Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association

French pruning method encourages fruiting

January 23, 2003

All the pruning is done in summer, not winter.

by PETER MITHAM

 

“It changes the sap flow in the trees. You divert the growth pattern to dormant buds for future growth, and you get more steady bearing.”

Pem van Heek

 

Pem van Heek, a retired forester living in West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, maintains a small orchard featuring over a hundred varieties of apples. Most are the so-called heritage varieties–Pitmaston Pineapple, Van der Pool, Zabergau Renette, Liberty, Belle de Boskoop–but there are also the more common Spartan and Gala. In addition, there are a few varieties of pears, and a gnarled quince tree.

 

And they’re all in his backyard, nestled behind a cedar hedge in a quiet residential neighborhood.

 

Clearly, it’s not your typical orchard.

 

What makes it possible, said Van Heek, is his method of pruning–the Lorette method, named for Louis Lorette (1846-1925), the French arborist who laid out its principles in the 1903 manual Petit Guide sur l’Arboriculture. The book went through two editions before Lorette’s death in 1925, and another two revisions afterwards.

 

The Lorette pruning system became quite popular in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century, as growers sought to increase production using limited resources.The principle feature is that no pruning is done in the winter. Trees are only summer pruned.

 

The system involves severely cutting back new shoot growth in the summer in an attempt to induce dards and fruit spurs to form from secondary buds to bring the tree more quickly into a fruiting mode.

 

Van Heek, who began collecting his trees about 15 years ago, has a voracious appetite for literature about apples and tree management. The experiences of growers in his native Holland, France, and England, as well as British Columbia (he’s a member of the B.C. Fruit Testers’ Association), have all contributed to his knowledge and expertise. He adopted the Lorette method because it suited his circumstances–not unlike those in early twentieth-century Europe–and proved itself in practice.

 

“His pruning option changes the sap flow in the trees,” said van Heek, summarizing what he considers the defining element of the Lorette method. “You divert the growth pattern to dormant buds for future growth, and you get more steady bearing.”

 

Van Heek said that the method is ideal for use in circumstances such as his, where space is limited. The method maximizes yield by disciplining the tree to grow in a limited space while channeling its growth in the way that best supports fruit production. It is applicable to dwarf, semidwarf, and full-size trees, and to pears as well as apples.

 

In van Heek’s yard, dwarf and semidwarf trees are the rule. They stand four feet high in neat rows facing south, supported by bamboo posts or arranged against an outside wall in a variety of espalier forms.

 

Van Heek explained that he allows each tree to grow freely until the end of June, at which point new shoots are pruned back to their base, just when growth is at its height. This forces the nutrients that would otherwise have been diverted to the new growth into the buds. Further pruning of new shoots is conducted in late summer.

 

The Lorette method also advises growers to bend desirable new shoots into a semicircle, with their tips down, in order to foster the formation of flower buds as close to the base of the branch as possible. This is important, so that branches are better able to bear the weight of ripening fruit.

 

And there is plenty of fruit.

 

Off one tree, an Ananas Renette, he might get up to 50 apples; at the other end of the yard, he shows a Liberty boasting six branches and a four-foot spread that yielded 100 apples.

 

Van Heek knows of no other grower who uses the Lorette method. While he can vouch for its effectiveness, he admits that others tend to find it odd.

 

“Most people think you prune in the winter. This is why they find the Lorette method strange,” he said. He points out another, more practical barrier to its use: “It takes a fair amount of work if you’ve got a lot of trees.”

 

Even so, some editions of Lorette’s manual feature photos of orchards in early twentieth-century France the size of which rivaled those in British Columbia at the time. But the volume of production has increased dramatically since then, and the method is now best-suited for relatively small operations.

 

Van Heek and his wife, Mein, eat most of their apples themselves, either raw, in baking, or preserves. Some of the fruit, however, is sold at Capers, a Vancouver-based chain of organic food stores with a location a few minutes’ walk from the van Heek orchard.

 

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