Asked January 26, 2017, 2:10 PM EST

I planted a bare root cherry tree last year. The tree is received was about 3-4 foot. It grew three main branches at the top of the tree and one other small branch without any other branching. These three branches grew 4-5 feet bringing the total height of the tree to about 8.5 feet. No branching grew off these three branches. My question is: Do I prune part of each of these three branches to promote branching or do I leave one of them as a central main leader and prune only two? How far down do I prune? Will these main branches develop branches without pruning?

St. Croix County Wisconsin

7 Responses

The growth of this tree is typical of a sweet cherry. Cherries, left to their own devices, tend to develop several strong limbs with acute crotch angles at the top of the tree. We would prefer to have smaller side limbs with more horizontal angles, with the tree looking somewhat like a Christmas tree. See first picture

I am going to suggest what might seem somewhat drastic pruning cuts. In March or early April Cut back the two large side limbs, leaving a stub of about 1.5 inch long. See 2nd and 3rd picture. Angle the cut so that the top of the nub is a bit longer than the bottom of the nub. Be careful to leave a few buds intact on the bottom side of the stub.

Also do a heading cut on the central leader where indicated. As buds start to swell, keep two buds at the top of the shortened central leader, eliminate buds from the next 5 or 6 inches, then remove every other bud of the rest of the central leader (just the part that grew last season.

On the nub whips, you will get strong growth from buds at the base of the nubs. Chose one, maybe two sprouts coming out the bottom side of the nub and eliminate the rest. Eventually, you'll want one relatively horizontal sprout from each nub to be the new scaffolds.

For the big picture see the following link to a cherry training guide. You'll want to scroll down to get to the Vogel training system starting on page 57. This gives you the general strategy.

Hope I have not confused you with too much detail.

Hi Bill, thank you for the quick response. Your information is very helpful and not too much. This is exactly the information I was looking for. I do have a couple more questions. Should I have pruned this tree during the growth last summer, or should I always wait to prune in March or April? You can never have too much info for me.

Thanks again, greg

You can get some sense of the timing for pruning from the Vogel tree system description. Ideally, the clear debudding zone just under the top bud and removal of every other bud should have been done at bud swell in the spring of planting. This would have been followed by some minor tweaking in the later spring and summer, depending on the growth response of the tree. Hopefully, the response would have been more horizontally orientated side branches along the central leader instead of a few at the top. Wooden clothes pins can be used temporarily in the first spring to direct young shoots to grow horizontal. The best time to prune young cherries is in the late spring before bloom and when dry mild conditions are predicted for the next few days. Try to avoid significant pruning cuts post bloom on young trees or shortly before or shortly after freeze events in the spring. When the trees reach seven years old or so, pruning can be done in July and August, aiming for dry conditions.

Hi Bill, I have another question in regard to my original tree question. I followed your advice and pruned the tree according to your edited photos of my tree. Also, I removed every other bud too as directed. I did this in late March. The tree started to grow in Mid April with the buds growing. Then we had a cold snap and several weeks of cold temperatures and heavy rains over 4-5 inches. The cold snap included a frost which may or may not have hurt the tree. The buds stopped growing and eventually died. The tree sprouted new growth from just above the graft union. Should I cut back on the trunk back to just above the new growth at the graft union to form a new central leader or will new growth appear on the old trunk next year? There are many sprouts from there, and should I pick one and remove the others? Pictures are attached. Thanks, greg

You can use your thumbnail to check under the bark to see if there is still some life up the trunk and look for any indication that other buds are starting to push. But, yes, you will probably end up selecting the best shoot above the graft union and cutting back to about an inch above it.

Hi Bill, I have another follow up question to my last one. The trunk of the sweet cherry tree was dead, and I am now allowing the new growth to grow from the graft union. How long should I let this growth go and can or should I top it to promote side branching?

Also, I have a sour cherry, Montmorency, that have leaves turning yellow and curled. I am sending pictures for disease identification and treatment, sprays, etc. I have another smaller Montmorency without any signs of the problem of the larger tree.

Greg, I did a zoom in on a photo you had sent earlier. See attached picture. I missed seeing the gall at the crotch (arrow). This is probably crown gall, a bacterial disease. This probably was responsible for the limb dieback above it.

Unfortunately this disease tends to be systemic, meaning that it can spread in the interior of the plant. You may see the galling reappear elsewhere in the plant even though you cut down to the green growth. If that is the case, removing the plant is recommended. Some plant disease specialists would recommend removing the plant now as the chances of being able to prune it out successfully are not real great.
Regarding the symptoms on the Mont---this is cherry leaf spot disease. This is a very common disease on this tart cherry variety.

See the following link for details. You can reduce leaf spot problems by keeping the soil under the tree free of leaf debris. Fungicides are the only protection against this disease--e.g. captan, Immunox. See fungicide labels to verify that this disease is listed North Star is a tart variety that are more resistant to this disease.

Young trees will eventually get the disease to the same extent as older trees.