Practical Permaculture – Rehabilitation of Fruit Trees

I promise I'll take more photos of apples this year... I have been saving this for photos, but now is the time to prune so I'm posting it... Enjoy!..

I promise I’ll take more photos of apples this year… I have been saving this for photos, but now is the time to prune so I’m posting it… Enjoy!..

Older fruit trees that have been neglected are usually huge and impossible to maintain. In many cases, these old trees can be brought back to a more manageable state. The typical method of rehabilitating older trees is through carefully selected pruning cuts. Apple and pear trees are the most easy to rehabilitate. Cherries can also be rehabilitated, but to a lesser degree and with less success. Peaches are not recommended for rehabilitation, and are not normally considered. Once a peach tree has grown out, they are never the same… .

You should ask yourself a couple of questions before you begin the daunting task of rehabilitating an old fruit tree. The first and most important question you should ask yourself before starting is whether or not your tree is even worth saving…

Does the fruit taste good? Most of the large and overgrown trees I come in contact with are seed grown trees, rarely does one have even relatively good apples that I would consider worth the time and effort that is often required to bring the tree into a manageable size. To give you an idea of how rare it is to get a good tasting apple from seed… The odds are in the ballpark of 1 in 100,000… That’s why we graft…

Is the tree healthy and structurally sound? Do the trunk and main branches appear capable of supporting a massive load of fruit? Look for signs of insects and fungus.

Is the tree in a suitable location? All to often I encounter massive apple trees situated in small, urban yards. These trees are often so massive that grass doesn’t even survive underneath them… In my eyes, regardless of quality, the tree should come down…

The first step is to check out the trunk and trunk ends of the major branches. They should be reasonably strong and free from dead or rotting wood. Although much of the trunk and parts of the major limbs are nonfunctioning, they do provide structural strength to the entire tree. If the trunk and parts of the major limbs are hollow, it is not likely attempts to save the tree will be successful. A thin green line, visible when the bark is peeled back gently with a knife, indicates a healthy branch and tissue.

If you end up finding serious problems you can always take scion wood for grafting, then cut the tree down. Remember that you can fit 4 dwarf fruit trees in the same area that a mature own-root fruit tree will fit, weigh your options. Keep in mind that what you are about to do is very stressful for the tree, if it is already stressed out, you will most likely kill it… Save yourself some time…

If you decide to rejuvenate the tree, prune out all dead and broken branches right away, this should be done without a second thought. Cut away the sucker growth around the bottom of the trunk. Once the dead and broken material has been removed, the general form of the tree can be seen.

The second step is to decide how big you want the tree to be. Remember that you can never make a seedling tree into a dwarf tree no matter how much you prune. A dwarf tree can be maintained at about 6 to 10 feet tall, a semi-dwarf at about 10 to 16 feet and a standard at about 16 to 20 feet tall. Trees that have not been pruned in many years should not be reduced to the desired height in a single cut. To prevent excessive growth and excessive sunburn on previously shaded portions of the tree, you should plan on reducing tree height over a period of three years by removing no more than one-third of the tree in one season.

To reduce tree height, selectively cut to branches growing more horizontal to the ground. Thin out excessive branches as well. Do not indiscriminately cut all the shoots in half. After the desired height and limb spread have been decided, look closely at the major branches to determine where they could be cut to bring the tree into conformity.

It is very important that no nitrogen be applied immediately after the initial heavy cutting. Nitrogen should not be applied because the root system under the tree is large enough to provide water, oxygen, and stored food reserves to all of the above ground portions of the tree before any cutting was done. In effect, the first years pruning means that the same amount of root system is supplying fewer growing points. Adding more nitrogen fertilizer would stimulate excessive vegetative growth that would further complicate next year’s pruning.

During the summer after the first winter pruning, remove the numerous water sprouts that will grow on the heavily pruned tree. Water sprouts are rapidly growing vegetative shoots that develop around the pruning cuts.

Also during this time, or from late May to early June, thin the fruit down to one fruit per cluster and space the clusters about 5 or 6 inches apart. This practice will ensure that the remaining fruit will attain the largest possible size.

In the late winter or early spring of the following year, before growth begins, prune the tree again. This time, however, limit the pruning to thinning out the bearing wood. Take time to look carefully at the tree. Notice where the 1, 2, 3, and 4-year old wood pieces are located. This is important because the best fruit grows only on spurs that are 2 to 3 years old. To promote better flower formation and good light penetration into the tree, separate these bearing surfaces by about 18 to 24 vertical inches from any other layer.

Another way to visualize this type of pruning is to imagine the removal of 65 to 70 percent of the bearing surface. This is accomplished primarily through thinning out cuts; that is, removing branches back to their point of origin.

Following the last year of rejuvenation pruning, apply a light application of fertilizer. A good rule of thumb is to apply one half pound of 5-10-10 for each inch of trunk diameter, measured 18 to 24 inches above the soil line. Apply fertilizer at any time from December until April. Scatter it under the limb spread of the entire tree, but keep it at least 6 inches away from the trunk.

peace – chriscondello

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6 thoughts on “Practical Permaculture – Rehabilitation of Fruit Trees

  1. I’ve had some success with espaliered fruit tress. They make a good windbreak/shade growth, look pretty, and can be very fruitful for their relatively small size.


  2. Educational/informative post ~ Thank you. I was just wondering about an old fruit tree located on a property that a relative purchased. After reading your post, it seems that this particular fruit tree is a lost cause. That’s okay though, we will remove it and plant a new one.

    Happy to have found your site. Your future posts will be on our radar as we support “home grown.” 🙂

    Will share a link to this post on our facebook page at:

    Many Blessings!

    ~Gerean Pflug for “The Animal Spirits”


  3. Can the mature trunk be used for grafting newer branches?


    • C.Condello says:

      It absolutely can be used for grafting, I’m working on a whole post on the subject… And it is so simple to do it is almost funny… I will hopefully have that one ready later today or tonight…

      Thank you for reading and re-blogging my post…


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