A Beginner's Guide to Growing Trained Fruit Trees

A Beginner's Guide to Growing Trained Fruit Trees

History of trained fruit trees.

Trained fruit trees can be the highlight of any garden – they are a superb example of form, function and beauty. From the elegant bare branches covered with frost in the depths of winter, through to eye-catching displays of blossom and then boughs laden with fruit in Autumn, they provide year-round interest and structure in any setting. They are so versatile that there is bound to be shape which fits into any garden space, no matter how small – cordons can be planted as little as 1m apart. Espaliers of step-overs can be used as a garden divide or to line paths, edge borders and soften fences and walls. It can also be an opportunity to grow a more exotic tree such as peach, nectarine or fig, which will benefit from the warmth and shelter of being grown along a brick wall.

The origins of training fruit trees are unclear, but there is evidence of a picture of a fan-trained fig found in the tomb of an Egyptian army commander. The Romans continued the practice, and it was widely used in the Middle Ages throughout much of Northern Europe. In Belgium it became a very popular way of escaping land tax – farmers were taxed on the acreage under cultivation. It was the last half of the nineteenth century that the fashion for trained trees reached its peak. New shapes such as the Palmette Verrier and Belgian Fence were developed until training trees became an art form.

Recently the use of trained trees has once again become more popular. Large houses are renovating walled gardens, community projects are using them to fit fruit trees into a small space, and home gardeners are once again falling in love with them as they realise just how useful and decorative these forms can be. Many gardeners have been put off by the seemingly daunting task of pruning, but it really isn’t that difficult. Once you have understood a few basic underlying principles of why, how and when to prune, these exquisite trees are well within the reach of every gardener. In this article we will look at how to train the pome fruits (apples, pears and quince).

When to prune fruit trees.

This is the key point to remember. In fact, if you remember nothing else from this article, you’ll still have a much better idea about how to prune fruit trees in general:

WINTER pruning (in December or January) ENCOURAGES growth. Wherever you prune in the winter, the three or four buds behind that cut will break and grow away in the following Spring, and will grow in the direction in which the buds are facing. This is the key formative pruning to do in the early years, to achieve the desired shape.

SUMMER pruning (normally in the middle of August) CONTAINS growth. This is the time to prune back any unwanted extension growth, keeping the shape of the tree clear and distinct.

And that is basically it! No matter what shape you are trying to achieve, if you follow the above guidelines you will not go far wrong. We’ll have a more detailed look at the two most popular shapes – cordons and espaliers.


Cordons are an excellent way to grow apples and pears in a very limited space. You can grow a range of varieties (three cordons trees will take the same space as one espalier, fan or family tree) and it is the most intensive method of production. Plant vertical cordons in a tight cordon, or use a series of oblique cordons (plant at 45 degrees) to form a decorative screen or garden divide. This is the pruning schedule if you are starting off with a one year old maiden. If you buy a pre-trained tree from a nursery, skip straight to Year Two and follow from there.

Winter Year One: Plant your maiden tree. Prune the central leader at about 45-60cm above soil level, just above a healthy bud. The buds beneath this cut will grow away in the spring. Use a bamboo cane to train the uppermost shoot into a new central leader.

Summer Year One: Prune back any side growths that have appeared to leave just two leaves. It is on these short stems that fruiting spurs will appear in subsequent years.

Winter Year Two: Prune the central leader back by about 50% of that year’s growth, again to just above a nice bud. If possible, choose a bud on the opposite side of the stem to last year. Again, the buds beneath this cut will break in the Spring and the uppermost shoot should be tied in to form a new leader.

Summer Year Two: Prune back any side growths that have appeared to leave just two leaves’ leaving a short stub about 5cm long.

In subsequent year’s repeat Year Two pruning until the main stem reaches the desired height. Summer prune in mid-August as before to maintain form.

Espaliers and step-overs.

Use espaliers where there is plenty of width (2.5 – 3m per plant), but where height is limited. A step-over is in effect a one tier espalier, and was extremely popular in Victorian gardens as an edging to borders or vegetable plots. One horizontal tier is added every growing season, up to the height required.

Winter Year One: Plant a maiden (one year old tree). Prune the central stem at the height where the first tier is required. Prune just above three healthy buds, ideally with two of them on opposing sides of the stem. These three buds will grow away in the spring – train one to the left, one to the right, and the middle one tie in vertically to form a new central leader. (If you are growing as a step-over, there is no need to train in a new leader).

Summer Year One: It is unlikely that you will need to do much summer pruning in this first year, but if any side shoots do grow away from the three framework branches, prune back to 2 leaves.

Winter Year Two: Repeat the process from the previous winter to create your second horizontal tier. You can also reduce the growth of the first tier by about one third, pruning to a bud on the underside of the branch. This will speed up the formation of fruiting spurs.

Summer Year Two: by now the tree will be trying to ‘escape’ from your training. Side shoots will grow away quite vigorously form the branch framework you have created. Prune all of these back to 2 leaves in the middle of August.

If you buy a 2 tier espalier from a nursery, it will now be at this stage in its life. Once you have planted it, follow the guidelines for Year Two in winter and summer until the final height has been achieved.


There are a large number of different rootstocks available and the choice can be confusing. In general, don’t be tempted to go for too dwarfing a rootstock – you will be keeping the tree in check by pruning twice a year. A semi-dwarfing stock such as M106 for apples and Quince A for pears is ideal. They are better able to cope with cold exposed sites or poor soil, and will produce a healthier tree with the heaviest possible crops.

Tip or spur-bearing.

One question I get asked a lot is ‘Which variety is suitable for training?’ The short answer is – all of them! All apples and pears are capable of producing fruiting spurs, which is what you need when formally training trees. Some varieties do have a natural inclination to bear on the tips of branches (the apple Discovery is a classic example). However by removing these tips with your annual summer prune, you will force the tree into producing spurs – they are genetically programmed to have to reproduce (produce fruit) and will produce fruiting spurs if you force them too.