unsatisfactory, so I began to tinker with other possibilities.  Then I found a brilliant study that was done from around 1925 to 1930 that completely changed everything.  To quote the authors of that study, A Study of the Framework of the Apple Tree and it's Relation to Longevity, 1932:

“That improvement in methods of heading fruit trees is desirable is evident from even a casual study of bearing apple orchards, where a certain proportion of the trees will be found breaking down from causes that can be traced directly to the way the young tree was trained.”
“The central leader type of tree has been the expressed preference of Illinois growers.  Nevertheless, most of the heads in Illinois commercial orchards are vase shaped.”

The authors found that while growers expressed a definite preference for one type of tree, the practice of cutting back on planting, known as a heading cut, was producing an entirely different type of tree.  In spite of the practice having a high failure rate, the orchardists continued the practice anyway, and it is still the main technique in use today.  Adopting their recommendations and tweaking them improved my results and the time from new tree to framework radically, so I am very enthused about continuing to experiment and add to those methods.

I had already been experimenting with notching buds and shoots to encourage them to grow, but these guys took an altogether more divergent approach to training that bucked one of the fundamental dogmas of tree planting and training, namely, that the tree must be cut back on planting.  This is the most sacred dogma of tree training.  Cutting back is said to balance the root and top, create a more stocky tree with a thick enough stem, and stimulate branching below the cut.  No doubt it can do all of those things, but are they actually necessary?  They put that question to the test rather than accepting it and found that it was not necessary to cut the trees back, which I have so far confirmed.  The authors surveyed the available literature both current and historical, interviewed orchardists and examined orchards to see what was actually happening all the way from initial training, through to failure of the trees.  After those important initial stems which helped define the problem, they designed experiments to test alternative tree training techniques, and ultimately developed a set of recommendations for improvements in tree training that avoided the common tree failures caused in early training.  They were able to achieve the desired tree forms more assuredly, resulting in a well formed, well balanced, long lived tree in a short space of time.  Bravo!

While the study gave specific recommendations on what to do in training apple trees and some suggestions regarding the training of different varieties, it is far from the final word on the subject.  I've already improved it, just by adding notching and transferring the same and similar principals to further establishing specific goals for the secondary scaffolds.  I've also already thought up lists of potential trials and experiments to answer a growing number of questions about variations on their methods, alternative techniques and how different fruit tree species respond to various interventions.  The authors would have thought this was the thing to do, you advance the work.  I've used notching quite a lot on various different species of fruit, but the original study was on apples and that has also been my main experience so far.  More experimental trials are needed to assess these and other techniques on other species.

I'm super stoked if I can help my blog readers and youtube viewers train their trees better, but I have my sights set on much bigger game, the mastodon of  common training recommendations, which I refer to as "clip and pray".  It honestly would be hard to do worse than these common recommendations and even the simple training used to set the trees up in these first videos could go a long way toward improving outcomes.  My main goal would be to evolve informed, but simple and accessible "systems" of sorts for mass consumption with a 3 to 4 year plan using a small number of easy to understand tools and goals.  On the back end, I'd like to see a continuing evolution of understanding about how different fruit tree species grow and respond to various interventions.  Maybe more importantly though, I want to see a paradigm shift in thinking about what we are doing in fruit tree training, and why.  The essence of that philosophic understanding is still evolving, but here are my basic thoughts now.  I've been thinking of the process as guiding a finite amount of resources or growth energy of the tree to achieve very specific goals.  The tree can only grow so much in a year.  Where are you going to encourage that growth to go and what techniques can be use to convince the tree to favor growth in those areas.  Another important concept is creating some kind of balance in growth between parts of the tree.  This balance can vary in form and degree, but we all know drastic imbalance when we see it.  Training is often approached somewhat haphazardly.  By having specific goals in mind and reasons for having those goals, we can then apply the tools we have available to make that tree form happen.

There is much to say and I hope to keep producing videos and essays or lectures on this subject.

The full fruit tree framework study is available to download on the free stuff page

In the meantime, the simple recommendations and information given in these first few videos could go a long way toward improving fruit tree training for home orchardists.  Results will absolutely vary by species and variety, and no doubt by environmental conditions as well.  The tools presented are not new and they were not new in 1925 either.  But the obvious is not always so obvious and for whatever reasons, I've never seen anything like this presented anywhere.  I'm calling it Smart Tree Training and hopefully that name will stick.  It is a great name I think for a non-specific collaborative project that aims to take an informed and goal oriented approach to the problem of fruit tree training.  I feel confident in saying that you can help me improve the practice and outcome of fruit tree training by sharing this information as it comes out, through appropriate channels where it will be put to use.