Limb Spreaders for Fruit Trees
In front of our home, we have a strip of 'land' that has continued to be difficult to landscape for the many years we have lived here. I am sure that many of you suburban gardeners have this same strip. Laura affectionately calls it the "Hell Strip". That narrow strip of property between the sidewalk and the road. Our neighbors say that before we lived here, the past homeowners had started out with red lava rock in this strip. The following homeowner shoveled that out and replaced it with grass. We cut the sod out (how in the world do you water that narrow strip of grass?!?) and brought in a native ground cover and some mulch. But last year, as we were looking to add more food production to our landscape, we decided to plant a couple of pear trees in this strip of land. This is an area of our property that gets very good sunlight, we could amend the soil, and it is easier to water two fruit trees instead of a fifty foot long strip of grass. The pear trees are grafted on a dwarf root stock, so they will not get to be very large as they mature. And if a few pears get picked by neighbor kids on the way to the bus stop, then I will be happy to know we contributed to a healthy breakfast for them!
When growing any fruit tree, it is important to provide adequate air circulation and light penetration throughout the tree's canopy. To accomplish this, you want the branching of your tree to have 45 to 60 degree angles between the central leader and other limbs. Training the limbs of your fruit trees when they are young also helps develop a stronger branching system. Oregon State University research shows that having proper angles in your fruit trees also leads to earlier fruit production in the life of your trees.
Limbs of your fruit tree that are showing a vertical growth habit, or a very narrow crotch, can be trained with limb spreaders. Limb spreaders are simply a thin strip of wood with notches cut at each end. These spreaders can be placed between two limbs at a place along the branches that creates the desired 45 to 60 degree angle. You can also purchase limb spreaders, if you do not want to make your own. Stark Bro's is one company who offers bundles of limb spreaders. Another option is to use twine and small stones as weights. The weight of the stones would pull the limbs into position. Since our fruit trees are along the sidewalk, I did not think this was the best option for us. Whichever method you choose, keep your limb spreaders in place for one growing season to allow the branch to stiffen and stay in place.
If you would like to read more about proper training and pruning of young fruit trees, I recommend reading the full publication by Oregon State Univeristy "Training and Pruning Your Home Orchard."