Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

wide bush persimmon tree

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Grow a little persimmon tree

Persimmon trees are eminently suited for training to small size.

I recently read the book “Grow a Little Fruit Tree” by Ann Ralph. I am in complete agreement on the principles, but I was surprised the author “excuses” persimmon trees. Oh, let them grow big, was the plea, they’re so beautiful in the fall.

Well my little persimmon tree gets a lot more attention in the autumn, because it is so small. Persimmons are widely planted across Portland. People put one in, then just let it go. All summer, it blends into the background amidst the rest of the green. In fall, it drops its leaves to reveal the bounty of orange globes — too high to reach.

I planted my persimmon tree in April 2014. I set it in a good spot. But I, too, just let it go. In 2016, when scarcely more than six feet tall, it bore its first crop. I didn’t realize what was going on until the leaves fell off. Eighty persimmons on that small tree!

small persimmon tree

First crop in 2016, 80 persimmons when only 6 feet tall.

One day I was looking out the window. A little Asian lady walking along the sidewalk stopped dead in her tracks to stare. I’m not the only one to appreciate small fruit trees!

persimmons below eye level

Looking down on persimmons.

I had seen persimmon trees in yards in California, grown tall and skinny, all the fruit perched two stories high. I was determined not to let mine get away. I agree with the philosophy of “Grow a Little Fruit Tree”, but I have a difference of technique. I was not about to chop my tree off six inches above the ground, or whatever it was. No, I liked the growth up to six feet. I just wasn’t going to let it get any taller.

Most fruiting trees, such as apples, pears, peaches, plums, and cherries, bear fruit on existing branches. The flowers pop out of buds that formed the previous year, then stayed dormant through winter. Persimmons are different. If you look at a leafless tree in winter, you will find no fruit buds. Where do the persimmons come from?

diagram, fruit on new growth

Fruit forms only on new growth.

Only when new leafy shoots grow out in spring do flower buds develop in the axils of the leaves. These buds open into small four-petaled flowers, typically creamy white. These flowers are rather inconspicuous, especially since by that time the tree is well covered in leaves.

The salient point for tree size is that, in order for your persimmon tree to have fruit, it has to make fairly extensive growth of new shoots. These can be outward, but if you let them they will also go up.

diagram, persimmon unpruned

Unpruned, branches extend up.

My experience is that persimmons actually tend to have most fruit on the outward-spreading new growth, relatively little on the uprights. So you are not losing anything by taking out the verticals. I mostly use the technique of “drop crotch-ing”. I cut back to the point where a branch divides in two, a crotch. I take out the more vertical side.

diagram, drop-crotch cut

Cutting directs growth outward.

To keep a tree short, I am always thinking about reach height. Simply, the height to which I can reach, while standing on the ground. Since a persimmon has to grow outward in order to fruit, I want the results of winter pruning to be below reach height, because that’s where spring growth will start.

Some of the uprights on my tree were getting rather large, more than an inch in diameter. The best available crotches had side branching less than half that size. I thought, if I cut off such vigorous limbs, I might induce the tree to shoot out a thicket of water sprouts from that point. To my surprise, this did not happen. The tree was perfectly satisfied to re-direct its growth mostly in the wide spreading direction.

In all tree pruning for fruit, you need to think ahead. If you have a persimmon tree that has grown up so it has only major trunk to reach height, you will not have such an easy time getting it small again.

So I have managed to keep my persimmon tree small, much to the incredulity of some. There have even been visitors who had a hard time believing those really could be persimmons, on a mere bush. The crops have not been mere. Below is a picture of the tree in 2018. More than 350 fruit, and I could reach them all.

wide bush persimmon tree

Crop in 2018, more than 350 fruit, all in reach.

Well, 350 was what I tallied. A friend in the neighborhood later casually mentioned he’d been helping himself. I asked, about how many? Maybe fifty. So there may have been considerably more.

It seems like a lot of Portland persimmon tree owners finally haul out the ladder to pick the fruit in late fall, when they notice birds are pecking them. Or they give up and don’t bother, because the birds have pecked everything. Out of my 350 persimmons, only 13 were pecked into, most at the very top of the tree. Birds prefer staying as high above ground as possible, for safety.

looking down on persimmons

Fruit close to the ground.

So that’s another point in favor of short persimmon trees. Natural bird deterrent, simply by the fruit being at bird-scaring closeness to the ground.