Monday, July 20, 2015

Young tree training: When the central leader grows too fast

   In training pecan trees, you'll find that not all trees grow the way pictured in text books. The tree, pictured at right, is a great example of a young pecan tree that grew too tall, too fast. With the summer wind blowing constantly from the south, the heavy growth of leaves at the top of the tree has proven too much for the narrow trunk to hold upright. The result is a tree that bends over, pointing north.
    This is a tree that never developed a good balance between a strong central leader and lower lateral branches.  I placed a 5 foot ladder in the photo to give you an idea how tall this tree actually is. The tree was grafted at about 3 feet high (the union is marked with white paint). The graft grew strongly but failed to sprout lateral branches along the leader in an area 3-4 feet above the graft union. It was this lack of lower lateral branch formation that ultimately caused the tree to become top heavy and start to bend over.

    Let's take a closer look at the top of this tree (photo at left). I've marked the direction of the summer winds and you can see that the once proud central leader is now growing at a 45 degree angle. However, the tree has recognized that the leader has lost its dominate position and a lateral shoot has started to grow in a position to become the new leader (red arrow).

   To force this tree to grow back into balance, I decided some radical pruning was needed. The photos above illustrate the cuts I made to define a new central leader. The photo on the left shows the tree before I made any cuts. I decided to remove the leaning portion of the tree by pruning the former leader back to the lateral shoot pointed out by the red arrow. After cutting off the top of the tree I was left with two strongly upright shoots (center photo). To create a new central leader I pruned off the lower of the two upright shoots (right side photo).

   After making just two pruning cuts I was left with a tree that was growing in the right direction (photo at right). However, these pruning cuts don't guarantee that new lateral branches will sprout along the lower portion of the trunk. I'll need to watch this tree over the next couple of weeks. If I don't get any lateral sprouting, I'll tip prune the central leader to slow its growth and encourage lateral growth.