The Apple Orchard System Blueprint

The Penn State Extension Tree Fruit team has identified seven fundamental components of a successful intensive apple system “blueprint.”
The Apple Orchard System Blueprint - Videos


In this video, we will first discuss how the components relate to the management steps for pre-plant planning and tree care during the first growing season. We will then discuss the steps for the second growing season through the early bearing years.

This video is also available in Spanish.

Funded by USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Project ME#44166076 – “Sustainable Production and Pest Management Innovations for Next Generation Young and Hispanic/Latino Specialty Crop Growers”


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View Transcript

- [Kristi] High-density plannings on size-controlling rootstocks are central tenants of apple orchard system efficiency.

The initial planning cost is greater but intensive plannings fruit earlier and produce higher yields resulting in an earlier return on investment.

A tall narrow fruiting wall has the advantage over other training systems of being horticulturally efficient and better adapted to innovative technologies.

With three-foot wide canopies light distribution and work platform reach are addressed simultaneously and ladder use can be eliminated.

Close spacing in the row creates a tree wall that is readily identified by self-steering equipment and sensor technologies mounted on robotic platforms.

The fruiting wall enhances labor efficiency by assuring a continuous flow of work and permits simplified pruning decisions based on limb size.

Our Penn State Extension Tree Fruit Team has identified seven fundamental components of a successful intensive apple system blueprint.

Size controlling rootstocks and tree density around 12 to 1,300 per acre; quality nursery stock with multiple small lateral branches; single rows of tall, narrow canopies that form a tree wall; a canopy shape that compliments an apple tree's conical natural tree form; a support system to maintain consistent canopy shape and position; simplified pruning and training tasks; and minimal pruning and branching structure.

In this short LearnNow video we will first discuss the components of the apple system blueprint as they relate to the steps for pre-plant planning and tree care during the first growing season.

Then you will learn about the blueprint steps for the second growing season through the early bearing years.

Planning and site preparation should start two to three years in advance of planting.

Begin by selecting the correct rootstock of your chosen cultivar and desired tree spacing.

Place your tree order three years prior to planting if possible.

Also, fire blight resistant rootstocks are now available but supply is limited.

Specify that you would like trees with multiple small feathers or lateral branches.

Tree spacing should be three to four feet by 11 to 12 feet.

Plant as early as the ground can be worked in the spring to encourage early root growth and successful tree establishment.

Adjust the graft union to four inches above the soil line to prevent the possibility of scion rooting.

Following planting, remove all feathers below 24 inches using a flush cut just outside the collar at the base of the shoot.

Begin training the tree to a conical tree form using tall spindle training strategies.

Remove any feathers that are larger than 2/3 the diameter of the leader leaving a short stub for limb renewal.

Our research on the science of pruning indicates that pruning and training requirements are simplified by strategic removal of excessively vigorous limbs.

The studies also show that the stub does not need to be cut to a beveled angle.

Avoid heading cuts as removing the apex of either the leader or the laterals results in increased vegetative growth and reduced fruit bud initiation.

Immediately begin an integrated program to manage rabbits, voles, deer, insects and mite pests, disease, and weeds.

The row middle should be a Fescue and annual rye mix seeded at a high rate to crowd out broadleaf weeds that service virus vectors.

Maintain a four-foot wide herbicide strip to prevent competition for nutrients and water and install drip irrigation.

After the ground has settled and the trees have started to grow apply two to four ounces of calcium nitrate per tree in each of two split applications a month apart.

Use caution to prevent contact of fertilizers and herbicides with the young trunk bark.

Install a wire trellis that will allow the tree to be supported to nine feet.

Early growth is improved when a tree is immediately tied to a support system.

Attach the trees to the support system with a permanent tree tie above the first tier feathers leaving a four-inch diameter loop to allow for trunk growth.

At bud swell rub off the three shoots below the leader to eliminate competition for leader growth.

Also remove any flower buds that are present.

This is especially important with weak-growing trees, a common problem in Honeycrisp.

Remove the buds before they open to reduce fire blight risk.

Vigorous cultivars may require a second trip through the orchard to remove upright shoots below the leader when they are three to four inches in length.

Throughout the remainder of the season, continue to tie the leader to the support system.

If any laterals are excessively long or upright, bend them to a more horizontal position.

If you were diligent about removing upright and large-diameter limbs at planting this training can be kept to a minimum.

Applied research on retooling mid Atlantic orchards with more efficient planting systems along with basic studies on the science of pruning are leading to simplified rules-based strategies for training apple trees in subsequent years.

Tree training in the second growing season or second leaf is similar to the first continuing to protect the leader by rubbing off new lateral shoots that compete for dominance.

With weak-growing trees it is important to remove flower buds as you did in the first leaf.

Conduct this training task prior to the opening of flower buds to prevent possible spread of fire blight down a row.

On stronger-growing trees, leaving approximately 15 fruit on lower branches will help control vigorously growing limbs.

To continue to protect the leader, thin fruit above the second wire.

As the leader grows, continue to attach it to additional support wires.

The goal is for the leader to reach the top wire by the end of the second leaf.

Dormant prune your high-density apple trees in February or March prior to the third leaf.

Focus at this stage should be on removing overly vigorous limbs leaving a short stub for branch renewal.

Trees that have filled their space and have 1-1/2-inch trunk diameter can carry around 30 fruit.

Chemically thin at reduced rates suggested for young trees and follow up with hand thinning to adjust crop load to appropriate levels for annual cropping and fruit size.

Remove all fruit that compete with leader growth.

During dormant pruning prior to the fourth leaf continue to eliminate the largest limbs including strong upright limbs or risers and also pendant portions of limbs or hangers.

Use renewal cuts except in cases where it is preferable to shorten a pendant limb to an upward-growing lateral.

In subsequent seasons, continue limb renewal and thin out second branches on remaining limbs to create a single axis.

Continue to train trees to a cone shape with a tree height limited to 90% of cross row spacing.

For example, 10 feet for a cross row spacing of 11 feet.

Planting intensive orchard systems and adopting practices such as minimal pruning and simplified training are fundamental components of a successful blueprint for an orchard with the highest market quality and production efficiency.

For more information on establishing and training orchards visit the Penn State Extension Tree Fruit Production website.

If growing trees is a new venture for you gather as much information as possible prior to planning a new orchard and also consider taking a Penn State Extension workshop on commercial fruit growing.


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