Perhaps you’ve let your fruit trees go or maybe bought some old farmland with an overgrown orchard on it. Maybe your hunting land has old trees that aren’t productive anymore. Whatever the case, you might have thought about renovating them. There are several factors to consider.
First, are these trees where you want apple trees anyway and how badly do you want their fruit? How much disease and dead wood are in the trees? Furthermore, is the fruit a desirable cultivar? Unless the trees have sentimental value easier options are out there.
Removing the trees entirely and planting newer disease-free stock might be a better choice. Also, fruit trees can be messy. If you’re not a big apple eater or enjoy spraying, pruning and canning you might be better off to buy your fruit.
If you still want to work with the old trees now is a great time to start. Get ready to generate a big pile of brush, but it’s best to consider a major overhaul is a three year process. Trying to do too much the first year often leads to a large flush of succulent regrowth.
It’s possible to graft new varieties onto an old tree, but that’s a lesson for another time. When renovating by pruning alone consider the overall shape of the tree and the location and arrangement of branches. Limbs with wide angles from the main trunk are the strongest and set the most fruit. Narrow crotch angles break easily.
Where limbs cross one another choose the strongest and prune the other. Remove side branches that grow toward the center of the tree and eliminate droopy ones. Remove anything growing straight up or down. Watch out for branches that might hit you when you’re mowing.
Always remove any dead and diseased wood. Make sure to consider the possibility you might spread diseases, so if you are pruning more than one tree mix some 10% bleach solution to cleanse your tools. Spreading disease from tree to tree is not only possible, it’s very likely.
All limbs have a widened area called a limb collar where they meet the main trunk. Cut where the branch begins to narrow and not flush with the main trunk. Healing time will be less. Limb collars are generally less than half an inch long.
Be prepared for copious amounts of vertical branches to develop the first year. These are called water sprouts. Remove them any time they appear. Many suckers might also spring up from around the tree base. Remove these too. Thinning out entire limbs will result in less of this type of regrowth than shortening branches. Blossoms only form on two-year-old or older wood, so keep that in mind.
Finally, remove competing trees if you want fruit. Apples require full sun. If there are large desirable shade trees it might not be the place to salvage fruit trees. Also, pruning and pest control are chores that must be done every year. Managing fruit trees properly is a lot of work.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.