Q&A with Ann Ralph: Keeping Fruit Trees Small

January 7, 2015 | By | Comments (23)

_DSF0132It’s bare-root planting time, and our January issue features the latest and greatest in hybrid deciduous stone fruits (peaches, plums, pluerries—that’s right—plum-cherry crosses). When Phil Pursel of Dave Wilson Nursery came to the Test Garden to help us plant a few trees of our own, he did something I’d never seen before—he chopped each baby tree right after planting it. I mean HACKED each one down to about knee height. I winced. I gasped. I thought he was out of his mind.

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Marion Brenner. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Marion Brenner. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Turns out that the pruning cut that hurt my soul (technical term: heading cut)  is the best possible thing you can do to keep your fruit tree small and shapely.

Fresh off the press is Ann Ralph’s new book Grow a Little Fruit Tree (Storey Publishing, 2014; $17). Anne spent years being the fruit tree specialist at nurseries (including at Berkeley Hort for 12 years), and her book is beautiful, technical, and totally approachable.  While the book and the technique get the teeny tiniest of mentions in our print edition, I wanted to expound a bit more here. You’ve got to do this when you first plant a new tree if you want to keep fruit within reach.


Why doesn’t anyone know about this technique?

Ann Ralph: Orchards have been pruned this way for a hundred years. Every time you drive past and orchard and you see all of the trees branching at the exact same low height, the trees have been cut this way! But it seems that this information is just a sentence in every book, and people breeze right past it. It just hasn’t made the jump to backyard orchard keeping.

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Marion Brenner. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Marion Brenner. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

 Why is it so important to make this cut?

Ann: A heading cut allows you to keep the tree as tall as you are! You’ll keep fruit within reach (for easy harvest), and you can also do your subsequent twice yearly pruning without a ladder. It works by removing the growing tip and forcing all the side buds to grow.

Why don’t trees come pre-cut?

Ann: It’s hard for professionals to make that cut. It’s emotionally difficult. It’s a cut that no one wants to make unless you’re growing your own trees and you really understand the consequences. Also, maybe some people want a super large tree for shade. And lastly, don’t you think all of those stubby trees would just look horrifying in the nursery?

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Saxon Holt/Photo Botanic. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Excerpted from Grow a Little Fruit Tree (c) Ann Ralph. Photography by (c) Saxon Holt/Photo Botanic. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

Should heading cuts be made on every type of fruit tree?

Ann: Make heading cuts on deciduous fruit trees—plums, peaches, apples, etc.

Can you grow these fruit trees in containers and head them to keep them small?

Ann: No! You can’t. You really can’t. The thing about this technique is that the trees develop a fabulous root system that just doesn’t translate to a container. If you want to grow fruit in a pot, you’re best options are citrus or figs.

Do you have an absolute favorite variety?

Ann: Flavor preference is so individual, but ‘Arctic Glo’ nectarine is the one I absolutely had to plant. It’s the fruit of fruit; it has the perfect balance of sweet of tart. It has disadvantages, namely, a cling pit, meaning it doesn’t come easily apart. But it’s heaven to eat. I put up with its pit.

Best advice for someone with a messed-up tree?

Ann: Well, the only opportunity to make the crucial heading cut is the first year. You can always do corrective pruning and make things better, but you can never get a lovely little tree if you don’t do this when it goes in the ground. If you have a tree that needs some work, your best bet is to go back to your favorite local nursery and ask. They know the community and can recommend someone great.


  1. Don Crawford

    I bought your book, trying to learn how to best prune the espalier apple and pear trees I bought from the nursery two seasons ago. I have nice lateral/horizontal branches and am starting to get fruit. My question is about the upright branches that are going crazy now in June. Do I pinch them off on a daily basis? Do I prune them to 8 inches? Do I prune only in the woody part? Do I prune them back to the horizontal/lateral branches? Do I wait until August and then prune them (they’ll be two feet tall by then!). Every time I pinch them off they seem to burst out anew.

    June 4, 2017 at 12:49 pm
  2. Char

    Is it harmful to cut back 6-7 year old peach trees in the summer (in Texas). One is a La Feliciana that is huge!

    June 22, 2016 at 2:28 pm
  3. beth Hurliman

    I’m concerned about fire blight with the summer pruning–doesn’t summer pruning really leave a tree vulnerable??

    December 26, 2015 at 3:34 pm
  4. artistwantobe

    Just finished your book. Am planning my new small orchard!
    I have a huge fig tree. When and how do I cut it back to a reachable size? And if I do a new fig, any specifics in the pruning? Can it be espaliered?

    October 21, 2015 at 6:31 am
  5. Darlene

    I purchased a tree this Spring. It is already planted. Since it is Fall is it too late to make this important cut????

    October 7, 2015 at 11:02 am
  6. Wayne

    I bought your book at the same time I bought some brown turkey fig trees from Stark. I grew up on brown turkey figs and can’t buy around here. I love your book and I am on the second reading – wish there was a video! The trees I purchased were potted and were one long stem about 4 feet tall. Can I go ahead and make the heading cut or do I need to let the plant establish itself prior to cutting. I know on bare root plants you say to cut when you plant. These will be container trees because I will bring them into garage for winter.

    June 3, 2015 at 5:13 am
  7. Jah

    http://www.paradisenursery.com are great fruit tree growers

    March 7, 2015 at 10:57 pm
  8. Jah

    Paradisenursery.com is a great family nursery that specialized in fruit trees and citrus. Growers of many persian plants like pomegranates, figs, grapes, sour cherries, sweet limes, and Iranian jasmines to name a few.

    March 7, 2015 at 10:56 pm
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  10. Wes Ackerson

    I have two fruit trees of which one is pear and one is cherry. They bloom every year since I have planted them however as of yet not one piece of fruit. Can anyone help me?

    February 21, 2015 at 10:57 am
    • Angèl

      Yeah, I am familiar with that problem! My Mom loves cherries. Got 3 cherry trees from the clearance row. Nursed them to perfect health and full blossom. No fruit.
      I thought it was just that they were too young & waited another 2 years before whining about it to a horticulturist friend, who dropped by and explained that these were “ornamentals.” They never get fruit.
      Hope you fare better!

      August 8, 2017 at 2:12 am
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  12. Johanna Silver

    Chad—It’s definitely not too late to head the trees if they were planted last summer. This would be the perfect time to bring down the height to a managable size. Good luck!

    January 22, 2015 at 12:08 pm
  13. Chad

    We planted new Apple, Peach and Plum trees at the end of the Summer this last year. Is it too late to do this?

    January 22, 2015 at 8:43 am
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  16. Johanna Silver

    Julie! Hooray! So you’re eating fruit now? Planting it later? Good luck.

    January 10, 2015 at 8:14 pm
  17. Johanna Silver

    Julie — Here is the link to buy the book: http://www.amazon.com/Grow-Little-Fruit-Tree-Easy-Harvest/dp/1612120547 Does Amazon ship to Australia?? I see that it’s available on Kindle. PLEASE let me know if you need more help and I can inquire with the publisher. I’m glad people are interested! It was a big learning moment for me, and the information is beyond useful to anyone planting fruit trees.

    January 9, 2015 at 5:10 pm
    • Julie

      Thanks for the link Johanna. I will get the Kindle edition as it’s instantaneous , though shipping hard copies from US Amazon is pretty fast. All I need to do when I get it is remember to turn the seasons ‘upside down’ in my head as I read 🙂

      January 10, 2015 at 4:06 am
  18. Julie

    Is Anne’s book available in Australia or as an E Book? I follow Dave Wilson on his YouTube videos but this book would be great to have on hand 🙂
    Julie in South Australia

    January 9, 2015 at 3:07 pm
  19. Lynn greene

    Love the post all backyard garden should know

    January 9, 2015 at 1:23 pm
  20. Johanna Silver

    Yes, many (not all) are grafted. The graft union is very obvious—about 4 to 6 inches above the root system. And yes, you are spot on—cut above the the graft. This heading cut is done at about 18 to 24 inches. I cannot recommend Ann’s book highly enough, by the way. It has a lot more information than I am able to cover, and will be useful to anyone with a backyard orchard (or even one tree). Thanks for your comment! j.

    January 8, 2015 at 9:43 am
  21. JBannis

    I’m assuming the advice is to cut low but above the graft … ? Aren’t most, if not all, fruit trees grafted?

    January 8, 2015 at 1:18 am

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