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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Practical Permaculture – Rooting Fig Cuttings


This fig tree was propagated by cutting, it is roughly 2 years old.

One of my favorite parts of gardening is propagation, very few situations in our lives affords us an opportunity to truly play God. But in gardening, although the plants sometimes tell us what they want to do, for the most part we get the final say. The idea that every plant can be easily reproduced just boggles my mind, gardening truly has the potential to be the ultimate poor mans hobby.

Plants, like humans exist in a world of survival of the fittest, only the strong survive. Most permaculturists, although aware, have no idea how to make these principles work for them. Sometimes, the impending death of a plant can trigger a reproductive response that is unlike anything the plant does in life. In nature, when a living branch falls to the ground, it wants to survive, as a last-ditch effort the plant will redirect all of its energy into “forcing” root production. Just one of the ways plants asexually propagate. I have no intention of giving away all my herbaceous voodoo magic in one post, though I do take requests…

It is safe to say, if I can get my hands on just about any part of a plant, I can, and will propagate it… A very large portion of my garden is made up of plants that I personally propagate in one form or another… Figs happen to be one of my favorite plants to propagate, and probably one of the easiest hardwood cuttings to root.

The purpose of this post is to go through step by step, what goes into preparing a hardwood cutting for rooting. There are two ways plants are propagated, Sexually and asexually…


Some plants like it when you watch…

Sexual Propagation

Seeds are typically produced from sexual reproduction within a species, because genetic reproduction has occurred, a plant grown from seeds may have many different characteristics from its parents. Some species produce seeds that require special conditions to germinate, such as cold treatment. Seeds from many plants in the American Southwest require fire to germinate, designed to only germinate after a wildfire has prepared the land. Some plant species, including many trees do not produce seeds until they reach maturity, which may take many years. Seeds can be difficult to acquire and some plants do not produce seeds at all.

Asexual Propagation

Plants have a number of mechanisms for asexual or vegetative reproduction. Some of these have been used by gardeners to multiply or clone plants quickly. People also use methods that plants do not use, such as tissue culture and grafting. Plants are produced using material from a single parent, and as such, there is no exchange of genetic material, therefor vegetative propagation methods almost always produce plants that are identical to the parent. Vegetative reproduction uses plant parts such as roots, stems and leaves. In some plants seeds can be produced without fertilization and the seeds contain only the genetic material of the parent plant. Therefore, propagation via asexual seeds or apomixis is asexual reproduction but not vegetative propagation.

Propagating figs

Now that you know a few of the basics, we can get into what this post is all about… Propagating figs, or any plant for that matter, as easily and cheaply as possible. I would like to “destroy” the common misconception that this stuff is difficult to do… Honestly, a monkey could prepare cuttings, the hard part is remaining vigilant in the upkeep of the tender cutting while it is attempting to root.


Pruning shears, paper towels, water, knife, rooting hormone, growing medium.


Simple diagram of what the cuttings should look like, all three of the examples are fine for this purpose.

Locate fig cuttings

Talk to the neighborhood Italian or fellow gardener, although figs at one time were uncommon, they have become popular in recent years and are no longer that difficult to find. A common misconception is that figs will only root before they have broken dormancy in the spring, I have no problems rooting figs in any life cycle. The time when you acquire the cutting is not nearly as important as how you take care of it.


Notice the bark has been carefully scraped away exposing the cambium layer.

Prepare fig cuttings

With a sharp pair of pruning shears, cut the branch at a minimum of 45 degrees being careful to keep the cut clean and free of tears. The reason the cut is at a 45 degree angle is to expose as much inner surface as possible, this is one of the areas most likely to produce roots. Using a very sharp knife or razor blade, carefully remove strips of bark along the bottom 1 or 2 inches of the cutting, this is to expose the cambium layer and create more places for root formation.


Root Hormone

After completion of the first two steps, I recommend placing your cuttings in a glass of water until you are complete with your prep steps. I occasionally use a powder rooting hormone, this stuff is available at any garden center and is highly recommended. Dump some of the rooting hormone onto a piece of paper, and roll the prepared end of the cutting in the powder shaking off any excess. Do not stick a wet cutting into your container of root hormone, it will introduce moisture into the container and ruin it… Never put the powder you have been using back in the container either, this will also ruin it.


Use a medium-sized pot filled with clean potting mix, make a hole in the soil slightly larger than the cutting, and insert. Try to avoid removing any of the rooting hormone from the cutting when inserting it, that is why the hole is slightly larger than the actual cutting.

Italian brown turkey fig ready to be planted.

All of your hard work to get to this point in the process, now depends on what you do for the next month. The planted cuttings should be kept moist at all times, a greenhouse covering like a plastic bag will help keep moisture contained. If your soil dries out, you will most likely lose your cuttings…

Once normal growth resumes, remove the plastic covering. For the first year of your cuttings life it is important to remember that it is extremely fragile, problems that would normally have no effect on an established fig tree, will have fatal consequences.


Many of the methods and procedures I use are often considered “voodoo” in the permaculture world… Fuck the permaculture world… Permaculture is about using your resources appropriately… Not spending your resources talking shit on other people… I love permaculture, but am growing increasingly wary of many of the people who I meet in the permaculture world…

Fly by nights… Hipsters… Radicals… Everything I strive not to be…

People in my eyes that have no love… Can’t see the forest or heaven above… Sitting in a circle banging a drum… Talking shit on those you think are scum… – Like me… Proudly…

peace – chriscondello

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.