GROWING THINGS: Choosing and training a leader branch

Plus, the specific conditions a Jade plant requires to flourish indoors

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Q We bought a compass plum a couple of years ago. At that time, it had a main stem with a couple of branches and the second year, this trend continued and it appeared healthy. However, this summer, the main stem seemed to die off and now in its place there are several branches growing out all around the trunk about 50 cm or so above the ground.  There were also several suckers growing at the base of the tree.  I cut off the suckers but am unsure how to handle the multiple branches. I thought the trees should have one main stem but I don’t know how to achieve this now.  Can I just leave it with its multiple branches, and if so, should these be pruned back every year, how much should be pruned off and at what time of the year should the pruning be done?

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A It would be best if the tree had one central branch or leader forming the top trunk of the tree. You can train one of the existing branches to be the leader. Choose the branch that appears to be the strongest and healthiest of the bunch. Cut off all the other branches. Tie a strong stick or stake to the existing trunk. The stake should be three- to four-feet taller than the branch you are training and not bend easily. A length of one-centimetre rebar would do nicely. Make sure you tie the stake on firmly as there will be a fair amount of pressure exerted against this stake.

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Next, take the branch you have chosen as the new leader and bend it very gently towards the stake you have fastened. Do not bend it to the point of cracking the branch. It is better to err on the side of caution here and not bend the branch too much. Tie the branch securely to the stake in several spots. This is the first of several steps in training the branch into an upright position.

After a month or so untie the branch and pull it in closer to the stake and re-tie it. You will need to do this as many times as it takes for the branch to be erect and without cracking it in the process. It may take three to four months of doing this to have it work correctly. Patience is the key. Once the branch is erect, leave it tied to the stake for the balance of the growing season and the next winter. You want to make sure the new leader ‘knows’ that it is the leader and needs to remain upright and not branch sideways. This process should be started in the spring when the buds begin to swell and the branches become supple enough to bend.

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Once the new leader has been formed you can begin to train it to branch out by clipping back the top of the leader to encourage side branching. You can do this the following spring. You should have a good-looking, single-leader tree in two seasons.

Q I’ve been having a problem lately with my Jade plant losing leaves. It receives indirect light, and I water it once a week. The established leaves look healthy but they keep falling off. Can you tell me what I should do?

A First, you need to move your plant to a brighter spot. Jades need at least four hours of direct sun. Secondly, ease off on the watering. From spring through fall, push your finger a couple of centimeters deep into the soil. When it feels dry at the tip of your finger, it’s time to water. Many gardeners lose their jade plants by unknowingly drowning them during the winter. Expect to water only three to six times during the entire winter season. With more sun and less water, you should be able to bring it back to full health.

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Every week, Growing Things runs online at or, if you prefer an epaper format, Learn more by emailing your questions to [email protected], reading past columns at or my book, Just Ask Jerry. You can also follow me on X (Twitter) @justaskjerry01.


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