Radical pruning for restoration

Renovating old fruit trees

Fruit trees are a wonderful investment. If looked after well, trees will continue to crop year after year, even when the trees are 30 to 40 years old.

But what about a situation in which you have just moved house and you’ve found a totally neglected fruit tree in the new garden? What should be done?

If it turns out that the tree is cropping well, restrict the pruning to cutting out dead wood and crossing branches in the first year. The next year do a little more and improve the light entrance into the centre of the tree. Without good light the fruit tree is unable to make good fruit bud.

On no account try to remodel the tree all in one year. Old fruit trees do best when you bring on improvements gradually. In my experience an old tree reacts very favourably if 4 or 5 large branches are taken out rather than lots of little snips here and there.

Neglected trees will usually show lots of dense drooping fruiting wood totally overgrown by younger wood, which makes it all very dark and overcrowded. Over a number of years, gradually take out all wood which creates layer upon layer, in and around the canopy. The timing to do this job is also important. In order to reduce fungal infections to a minimum, choose a nice warm day in the July/August period rather than a period when the tree is without leaves and the healing of the wounds takes a long time.

You can bring the height of the tree down, provided this is done gradually over a number of years. This operation should be carried out any time in August towards the end of the summer. NEVER during the winter months. Always seal large wounds with either Arbrex or Heal and Seal or similar wood healing compounds.

If after 3 or 4 years you can throw your hat through the trees without the hat getting hooked up anywhere you will have done a great job. The old fruit tree will start a new lease in life and will thank you for it by producing wonderful fruits.

Click on the thumbnail below to watch a video on pruning a 50-year-old apple tree.

Maintenance for old fruit trees

Often we hear the comment, “I have an old pear tree and an apple tree, but neither seem to do any good.” Let’s compare a tree to ourselves. If we don’t take care of ourselves and never go outside if and when we can, we gradually accumulate all sorts of problems too. You may say, what has that got to do with my fruit trees? Surely they are outside all the time?

It’s all to do with light. It does us humans good to be in the sunshine, and the same applies to fruit trees, in the sense that they need good light throughout. If the trees have been left to themselves and have produced masses of shoots all round, virtually a solid mass of growth that creates darkness inside the canopy of the tree, then the leaves are no longer able to carry out the functions they were designed for. Photosynthesis goes into survival mode: the little energy that the shaded leaves manage to produce is used simply to keep the structure alive. There is no energy left to create productive fruiting wood as a replacement for older non-productive branches.

In this situation, the best way to attain a complete reversal is not by removing lots of little bits of wood, but by opening the tree right up by removing four or five large branches, so that the sunshine can penetrate into the centre of the tree. Seal the wounds with Arbrex, feed the tree with organic matter, water the tree in dry periods and you will be amazed at the results. Be patient and give the tree at least two years to mend its ways.

A tree with a double trunk

We received an enquiry from a reader who has an apple tree with a double trunk. This is how she described the problem.

Tree with double trunk

Apple tree requiring treatment

“I inherited a badly pruned apple tree that has been left with two equal large trunks. I have reduced its size over a four year period, but now I am stuck with one trunk that has only two fruiting branches above ladder height. I would like to remove that trunk and would be left with a more graceful single trunk with multiple fruiting branches. Would it be so detrimental to remove the less producing trunk which be probably reducing its size by 40-45%?”

Our first answer:

1) Remove the second trunk. Timing is important! Remove it during the 2nd or 3rd week of August and not before.

2) Seal the wound with Arbrex or Heal and Seal, obtainable online or from a good garden centre.

3) The trunk which is left with the good branches should not be pruned the following winter. The tree will then be resettled.

Treatment of tree with double trunk

The owner provided further information:

“I would like to ask for further clarification. The tree and the others have experienced the stress of reduction of size (no more than a third each year for four years) plus a recent drought and one season of a severe infestation of tent caterpillars. This tree is unfortunately placed in front of my house, so the appearance is a priority with this specific tree.

“Second, I need to be able to prune these trees myself, and am trying to take this tree permanently lower overall by about 12-18 inches. I could reach the top then with less risk that I will fall off the ladder. Another reason the tree is oddly shaped is because the deer raid this tree from both levels.

“Your suggestions make good sense to me, but I would like to ask if because the tree has been stressed four years in a row, would it be less traumatic if I took off only part of the selected trunk, plus one top branch of the preferred trunk this year, and then remove the full selected trunk one year later?” This possible gentler approach is shown in the diagram below.

Lowering the height of a tree

We reply:

Certainly the gentler approach is fine. However now I have seen the state of the tree, I am quite sure the tree is suffering of malnutrition! Ideally it would need, on a 2 square metre area around the trunk, the application of quality manure, ideally organic chicken manure (such as Super Dug), dried and stabilized. This will feed the tree over a 6-month period. Secondly WATER on a weekly basis as soon as rain fall is lacking. Extra feeding without watering is useless!! Finally the lower part of the trunk looks in a poor state. The vascular system has been damaged. To help the tree to overcome this problem, it will need to make new cambium cells in the outer layers of the trunk. Wrapping the lower part of the trunk with a wide enough black plastic “waste bag” will do the trick.

Summarising; regular watering plus organic feeding plus tree trunk care will be a positive way to proceed.