Systems of Training Apple Trees

There are various systems by which apples may be grown successfully — even in small gardens. Some systems ensure that the trees take up a minimum of space and require little pruning, so that the highest possible yield is obtained.


Full standard trees have trunks about 6 ft. high and are usually planted in grass. Such trees should have been grafted on to strong stocks, because they do not come into cropping early, and five or six years may pass before any apples can be picked. Standard trees are expensive to buy and to stake, and should be planted at least 30 ft. apart.


Half-standards have trunks 4-1/2 ft. high and, like the full standard trees, should have been grafted on strong stocks suitable for planting in poultry runs, because they do not mind the high nitrogen conditions produced by poultry manure; while the birds cannot get into the branches to peck the fruit, the trees provide them with shade. Plant half-standard trees 24 ft. square and stake them well.


Open centre bush trees have trunks 2 or 2-1/2 ft. high. Their branches should grow to form a goblet-shaped tree so that both branches and fruits get all the light and air they need. This is the commonest form of apple tree grown in gardens. Plant bush trees 12 ft. square. The dessert varieties prefer to grow in grass, so if it is necessary to plant a tree in cultivated land, choose a cooking variety, for it will benefit from the fertile conditions round it. Bush trees are grafted on to semi-dwarfing or dwarfing stocks.


Delayed open centre bush trees are very popular, not only because blossom buds are readily formed on the branches, which lie almost flat and are evenly spaced, but the young growth is evenly distributed, and the trees are strong. They differ from the open centre bush trees in that the main branch grows on up the middle of the tree; otherwise the shape is the same. Plant a one-year-old tree or maiden and, if it is not very strong, cut it back to 3 ft. and just above a growth bud. Then as the new shoots appear, train one from a top bud into a vertical position to make the main stem. Cut this shoot back to just above a bud during the following winter and also for the next three or four years until the tree is 5 ft. high. The main stem is then left unpruned. If, however, the previous season’s growth has been very vigorous owing to wet weather, cut the top shoot back about mid-May so that the tree is the required height.

Prune the side growths that develop from the main stem by about half in the first year or two to create evenly spaced branches from the centre. To make sure that branches on either side of the tree correspond, cut a wedge-shaped notch about 1 in. deep just above a bud in the one-year-old wood of each branch. This will cause the bud to grow out and produce more laterals. A similar notch made just under a bud will prevent the bud growing.

As the tree gets older, shorten one shoot on one side of the tree and the corresponding shoot on the other side; then cut cleanly down to their base any strong side shoots that are not needed for branches. After six or seven years, completely remove one or two of the older branches to encourage the production of young wood. If a branch bends down too much, cut it back to just beyond an upward-growing side shoot; then cut back this side shoot by half to encourage the production of a branch in the right direction.


Cordons are trees on single stems and are usually trained at an angle of 45° by being tied to wires stretched tightly between posts. Buy cordons on M.IX stock, and plant them 2-½ ft. apart in rows 6 ft. apart, and take care to keep the union of the stock and scion 3 in. above the ground. If a number of cordons are to be planted, provide them with a fence comprising posts rising 8 ft. out of the ground and placed 12 ft. apart, with parallel wires stretched between the posts. The bottom wire should be stretched tightly at a height of 2-½ ft. above soil level and the others at 2-ft. intervals. If possible, use old telegraph wire, because this damages the bark less than ordinary galvanized wire. To ensure that the cordons grow perfectly straight, tic bamboos to the wires at an angle of 45° to the soil and, as the leaders of one-year-old end growths develop on the ends of the cordons, tie them carefully to the canes.

For the first three winters, cut back the leader by half to a point just above a bud, and cut the laterals, or one-year-old side growths, to within l in. of their bases. This system can be continued for the next 10 or 12 years, but it is preferable to change to the modified form of the Lorette summer pruning system, which entails the cutting back of laterals in the summer, when they have reached a length of l-1/2ft.  Prune the leader each December until the cordon is5 ft. long; then delay pruning it again until about 16 months later, when it should be cut back by about half; thereafter prune yearly in May in the same way.

Cordon trees can be grown in grass and most of the mowing can be done mech-anically. Cut by hand grass that is actually growing in the rows and allow it to lie as a mulch. Any other grass that is cut near the cordon trees can be used as a mulch along the rows. This will discourage the growth of strong grasses and also reduce the amount of hand work in the rows.


Apple trees grown on the pillar system cause little work and are of a high quality. Buy trees grafted on M.II or MM.104, and plant them 5 ft. apart in rows 12 ft. apart. A pillar tree is allowed to grow to 12 ft. It has a central stem from which radiates a large number of lateral growths, and it is important that this central stem should be stout, upright and rigid so that the tree can carry the fruit without further support.

Train young trees as follows: Prune the one-year-old trees back to 2-1/2 ft. from soil level and to just above a bud, and cut back the laterals to within 1 in. of the main stem. In the second winter, cut back the leader by half to just above a bud, and the top lateral to within 1 in. of the main stem, leaving the second lateral un-pruned. Cut back the remaining laterals to within 1 in. of the main stem.

In the third winter prune as for the second, but leave two laterals unpruned (the first lateral below the leader should be cut back to within 1 in. of the main stem). In the fourth winter leave two one-year-old laterals unpruned, and in the fifth year leave six altogether.

Thus the framework of the tree is established and thereafter the one-year-old laterals that grow on the main stem should be left to grow naturally. By the following autumn fruit buds should have grown on them.

In the following winter prune back any fresh growth that has been made from the tip. This will allow the fruit buds on the lower half of the two-year-old laterals to crop. Prune these laterals to within about I in. of their base only after they have borne fruit. Thus the one-year-old lateral is left alone, the two-year-old lateral is tip-pruned, and the three-year-old lateral is pruned back hard. When the trees are eight or nine years old they will carry three-year-old laterals that have just fruited, an equal number of two-year-old laterals that will carry the crop the following year, and in addition a large number of one-year-old laterals.


The l’arcure method is a Belgian system that is sometimes used in the British Isles. It is similar to the cordon system except that the trees are trained in semicircular, and can form a useful edging to a walk.

The arching causes the branches to bear plenty of fruit buds, and consequently the trees fruit heavily while they are still young.

Further, the arches ensure the maximum amount of branch in the minimum of space. Plant 1 ft. high maidens, on M.IX or M.VI1 stock, 8 ft. apart, and then arch each tree to form a semicircle. Tie the end to a wire that has been stretched tightly between posts l ft. above soil level.

In the following summer prune all the laterals, with the exception of the one in the middle of the arch, to within 1 in. of their base as soon as they are 1-1/2 ft. long. Then carefully train the central lateral in the opposite direction to form a second semicircular arch, and tie it to a wire stretched 2 ft. above the ground.

In the second summer prune the second main curved branch in the same way by cutting back all the laterals with the exception of the central one, which should then be trained in the opposite direction in the winter.

Continue this procedure until the l’arcure-trained tree rises in alternating curves to a height of 8 ft. When all the necessary arches have been formed, follow the modified form of Lorette pruning to keep the trees cropping.


Family trees are sold as bush trees and should be trained in the same way as the open centre bush trees.

Family trees grow well in grass that is kept well cut, and they should be planted 10 ft. apart.


The growing of apple trees as spindle bushes is a Dutch method that has been adapted to suit Great Britain. Dessert varieties should be bought from M.IX stock. Plant maidens in rows 13 ft. apart leaving 6 ft. between the trees in the rows.

As spindle bushes need support drive 8-ft. stakes into the soil, leaving 2 ft. of each firmly anchored in the ground. Between the stakes stretch wires to which the lower laterals can eventually be hooked. It will then be unnecessary to put up special fences and wires as for cordons.

In late February of the year after planting, cut back the trees to within 2 ft. of soil level and just above a bud. Then, at the end of the following winter, cut back by half the one-year-old growth or leader produced from this bud. Each winter thereafter, prune back the leader by half until the tree reaches 7 ft. Any leaders that develop from the top of the tree after that time should be pruned back in May to within l in. of their base.

In the winter thin out the laterals or side growths so that they are 7 in. apart. When they are 9 in. long, pull them down to the wires already provided so that they are horizontal.


Espalier trees are usually obtainable with their branches already trained to run parallel to the soil, so that all that needs to be done is to treat the branches as if they were individual cordons. The trees should be planted at least 14 ft. apart and tied to wires stretched tightly 2 ft. apart. They look most attractive trained against house walls. Unfortunately espalier trees are scarce because they are expensive to produce, harder to look after than cordons, and take up more room.

09. February 2012 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Fruit & Veg, Fruit Trees | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Systems of Training Apple Trees


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