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How to Train a Stepover (Three steps forward, one step back)

21st February, 2011

How to Train a Stepover (Three steps forward, one step back)
In answer to a question I received today and to help those other visitors that have asked the same question I hope the following makes some sense.........

Hello Clare,

I need to put this into my journal as it's a question I am always getting asked. Stick with it, as I am hoping it will answer your questions. Remember that although James Grieve is partially self fertile it would do better with a pollinating companion....most things do.

You need posts and wires to train your step-overs to. Say 2 posts 8-10 ft apart and the wire tensioned between them. this is your basic structure along the path edge and the most difficult part of the operation. A maiden tree is planted in the middle and cut to the first bud below the level of the now have a cut stick whose height is at your discretion depending on the height you 'choose' your step-overs to be.....they can be any height you wish. I have mine at 15 inches.

It is important here to understand 'apical dominance'...... If you had not cut your tree back it would continue to grow as a single shoot up to its genetically programmed height, at this point it would start to develop serious laterals as opposed to the pissy little ones we call 'feathers' along its main stem. By cutting the tree back (removing its lead shoot) you fool it into thinking it has reached its height, the buds below this pruning cut will then all try to become leaders and produce strong growth. This is the fight for apical dominance and is the basis of all pruning and training. Understand this and you can prune and train virtually anything.

A good analogy would be a hosepipe. Imagine you have punctured several holes in a hose then turned the tap on, most of the water would still come out of the end with only a little coming out of the holes you had made.
Were you then to place your finger over the end of the pipe the water would be blocked and forced out through these punctures.
This is the same when you prune back a tree or a branch of a tree, the dormant buds are the holes and the pruning cut your finger.

Choose the two best shoots to train along your wires. let them grow upwards until at least August at which stage you pull them down and tie them gently onto the wires, do this again a couple of months later with any further extension growth. Strips of stockings or tights are ideal for this. You may get between 1 & 2 feet in the first year.

NOW THE IMPORTANT BIT. It is usual for the amateur gardener to want to fill up the wires quickly, it is the biggest mistake. In the winter you must reduce the step-overs by a third of their length (the length of the arms), pruning to a dormant bud

Most apple or pear trees produce fruit on spurs of growth from the main branches. These spurs are created by activating the dormant buds along the arms of your step -over. This is done once again by using 'apical dominance' to the gardeners advantage. When you reduce by a third the the bud you cut back to will become the new lead shoot and all the others are brought into life. If you do not do this you will end up with masses of bare stem and little by way of fruiting spurs.

Allow the leader to grow on the following summer, reducing by a third again in the winter. All the other new shoots are best pruned back to two buds around the second week in July.

Thus a pruning programme is really simple and consists of the following two session;

IN WINTER reduce the extension growth by a third.

MID JULY reduce all lateral growth (coming from the arms) to 2 buds. Except of course the lead shoot until you have filled the chosen length of your wires.

Once you have reached the end of the wire it is simply a case of reducing everything to 2 buds in July, and again in winter as there is always a second flush of growth later in summer. By pruning in summer many more of the buds develop into fruiting buds as opposed to simply extension growth buds.

It is easy to do if you are confident and PATIENT. If you want apples in your first year I would suggest Sainsbury's, but fruiting will most likely start and increase from year 3. It is the third reduction that baffles people but it is most essential and actually hastens the fruiting of the tree.

Get your head round apical dominance, remember that a shoot always grows in the direction its pointing, and be patient. There are other tricks we can use but they are not worth the ordinary gardener worrying about.

Incidentally, to grow an espalier it is the same process, except that in the summer you allow three lead shoots.....1 for each arm, and one to grow straight up. The latter is then cut back at the height you want and three new shoots allowed to grow...1 for each arm, 1 to grow up etc etc and I am beginning to repeat myself.....

In todays image you will see that my step-overs are taken along the wires, but a central shoot is also taken up and over to form an arch....Fancy but effective.

Hope this helps.

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