A neglected, overgrown, old apple tree does have charm, its
gnarled, elbowed branches seemingly ready to reach out for a hug. The fruits,
unfortunately, more often than not are too small, too pest-ridden, and too high
in the tree. My fear of heights makes the last deficiency most important to me.
Large, clean fruits are for nought if I can’t bring myself to climb a ladder or
the branches for harvest.
My old neighbor, knowing my love for fruits (50+ fruit plants staring back at him just over the low privet hedge dividing our properties) told me to feel free to adopt his big, old apple tree, which he was tired of caring for. Despite its deficiencies, the tree -- like any neglected, old apple tree -- could be returned to its former glory by "renovation," as corrective pruning of an old tree is called.
(Before picking up any pruning tool, if you have such a tree, ask yourself whether your efforts will be justified. Is the tree of a particularly good variety? Do you really want a tree where that tree stands? Would one or more dwarf trees, which can be cared for with feet on terra firma, make more practical sense? Always consider the option, before beginning renovation, of "pruning" the tree to ground level.)
None of that applied to me and “my” new tree; after all, it was still my neighbor’s tree and on his property. But I was going to prune it, and the first cuts were drastic, done with my chain saw, lopping back the top of the tree down to lower side branches. If the tree had suffered greater neglect and were more overgrown, I would have come back the next year for some more large, low cuts. (Too many in one year shocks a tree.) Drastic cuts quickly lower the tree and open up what remains to light and air. 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.) And lowering the tree, in my case, made harvest less of an aerial adventure.
Ideally, any large cuts would be to well-placed side branches. But I didn’t worry too much about that, because new sprouts, the tree's future limbs, would grow from dormant buds near the cuts.
Actually, too many new sprouts grow. Most I just removed by visiting the tree every few weeks through spring and summer, firmly grabbing any excess sprouts with my hand and removing them with a sharp downward jerk. I saved any that were well-placed and needed for replacement limbs. Any wayward sprouts missed during summer could also be pruned this time next year but resprouting from their bases is then more likely. I was ruthless with sprout removal because too many new branches crowding each other would put the tree back where it started and again having shaded, dank branches.
Let's get back to the first winter’s pruning. After making those large cuts, I went on to more detailed pruning with my small pruning saw and a lopping shear. I cut back dead, broken, or diseased branches to sound wood and removed stems that were overcrowded or weak. Such stems typically grew in shaded parts of the tree and drooped downwards. I either cut them off completely or else shortened them to the point where they started their downward arc.
The final and most detailed cuts were to the spurs, those short, stubby branches -- each 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 the fruits ripen small and poor-quality. I used my hand-held pruning shears to completely remove some spurs, and to remove just a side branch or two from others.
For the finishing touch on renovation, I tidied up the bark. Loose, old bark provides refuge for pests such as codling moth larvae. Some balled up chicken wire made quick work of scraping the bark clean.
Finally, I stood back and admired my work. Cleaned up, the old apple tree looked even more charming than it did when it was neglected and overgrown. I gave the tree a hug.