Pyramid fruit trees are popular forms for growing apples and pears and plums, gages and damsons as they allow you to grow single specimens, which managed well, will result in fairly small and attractive trees. Pyramid trees are similar to bush trees although the main leader is allowed to maintain its dominance and the tree has branches of increasing size as you move downwards and this results in the pyramid shape. The tree is established by having the first branches around 40-50cm (15-20in) from the ground and further branches that radiate at intervals gradually getting smaller in length and hence the pyramid shape. I like to equate the look of the pyramid tree with a Christmas tree which has a central leader and with branches wider at the bottom. This is actually a very good productive shape ensuring good fruit quality because the fruit gets good exposure to the sun.
Although growing apples and pears as pyramids has been around for quite a long time, the growing of stone fruits in this way is a fairly new concept and still advised against by many traditionalists. These are the same pundits and writers who 20 odd years ago advised me not to write and preach about growing plums, gages and damsons as cordons – and we all know they do grow in these forms very well indeed! It may certainly be a little more difficult at times training stone fruits as cordons or pyramids with their ability to suffer from dieback and disease but I argue that they can be far more fruitful if grown in this way and kept to a manageable height. You may well even want to experiment with apricots, cherries, nectarines and peaches following the same rules we use for plums, gages and damsons.
So let’s look at how pyramid trees are managed and I start with apples and pears because they are both managed in the same way. Apple trees are best grown on the rootstocks M26 or MM106 and pears on the rootstocks Quince A or Quince C. You are most likely to buy your trees as maiden whips or feathered maidens and these are simply one year old trees. When you plant a maiden tree, cut the central leader back to a bud around 50-60cm (20-24in) above ground level. If there are any feathers (i.e. sideshoots) present, remove them within around 45cm (18in) of ground level and shorten any remaining (if there are any) that are longer than 15cm (6in) to a bud to that same length. During the following winter cut back the central leader by about 22cm (9in) of the previous year’s growth to a bud. Cut back all laterals to around 22cm (9in) to a downward facing bud. In future winters cut back the central leader to around 22cm (9in) of the previous year’s growth to a bud. In future years – apart from the winter prune of the central leader – all pruning is done during the summer and in the case of apples, in August. Prune back all branches to around 6 leaves of the current year’s growth, any long laterals arising off these branches to 3 leaves and growth from old spurs to just one leaf. Each year thin out any crossing or interwoven branches or laterals to ensure there is no congestion which would cause some fruits to not receive much or any sunlight. Prune branches at the top a little harder when necessary to ensure that the pyramid shape is retained. When the tree has reached the height you want it to winter prune every year the central leader to just one bud length of new growth. This all may seem complicated but I can assure you that it is not and it all quickly becomes second nature.
Now we move on to the stone fruits. As noted earlier I will concentrate on plums (and that will include damsons and gages) but the same pruning methods can be used for the other stone fruits if you wish to experiment. The one rule that must still be stuck to though is that no pruning should take place during the winter months when sap is not rising and I equate this to a no go time of October to March. It is probably best to use the rootstock St. Julien A for both small and large pyramids as the dwarfing rootstock Pixy will only do well in good soils and in any case fruit size can often be affected along with growth. Another drawback with using Pixy is that it does not anchor in the ground very well so you will always need to use some form of stake. (Having said that I grow all of my plums on Pixy!)
You will generally get plums as maiden whips or feathered maidens and I think that this is the right way forward for this fruit. Do not prune your central leader in winter as with apples and pears but in early April, other than the coldest areas when I would leave it until the end of April. Cut back the central leader to around 1.5m (5ft) and remove any feathers (i.e. sideshoots) within around 45cm (18in) of ground level and cut all remaining feathers to half their length to a bud. These feathers will quickly grow into the tree’s branches. At the end of the first July after planting cut back all of the new growth to around 22cm (9in) to a downward facing bud. Don’t do anything more to the central leader. In future years cut back the new growth of the central leader by about two thirds. Once the tree has reached the height that you want it to be, prune back the central leader in May every year to just one bud of the previous season’s growth. In late July each year prune back the current year’s growth to about 22cm (9in) to a downward facing bud and laterals off them to about 15cm (6in) also to downward facing buds. With plums you are highly likely to get a good number of upward growing shoots and it is essential that you remove these as soon as you see them. Cut out die back when you see it and as with apples and pears thin out the number of branches if overcrowding and congestion occurs. Again all of this may seem complicated but I can assure you that it is not!
17th March 2015
Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.