This article covers pruning old and neglected fruit trees, if you would like to learn how to prune younger or freshly planted trees please read ‘An introduction to pruning apple trees‘.
I get asked a lot about how to prune older trees, particularly from gardeners who have moved to a new house and have inherited unruly and unproductive specimens. The other common issue is dealing with a older tree that has been pruned too hard either by a previous owner or by the gardener themselves. I hope this article will help avoid pruning problems while also giving some assistance in correcting mistakes that have already been made.
Old and unproductive trees in a commercial orchard would normally be removed (a well pruned new tree will produce far more fruit in the long run) but in the garden there are often other things to consider. You may want to keep an old tree for the beauty it ads to your garden or for sentimental reasons, in this case there is more to consider than just fruit yield.
Reasons for renovating old trees include:
1. To enhance their appearance in the landscape.
2. To restore an old tree with sentimental value.
3. To get better quality fruit.
It is worth bearing in mind that it will take at least 3 years to restore an old tree and in that time you can easily be harvesting quality fruit from a new, healthy semi dwarf tree. It is also not worthwhile trying to save a diseased tree so if the main framework is badly cankered you should remove it and plant a new tree.
Before we get going on tree restoration I am including a list of common pruning terms which should make the following information easier to understand. Don’t get overwhelmed on your first read through, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!
Common Pruning Terms
Dormant – An tree is in a dormant state in the Winter approx between November and February. At this time the leaves have fallen and the tree’s energy is conserved in the roots, trunk and main branches.
Tip bearing – Fruit is produced on on the tips of the branches. Tip bearing varieties are relatively uncommon. Any pruning of of shoot tips will reduce the yield of a tip bearing tree.
Spur bearing – Fruit is produced on small lateral branches called fruiting spurs. You are more likely to have a spur bearing tree than a tip bearer. You can see a fruiting spur in the photo growing from a small lateral branch.
Partial tip bearers – Many varieties of apple bear fruit on tips and spurs. Partial tip bearers are pruned in the same manner as spur bearers.
Fruiting or flower bud – Fruiting buds (sometimes called flower buds) are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. Flower buds produce flowers which mature into fruit.
Wood or Growth bud – Growth buds are smaller than flower buds, they are more pointed and grow flush with the branch.
Outward facing bud – Any growth bud which faces away from the centre of the tree.
Terminal bud – The growth bud at the tip of a branch. Removing the terminal bud will stimulate the buds below to produce woody side shoots which will become new lateral branches.
Spur – Fruiting branches which produce apples, they look like small and stubby compressed stems with fruiting buds.
Leader –The leader is a clear central-leading branch that grows upwards ahead of the other branches.
Crossing branch – Crossing branches are branches that cross each other creating a dense canopy in the centre of the tree.
Downward branch – A downward branch hangs down from a lateral or scaffold branch, these will never produce fruit and should be removed.
Whorl – A whorl is where three or more small branches originate from the same location, it is common on unpruned mature trees.
Water Sprouts – Water sprouts are thin branches which normally grow straight up from lateral branches.
Suckers – Suckers are unwanted shoots which grow near the base of the trunk. Most apples are grown on grafted rootstocks to control the size of the tree (the immature tree has been joined to a root from a different variety) so the root suckers will not be the same apple as the above ground tree. Suckers also grow faster and stronger than the tree itself and can even out compete it if they are not removed.
Dead Wood – Dead wood is as the name suggests any dead or diseased wood. Dead wood will be obvious when the tree is in leaf due to lack of any leaves but can also be recognised in Winter as it is dark and brittle, often with bark falling away.
Canker – Canker is the most common apple tree disease and is identified by areas of dead, sunken and crusty bark. Canker is highly likely in old and neglected apple trees, the extent of the disease will decide whether the tree is worth saving.
When to prune and how much to prune.
Pruning should be completed when the tree is dormant. It is far better to prune a tree just before it comes our of dormancy with early March being ideal. Early winter pruning leaves open wounds exposed to the elements at a time when the tree is unable to repair itself. Pruning when the tree is not in its dormant phase will result in excessive new leafy growth as the expense of fruit production.
The reason restoring an older tree will take 3 years or more is that (a) we don’t want to over stress the tree by making too many wounds (remember every cut is an entry point for disease) and (b) we don’t want to stimulate vigourous, uncontrolled growth that will severely reduce yield and adversely effect the shape of the tree. I think it is helpful to remember it took more than one season for a tree to become overgrown so it will take more than one season to correct.
The most common mistake is ‘topping’ shown opposite where excessive pruning has produced a tangle of fast (and weak) growth. This will mean no fruit the following year and a lot of work to restore fruiting for subsequent years. The weak forked joint between fast, new growth and a large limb also leaves the tree more susceptible to storm damage in later years.
THE FOLLOWING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT BIT YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND:
There are two types of cuts you use when pruning a tree; thinning cuts and heading cuts. A thinning cut but means removing complete branches right back to the point where the branch joins the trunk. When renovating an old tree nearly all your cuts will be thinning cuts. A thinning cut allows air and light into a tree and doesn’t trigger uncontrolled growth.
A heading cut is used to shape an immature tree. It involves cutting a branch anywhere other than its point of origin and will stimulate growth below the cut. A major heading cut (referred to as ‘topping’) causes a tree to fight back and quickly try to replace all foliage that has been removed. Heading cuts on main branches produce dense upright growth that congest the tree, block out light and severely hamper fruit production. It will take years to sort out. To understand the effect major heading cuts have on a tree it might help to look at ‘apical dominance’ as follows:
Apical dominance it the process that allows the tree to grow upright so it can present its leaves to the sun and make energy. Without apical dominance tree growth would be completely random. The leading bud (the last bud at the tip of a branch) produces the hormone auxin that controls the buds below and prevents them producing new branches. If the leading bud is removed (by a heading cut) auxin levels fall and the buds lower down spring into action and produce new lateral branches. Once the leader is gone everyone wants to be king! You can see the result of major heading cuts in the ‘NOT GOOD’ image below.
The trees environment
Before doing any renovation it is a good idea to concentrate on the trees general health. Plenty of light and good airflow will be essential for a good recovery so cut back any hedging or large shrubs that may be causing congestion. In many cases apple trees are planted too close together so you may need to decide on trees to keep and trees to remove altogether. A slow release feed like good garden compost spread around the base of the tree will also aid recovery. Avoid high nitrogen feeds however as they will stimulate too much new growth.
The tools of the trade
To prune an old tree you will need am good quality secateurs, loppers and a pruning saw or bow saw. You will need the pruning saw or bow saw more in year one and will be using the secateurs and loppers every year thereafter. To keep a fruit tree in top productive condition it will need a small amount of pruning every year.
My top tip for the day is to get yourself a pack of coloured chalk. I find chalk very helpful for marking the branches I am thinking of removing but also for highlighting the ones I definitely want to keep.
You need to take your time in contemplating the finished shape of your tree and only start cutting with a definite plan in mind. If you are new to this (we all were once) marking the branches will take a lot of the stress and uncertainty out of the job and ensure a cool and calculated result.
Ok, are we ready to start pruning? Here we go……
Year 1 – The first year of pruning is to remove any dead, damaged or diseased wood and to open out the centre of the tree. You should not remove more than 25% of the tree per year or it will try to repair the damage by producing too much new growth. All the cuts you will be making at this stage will be thinning cuts.
First remove any dead wood, it will be obvious from its appearance and lack of buds or new growth. Dead wood is not counted as part of the 25% limit.
Look for damaged wood where two branches have been crossing and rubbing or where branches have come into contact with a neighbouring tree and remove.
Any branches showing signs of canker will need to be taken down. Bear in mind that canker is a fungal disease that can be spread through contact. Even when removing dead wood care should be taken as canker was likely the cause of its demise and may still be present. It is good practice to dip pruning tools in a sterilising solution as you work to avoid spreading the disease.
With an old tree it is better to make a small number of large cuts than a large number of small ones. Neglected trees often have a crowded main branch framework so the objective of pruning is to improve branch spacing, allowing light and air to reach all parts of the tree. The resulting open ‘goblet’ shape is better for ripening fruit, easy picking and yearly pruning.
It is likely that you will have one or two large branches crowding the center of the tree. This branch (or branches) need to be removed right down to the union with the trunk.
Do not cut flush but just above the ‘collar’ which is the raised ring where the branch meets the trunk. The cut should be at an angle (often facilitated by the tree anyway) to allow water to run off. If the branch is too large to remove in one go it can be taken down in sections as long as the whole is finally removed. Do not leave partial limbs or stubs, thinning out entire limbs will result in considerably less regrowth. You will be surprised how much difference removing just one large central branch will make in opening up the tree.
Next remove any suckers from the base of the tree, at that stage you are likely to have reached your 25% rule and should leave the tree alone until the following season. This is the point where you will be tempted to do more, don’t. This is the point that separates the amateurs from the pro’s.
Year 2 – Pruning in the second year will be more concerned with shaping the tree and building on the ‘goblet’ shape you initiated in year 1. The goal in pruning a tree is to remove congestion. As we’ve said we are trying to get as much air and light into the tree while also cutting out crossing branches that will rub and be an entry point for disease. As with year 1, the 25% rule still applies.
Spend time at this point contemplating the tree and try to picture the ideal shape to suit your needs. Are the fruiting branches too high up and out of reach? Are there low hanging branches that block access to the tree for picking and pruning? There is an old saying that a tree is well pruned if you can throw your hat through it, keep this in mind as you look at your tree.
Safely removing large lateral branches
If you are removing a large lateral branch the method is to make 3 cuts to avoid the branch tearing at the trunk as it falls. Make the first cut below the branch about 6 inches from the trunk, this cut should be about a third of the distance into the branch.
The second cut is made about 3 inches below the first, you may need to cut all the way through but it is likely the branch will snap off when you reach the depth of the first cut.
You will be left with a stump with can now be safely removed from the tree. Cut tight to the branch collar but not completely flush with the trunk of the tree.
Downward facing branches – If you look at the main tree diagram above you will see a number of branches that are growing towards the ground. These restrict access to the tree and are shaded from the branches above so won’t fruit well. Remove any downward facing branches cutting back to their point of origin.
Upward growing branches and new sprouts – Remove any branches that grow straight up from any of your main lateral branches. You will also have a large number of new vertically growing whip like stems (water sprouts) as a result of the previous years pruning, snip these off at their base. You will also have water sprouts facing away from the centre of the tree which are valuable as new lateral branches. Leave these until your final pruning.
Crossing branches – Crossing branches congest the tree but also rub off each other creating wounds in the bark. Any cut or wound is a potential entry point for disease so these must also be removed. You can see in the picture opposite 2 rubbing branches that have died, probably from disease that entered at the contact point.
Shading branches – If you have one large branch network growing directly above the other it will be shading the lower one and preventing it from producing good fruit. Choose the healthiest looking branch that fits your vision for the tree and remove the other.
Competing branches – At this point you may have reached your 25% quota but if not you can start some lighter pruning to shape the canopy of your tree. Up till now you have probably been removing large branches but we are now concentrating on the smaller branches growing from your main lateral framework. If branches are growing into the same area and competing with each other they need to be thinned out by removing them at the point where they join the main branch.
Picture bright, open space as prime real estate. If you have a number of small branches competing for that space thin them out. If you have a group of small branches in the same area remove the middle one, chances are it will solve the issue and leave room for the ones either side to breathe.
Year 3 – Depending on how much pruning you were able to do in year 2 you may have some more competing branches to remove to open out the tree. It is a simple diagram below but this is the sort of shape you are looking for. Notice how all the branches are exposed to sunlight while all the branches that were being shaded from those above have been removed.
Once you have cut out any competing branches Year 3 is more about fine tuning than major surgery. At this point we need to start to look at how the tree behaves when pruned and how we use this to help it to produce the best fruit. . As you know there are two types of cuts we can make when shaping a tree, thinning cuts and heading cuts. So far you have been using thinning cuts and removing entire branches. Heading cuts are used to shape a tree when young and are not usually required with mature trees unless as part of a restoration. To use heading cuts accurately we need to look at the types of bud on the tree and how they respond to pruning.
Growth or wood buds (Left)
Growth buds are much smaller than flower buds and grow tight in to the branch or stem. They are slender and more pointed and look more scaly than downy.
Flower buds (Right)
Flower buds are larger and more plump than growth buds and have a downy surface. You will easily see the difference in growth and flower buds by November. Unless you have a tip bearing (unlikely) variety flower buds grow on spurs which are short, stubby branches where the fruit is produced. I a tip bearing variety you will see the flower buds at the branch ends.
When training a tree we are concerned with the growth buds. Heading cuts are made above growth buds and will produce a new branch facing the direction the bud is pointing. For example, if we prune above a growth bud facing in to the towards the centre of the tree we will get an inward growing branch (which we don’t want). By pruning above growth buds facing outwards we encourage the tree to form an open habit rather than a congested one.
As with year 2 you will have a large number of new water sprouts growing both vertically and at an angle from your lateral branches. Remove any vertical sprouts or those facing the centre of the tree. Any sprouts facing away from the trunk can now be trained to become new fruit producing branches or removed if they are growing towards a congested part of the tree.
Stand back and look for open gaps in the framework where there are no branches shading from above. Leave any outward facing sprouts that are growing towards empty areas and remove the rest. It is common for sprouts to grow in pairs, you can remove one and leave the other if it is growing in the direction you want. If you want to modify the direction of a sprout look for a growth bud facing the direction you want and prune above it at an angle of 45 degrees. You can see examples of a good pruning cut above.
As we are using heading cuts at this point (remember apical dominance) be aware that pruning new wood will result in new lateral branches being produced below the cut. Any laterals that don’t fit your plan can be removed later by pruning back to their point of origin.
I hope this article has been helpful. Obviously this a general guide and might not fit your tree exactly but all the same principles apply. Here’s a quick 123 reminder:
- Don’t top your tree.
- Don’t remove more than 25% of your tree in any given year.
- Make a small number of big cuts rather than a big number of small cuts.
- Open the center of the tree, make sure all branches have access to light.
- Remove the 3 D’s, dead, diseased or damaged wood.
- Finally shape you tree using minimal heading cuts.
- Fedco Trees Tips for Renovating Old Apple Trees
- Renovating Old, Abandoned Apple Trees
- Cooperative Extension Publications
- How to bring your old apple tree back to its former glory
- PRUNING OVERGROWN PLUM TREES
- WHEN TO PRUNE YOUR OVERGROWN PLUM TREE?
- THE PRINCIPLES BEHIND PRUNING ESTABLISHED PLUM TREES
- PRUNING TECHNIQUES FOR PLUM TREES
- PRUNING WATER SPROUTS
- Pruning Fruit Trees
Fedco Trees Tips for Renovating Old Apple Trees
Click here to download a PDF (1 MB) of this information.
Cut out dead branches and limbs any time. Cut back cleanly to living wood, but avoid cutting into it. In winter prune the entire tree following the directions in this pamphlet or using a good book on fruit tree pruning.
Remove competing trees and shrubs to let in light and reduce competition. If the tree is in a heavily wooded spot, don’t cut out all competing vegetation in the first year or you may stress the tree with too much sun all at once.
Spread soil amendments (listed below) on the ground around the drip line and several feet beyond. No need to spread close to the trunk. You may also consider using our Ancients Rise fertilizer mix.
10-15 lbs each:
- Hi-cal lime (long-term calcium)
- Colloidal phosphate (short-term calcium and phosphorus)
- Azomite (long-term minerals and trace minerals)
- Granite meal (for improved soil texture)
- Menefee humates (aids mineral and rock-powder breakdown)
5 Lbs: Greenstone (aids plants in nutrient uptake)
For building high levels of humus add 5 lbs each:
- Alfalfa meal
- Bone meal
- Kelp meal
- Blood meal
- ¼–½ yd compost
Cover the amendments and compost with a 6-12″ mulch of lawn clippings, leaves or chipped “brush” which will smother the sod, conserve moisture, prevent leaching, and provide a habitat for soil organisms to break down the fertilizers.
The following article/information was published by Michigan State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.
Renovating Old, Abandoned Apple Trees
By Charles D. Kesner and Keith L. Lamkin
Department of Horticulture; County Extension Director, Emmet County, Michigan.
Old, abandoned or semi-abandoned apple trees occur throughout Michigan. Often the cultivars are very old and are no longer grown commercially. Many of them, however, if properly managed, could produce good fruit for use by homeowners for fresh eating or for processing into applesauce, apple jelly, apple butter or cider. When trees of desirable cultivars are near residences, people are often interested in attempting to care for them so the fruit can be used.
Often the old trees are 25 to 30 feet tall and have not been pruned for many years. The average homeowner is simply not equipped to spray and care for them, so the fruits produced are generally small, diseased and severely damaged by insects. A tree that is reasonably structurally sound may be renovated and brought back into production. The trunk should not be severely rotted, and large lateral limbs should not be hollow. Unsound trees can be successfully renovated but they will not live as long.
Once the owner has decided that a particular tree or trees are worth keeping, how can he/she bring the trees back into production with quality fruit and, at the same time, reduce the tree size to make them more manageable? In some cases, aesthetic value may also be a consideration. The following renovation procedure is suggested.
Figure 1. The typical abandoned apple tree is very tall with many weak and dead or dying interior limbs.
An abandoned or semi-abandoned apple tree is generally very tall and very thick and contains a large number of dead or dying limbs inside the canopy (Figure 1). Such a tree is obviously unmanageable and its size needs to be significantly reduced. Very severe cuts can be made without doing permanent damage. Latent buds within the tree will produce new, very vigorous limbs to replace old, weak ones.
Figure 2. An unpruned, abandoned apple tree showing several water sprouts (new growth within the past 2 to 4 years). Note the smooth bark on these limbs. Older limbs have scaly bark. Leave some of this young growth to begin the new tree structure.
Study the main limb structure of the tree closely before deciding where to make cuts. Try to locate some relatively new water sprout-type of growth in the lower portion of the tree that can be left to produce part of the new tree structure. Water sprout growth is identified by very smooth bark that indicates it is new growth that has occurred within the past two to four years (Figure 2). Older limbs will have heavy, scaly bark and generally should not be saved.
Figure 3. The first severe pruning of an abandoned apple tree. Note that some newer water sprout growth was left on this tree and large limb cuts were made 8 to 12 inches above the origin of these small branches (A). Also, note that the terminal ends of the small branches have been cut back infavor of more outward growing laterals (B).
Renovation is best done in early spring, usually in April. If water sprout growth can be found in the lower areas of the tree, remove all the old, large limbs about 8 to 12 inches above this new growth (Figure 3). This is most easily accomplished with a chainsaw. Undercut these large limbs slightly before removing them so that they don’t tear the bark severely when they fall. The old limbs will generally be very large and heavy. Be careful that they do not break off the shoots you intend to leave when they fall to the ground. When making the severe cuts on old limbs, try to cut them more or less perpendicular to the ground. Cuts that face upward will collect and hold water from rainfall, causing ice damage in winter and decay in summer. Paint these large cuts with white outdoor latex paint within a few days to protect the wound from the weather. Outdoor white latex paint is not toxic to the tree and seals moisture out, preventing decay.
Figure 4. A renovated tree two growing seasons after major limbs were removed. Note cut made on upright growth to force outward growth.
Making the major limb cuts will generally remove a significant portion of the old tree. The root system under such a tree is very extensive and will produce much new top growth the first season, so avoid fertilizing the tree the first season after cutting. Trim back the shoots left on the main cut limbs so that new growth will be forced outward. Usually this means cutting off the upright shoots in favor of a lateral limb on the shoot (Figure 4).
Figure 5. In the second spring, many small limbs produced the first summer are removed, leaving only the most desirable. Note that the upright portions of new shoots denoted by dotted lines should be removed to prevent the tree from becoming too tall.
By the end of the first growing season, this severely pruned tree will have produced large numbers of new, vigorous shoots. In the second spring (usually April), most of these new shoots should be removed, leaving only those in desirable locations that can be trained outward. The shoots that are left as permanent limbs should then be headed (the top portion removed) to a more lateral limb parallel to the ground (Figure 5).
Figure 6. By the spring of the third season, the tree has now produced many new, vigorous branches and is capable of producing a small crop of fruit. Note that many of the small limbs left the first spring have developed to relatively large, productive structures.
During the second growing season after the severe pruning, very vigorous new growth will again occur, producing a tree very similar to that shown in Figure 6.
In April of the third growing season, many of the new shoots produced during the second growing season should be thinned out, leaving only the most desirable limbs chosen earlier. The limbs left should also be tipped again to promote more lateral rather than upright growth. Generally, a small crop of fruit is produced the third year.
Figure 7. A renovated tree after three full growing seasons. Note the productive capacity of this “rebuilt” tree. Also note where cuts have been made to force outward rather than upright growth.
The new tree structure produced using this pruning method will generally result in a tree 12 to 15 feet tall, or about half the height of the original tree. All the growth on this new tree is also quite vigorous and will produce good crops of large, high quality fruit. The reduced tree size will also make the tree much easier to spray and manage (Figure 7).
Each succeeding spring, remove some limbs and thin the growth on permanent limbs to prevent the tree from getting too thick. The shading that will result from underpinning will reduce fruit production and cause weak growth in the inner portions of the tree.
This system of renovating old apple trees is very severe but has proven to be very successful in producing smaller trees with good production of high quality fruit. These trees can also be maintained relatively easily for many years.
MSU is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Institution. Cooperative Extension Service programs are open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, or handicap. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work in agriculture and home economics, acts of May 8, and June 30,1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. W.J. Moline, Director, Cooperative Extension Service, Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Ml 48824.
This information is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service or bias against those not mentioned. This bulletin becomes public property upon publication and may be reprinted verbatim as a separate or within another publication with credit to MSU. Reprinting cannot be used to endorse or advertise a commercial product or company.
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Renovating old, neglected apple trees is hard work! Before undertaking such a large task, stop and ask why you’re doing it. Reasons for renovating old trees include:
- To enhance their appearance in the landscape.
- To restore an old tree with sentimental value.
- To get better quality fruit.
If the last reason is your only goal, you should reconsider whether you want to renovate or replant. It will take about three years to complete the renovation process and, in that amount of time, you could easily be harvesting fruit from a healthy, young, semi-dwarf tree.
Let’s assume you want to keep the old tree for personal reasons. The first step is to clear away any competing trees and brush. Apple trees don’t like shade. Then consider the shade the tree casts upon itself. Neglected trees become overgrown to the point where the center of the tree is shaded out. Pruning opens the canopy up. Old trees often produce too many small, poor quality fruit. Pruning removes many competing fruit buds and will boost fruit size and quality.
Prune out any dead or diseased limbs. Then begin to remove competing branches that cross or crowd one another. Remove branches that go straight up or hang down. Branches that have a slight upward angle (rather than horizontal) are the best to leave. When you’re finished, the canopy should appear thinned out, with no dense clusters of branches anywhere in the canopy.
The following tips will help you do a good job of pruning.
- Do the pruning while the tree is dormant. It is best to wait until March or April, when the threat of severe cold weather is over, but finish the job before the tree begins to grow.
- Match the size of the tools to the task. It is usually easier and better to make a few large cuts than to make many small cuts.
- Follow the rule of thirds. Remove about a third of the excess limbs each year for three years.
It took the tree more than one year to become overgrown. It will take more than one year to correct.
- Start in the top. This is where the pruning will do the most good. Prune progressively less as you move down in the canopy.
- Remove entire limbs and branches. Do not leave partial limbs or stubs. Thinning out entire limbs will result in considerably less regrowth.
VIDEO: Pruning Apple Trees (YouTube)
Fertilizing Your Trees
Fertilizer is less important than pruning when it comes to revitalizing old apple trees. Get the soil tested to determine the need for lime, potassium (K) and magnesium (Mg). Your UMaine Extension County Office can provide soil test instructions and order forms, or contact the Analytical Lab and Maine Soil Testing Service, call 207.581.3591.
Nitrogen (N) is the one nutrient that you should apply with caution. Renovation pruning is usually quite severe, and if too much nitrogen is provided, the vegetative regrowth can be excessive. Unless the old tree is nearly dead, withhold N during renovation.
Once the severe pruning is finished, use the 12- to 18-inch rule for shoot growth. If there is less than 12 inches of shoot growth, increase the fertilizer; 12 to 18 inches, apply the same amount as last year; more than 18 inches, do not apply any nitrogen. Typical nitrogen applications for standard-sized trees would range from 0.5 to 1 pound of actual nitrogen per tree per year. If nitrogen was applied during renovation, halve these amounts.
For more information on apple trees, contact your UMaine Extension County Office.
Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.
Call 800.287.0274 (in Maine), or 207.581.3188, for information on publications and program offerings from University of Maine Cooperative Extension, or visit extension.umaine.edu.
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How to bring your old apple tree back to its former glory
A neglected, overgrown, old apple tree does have charm, its gnarled, elbowed branches seemingly reaching out for a hug. The fruits, unfortunately, are more often than not too small, too high and too pest-ridden.
But don’t despair: Such a tree can be returned to its former glory by “renovation,” as corrective pruning of an old tree is called.
Before picking up a pruning tool, ask yourself whether the effort involved in renovating a tree will be justified.
Is the tree of a particularly good variety? (Take into account that renovation would bring some improvements in fruit size and flavour.)
Do you really want a tree where that tree stands?
Would one or more dwarf trees, which can be cared for while you stand securely on terra firma, be more practical? Dwarf trees also offer a greater bounty for the space they occupy – hence the move toward smaller trees among fruit farmers.
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CUT DRASTICALLY, BUT NOT TOO MANY LIMBS
If you want to keep the tree and go ahead with renovation, begin now, while it’s dormant, by drastically cutting back one or two large limbs near their origin lower in the tree. Hold off making additional drastic cuts until next year, perhaps the year after also, to avoid shocking the tree.
Those drastic cuts quickly lower the tree and open up what remains to light and air. Lowering the tree makes picking easier. Letting in more light provides nourishment for fruit buds and, along with better air circulation, reduces disease problems by hastening drying of leaves and fruits.
It may be wise to hire a professional to do these first cuts, depending on how drastic they are.
It’s impossible to prescribe exactly how far back to cut these large limbs. It depends on the tree’s present and desired form. Just remember that new fruiting wood will begin above whatever height you cut a limb back to.
SPROUTS MAKE NEW LIMBS
Ideally, make your cuts back to well-placed side branches. But don’t worry if no side branch is growing off near your cut because new sprouts, the tree’s future limbs, will grow from dormant buds.
Actually, too many new sprouts will grow. Remove most of them. It’s easiest to visit your tree every few weeks through spring and summer, firmly grabbing any excess sprouts with your hand and removing them with a sharp downward jerk. Save sprouts that are well-placed as far as spacing and height of origin to make new limbs.
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Any wayward sprouts that you miss during the summer could also be pruned back this time next year, but re-sprouting from their bases is then more likely. Be ruthless with sprout removal because too many new branches crowding each other will put the tree back where it started, with shaded, dank branches.
ON TO DETAILED PRUNING, AND A HUG
After making those large cuts, proceed to more detailed pruning with a small pruning saw and a lopping shear. Cut back dead, broken or diseased branches to sound wood. Also remove stems that are overcrowded or weak. Such stems typically grew in shaded parts of the tree and droop downwards. Either cut them off completely or shorten them to the point where they start their downward arc.
The final and most detailed cuts are of the spurs, those short, stubby branches – only an inch or two long – on which fruits are born. Old apple trees commonly have too many spurs, which spreads a tree’s resources among so many fruits that those that do ripen are small and poor-quality. Use hand-held pruning shears to completely remove some spurs, and to remove just a side branch or two from others.
For the finishing touch, tidy up the bark. Loose, old bark provides refuge for pests such as codling moth larvae. Scrape the bark clean with a short-handled hoe or some balled-up chicken wire. Be gentle, though – remove only the loose surface bark.
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Now stand back and admire your work. Cleaned up, an old apple tree looks even more charming than it did when it was overgrown. Now give your tree a hug.
© 2015 The Associated Press
PRUNING OVERGROWN PLUM TREES
WHEN TO PRUNE YOUR OVERGROWN PLUM TREE?
The answer to that question is simple, prune your plum tree when it’s growing strongly and for established plum trees early June to mid July is the best time. Do not prune it in winter /spring because the risk of fungal infection is high and don’t prune it in autumn because the leaves are needed by the tree to transfer nutrients to it as they die.
THE PRINCIPLES BEHIND PRUNING ESTABLISHED PLUM TREES
Established plum trees are all very different in shape, size and structure which means that one set of absolute rules can’t be applied to them all. However a set of basic easy to understand principles can be used to apply to almost all overgrown plum tree which amateur gardeners can use to guide them through the process.
We recommend that you take a four step approach before you even begin to prune an established plum tree. The reason for this is that although plum trees withstand neglect better than many fruit trees they can be put at risk from bacterial and other infections if you don’t carry out pruning correctly. Incorrect pruning techniques are far more liable to damage the tree compared to lopping off the wrong branch using good pruning techniques. Those steps are:
- Have the correct tools. A sharp pair of secateurs can be used to cut away smaller stems. For larger stems and branches use a pruning saw. If you are pruning more than one tree, disinfect the tools between trees. One measure of bleach to ten measures of water should be sufficient.
- Use a safe set of steps / ladder to reach branches higher up. If you are not confident using a set of steps or ladder, get someone else to do the job for you.
- Decide a means of getting rid of the pruned stems and branches. Often, the sheer volume of branches and stems can be a problem, be sure you know where they can be disposed of / burnt.
- Read our guidelines on pruning techniques for plum trees at the end of this page to help you inflict the least possible damage possible on your plum tree when you prune it. This is especially important if you plan to remove any sizeable branches.
Now read through the guidelines below, then go outside and take a good, long look at your plum tree. Decide how best you think it can be pruned and then come back and read through the guidelines again before doing any of the pruning. The basic principles are:
- If significant pruning is required spread it over two or three years.
- Remove dead, damaged and diseased branches (the three Ds) first. They contribute nothing to healthy growth of the tree and are sites for bacterial and fungal infections to enter. You need to cut back to good, clean and healthy wood, anything less is pointless.
- Prune away any crossing branches. If they rub together the bark will be damaged and infections will enter the wood.
- Thin out the centre of the tree. Ideally, the main stem should have three (maximum four) main branches coming from it and they should spread outwards not inwards. If you have more than this then reduce the number to three or four. This may involve cutting away a couple of large branches but in the end it’s for the best. Remove some side branches / stems which grow in the centre of the tree.
- When pruning at this stage, try to maintain the “balance” of the tree. By this we mean keep the major branches spaced roughly evenly around the tree. This is sometimes difficult to achieve but just do your best. The tree will, of its own accord, balance its own growth out over a year or so.
- Prune lower branches so that main stems and branches which turn downwards are cut to be at least parallel with ground, preferably growing upwards and outwards.
- If the tree is excessively tall, prune a third of the height to bring fruit production lower down.
PRUNING TECHNIQUES FOR PLUM TREES
This section explains how to prune a branch, the same rules apply to plum trees and other fruit trees. The principle is to avoid damaging the collar of the branch and to make a clean cut which doesn’t tear the bark. The picture below illustrates the three steps.
Cut a notch about 3cm deep into the underside of the branch. This will stop the branch tearing under the weight of the branch as you make cut 2.
Cut downwards (in the direction of the arrow) through the branch trying to support it as you cut.
The final cut should be made as near to the collar of the branch without cutting into the collar.
PRUNING WATER SPROUTS
Water sprouts are quick growing shoots which grow straight upwards. They often appear on a plum tree when it has been hard pruned the previous year. They will not produce plums and simply sap the strength of the tree for no real purpose. If allowed to grow unpruned they will quickly block out light and reduce beneficial air circulation in the centre of the tree.
Prune them as close to the main branch / trunk as possible using a sharp pair of secateurs. If you keep on top of this task they will stop growing after a few months. Do this when the plum tree is in full growth, any time from early June to early August. It is best done on a dry dry to reduce the risk of infection.
Ward Upham: Extension Blog Contributor
Extension Associate – Home Horticulture Rapid Response Coordinator
& Extension Master Gardener Coordinator
Kansas State University Extension
Apple trees that are not pruned for several years will often produce so many branches that very little energy is left for fruit production. Overgrown apple trees are also difficult to harvest and spray. Gardeners who have such a tree are often at a loss as to how to get it back in shape.
Often the best (tongue-in-cheek) recommendation s for such a tree is to make one pruning cut at ground level and start over with a new tree. However, trees may have sentimental value that will make revitalization worth the time and effort. Realize that this will be a multi-year process because no more than 30 percent of the tree should be removed in one year. Here are some steps to follow:
- Remove all dead wood. This does not count toward the 30 percent.
- Remove suckers from the base of the tree.
- Choose approximately six of the best branches to keep as scaffold branches. Remove all others. Branches should be cut flush to the branch collar. The collar is that natural swelling that occurs where a branch connects to the trunk or to a larger branch. Removing the collar would leave a larger wound that would take additional time to heal. Do not paint wounds. Research has shown that wounds heal more quickly if left open. Candidates for removal include branches with narrow crotch angles, which are more likely to break in wind and ice storms, and those that cross branches you will save. This may be all that is possible the first year if the 30 percent threshold has been reached.
- Thin the branches on each scaffold branch. Remove crowded branches to open up the tree to light and allow humidity to escape. Shorten each scaffold branch by cutting back to a side branch. When you are through, the tree should have enough wood removed so that a softball can be thrown through the tree.
Severe pruning often will cause an apple to tree to produce vigorous side shoots from the trunk, called water sprouts. Main branches will also produce suckers that grow straight up. The suckers and water sprouts should be removed throughout the growing season so the center of the tree stays open.
In the case where a tree cannot be saved but you would like to preserve the apple tree variety, consider grafting. Scions taken from the old tree can be grafted onto a new rootstock to form a new tree. If you are not able to do so yourself, contact a local fruit tree nursery to find someone who may be able to help.
Pruning Fruit Trees
SERIES 16 | Episode 23
Winter is the best time to prune deciduous fruit trees such as apples, pears and plums. These trees will fruit well whether or not they are pruned. But if the trees grow too tall the fruit is high and hard to reach, and when there is unproductive wood they don’t tend to crop reliably. The aim of pruning fruit trees in the home garden is to assist the tree to produce reliable quality crops, with good size fruit on a manageable size tree.
This orchard in the Adelaide Hills was planted eight years ago. It has 25 trees including varieties of apples, pears and plums. These have survived with rainwater and no regular pruning.
But the trees now need attention. When pruning apples look for a central leader, and prune to make sure there are no competing branches.
Remove and clear the clutter within the tree. We want a nice, open framework and not too many competing branches, because it won’t fruit properly. Remove any crossing and low branches.
Remember the shoot on the end of each tip is called a terminal and this won’t ever fruit, so reduce that to just five or six buds. There’s also a branch that comes off the side of the shoot at an angle of between 30 and 60 degrees and that’s called a lateral. Leave the laterals intact because they will develop fruiting spurs for next season. And the little stubby bits of growth, which are fruiting spurs, will develop apples this season. Try to prune a quarter of an inch past a bud and at an angle. And remove any old fruit left hanging on the tree.
Pears fruit on the little flowering spurs, just like apples, but they also fruit on the tip of one year old laterals, and so when pruning reduce the terminal and leave these to produce fruit for next year.
When pruning plums it is important to train the tree into a vase shape. This means opening up the centre of the tree to let in the light. Look for six to nine nice, strong branches that can form that framework. When working with a Japanese plum look to see what interferes with the shape of the tree. The next priority is to reduce any tall, whippy growth. Plums fruit on fruiting spurs and one year old laterals, so it’s important to remove any old or dead wood that’s cluttering the tree to encourage new growth. The ideal is to end up with a strong terminal with lovely fruiting spurs ready for this season’s plums.
Good orchard hygiene is also important so after finishing collect the prunings, and dispose of them and remove any old, rotten fruit because these could harbour disease.
In winter, it’s tempting to stay inside where it’s warm, but a little bit of effort pruning fruit trees will pay off.