Rx for Old Apple Trees

Five steps to bring back fruit on a neglected apple tree, including restoration, pruning, scraping, waiting, protecting.

| October/November 1995

old apple tree

Even an old, neglected tree can be restored to health.


When I first wandered into the woods of my homestead, I was surprised to amble into a small stand of ancient apple trees hidden in a larger gathering of elm and poplar. I'd bet they were eighty or a hundred years old, gnarled and loaded with dead wood and sucker growth and not one producing enough good fruit to make a glass of jelly. Well, my family and I needed that food and immediately set about doctoring those old-timers back into limited production.

The first problem is how to tell the once-cultivated, but now gone wild trees from the hundreds of truly wild seedlings. Apples don't grow true from seed, and a tree that just grew is seldom good for much but rootstock to graft good-bearing scions onto. The problem is, many people do just that: graft fancier wood onto native seedlings. So your trees will in all likelihood not be laid out in a nice orchard, but grow more or less wherever a seed had sprouted. Look for trees that are unnaturally shaped, with several large, low limbs that grow out flat and show peculiar crooks that reveal years of being pruned—even though the interior of the tree may have a straight, natural-looking central leader. Then choose by taste, nibbling the few puny apples growing in the crowns. Size and yield are qualities you might be able to finesse, but taste is most definitely in the hands of the Almighty.

1. Pruning. First use a chain saw to clear out all the brush around each tree. In the late fall, the trees are dormant and all the dead wood and hollow or badly diseased limbs can be cut away easily. Overgrown trees should lose crowns and crossing or rubbing branches removed. Try to leave each tree its four or five healthiest limbs, though several might prove to have only one or two worth saving. If a quarter or more of the tree must be removed, do it over two or three years' time or you will kill it for sure. Remove the straight central leader (developed from a limb after pruning ceased) in year one, all but three to five large limbs in year two, and all but three to five branches per remaining limb in year three.

2. Scraping. Scraping each trunk and limb means chipping off the dark, mossy scales that bugs love to hide under. Where a broken limb or woodpecker hole had allowed rot to enter, dig out as much of the black, wet wood as you can reach and paint the inside with homemade tree wound dressing (thick roofing tar with enough kerosene on top to permit brushing out a workable glop). This concoction also goes onto scars where limbs are removed.

3. Waiting. Next spring, plug all the holes where rot had been removed with cement patches, scrape the branches till each takes on a pink, youthful glow, douse each tree well with a miscible oil (a pure, harmless mineral oil that will dissolve in water), spray, cross your fingers, and sit back to see what will happen.

Such severe pruning can throw even young healthy trees out of bearing, so don't expect much the first year. The trees may flower sparsely, leafed out only at their tip ends, and seem determined to spend the year making suckers. Each of these long, shiny whips should be snipped off as it appears. You should cut a sucker off flush with trunk or branch to prevent regrowth, but need to leave a fraction of an inch of the limb base or branch so it can grow a ring of necessary scar tissue. The trees will seem to sulk through the summer. Don't be discouraged if several just give up, particularly if your autumns tend to be dry. Old trees demand such a drastic "cure," though at times too much wood is removed and the trees can't produce enough leaves to feed their trunk and root systems.

7/25/2015 2:32:10 PM

This is a very helpful article. I have a very old apple tree that I want to save however it has a large, gnarly growth on the trunk that needs to be removed. I think that it must have resulted from improper healing of storm damage or even bad pruning. I'm wondering if someone could tell me how to best cut this growth away and at what time of the year it should be done. Many thanks.

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