Revitalizing Old Fruit Trees
Suppose you have recently acquired property that already has
fruit and nut trees growing on it, but the trees have been neglected
for several years. Is there any hope? The answer to this question
depends on the condition of the specimen to be revitalized.
There are four main objectives when pruning mature trees:
1) to reduce the number and increase the size of the potential
crop; 2) to develop new fruit wood; 3) to remove interfering
and broken branches and 4) to contain tree height and spread
for convenient harvest.
Most fruit trees, when not pruned, produce more fruit than
they can size and mature properly. To prevent such overproduction,
remove several limbs annually when the trees are dormant (in
the winter). Peaches and nectarines require severe pruning yearly.
Other fruit trees are intermediate in their pruning needs. Bearing
nut trees will produce nuts of adequate size with little or
When fruit trees have not been pruned for several years, they
become brushy and weak, and stop producing satisfactory fruit
wood. Some new fruit wood is necessary each year for most trees
to maintain production of good fruit. This is accomplished by
annual pruning. Young wood grows rapidly (as much as 40 inches
during the year) and old wood grows slowly (as little as 2 inches
during the year). The caliper of young wood is thick and old
wood is thin. Young wood points upward, but old wood droops.
Young wood is straight and non-branched, while old wood is crooked
and branchy. Young wood bears large fruit of good color; old
wood bears small, poorly colored fruit. For example, peach trees
only produce fruit on fruit wood that grew the previous year;
therefore, they require extensive annual pruning to develop
adequate fruit wood for the following year's crop. Other fruit,
such as apples, plums, and apricots, bear fruit on the same
spurs for several years. Assuming that the same spurs will bear
fruit for five years, sufficient pruning to produce about 1/5
new wood each year is necessary to maintain normal cropping.
Some thinning out is also desirable to permit light infiltration
so that the fruit wood will stay healthy. Bearing shoots often
have too many old spurs. If such wood is "headed back"
a 1/2 or even 3/4, the number of fruiting spurs is lessened
but the quality of fruit is improved.
Many old trees bear only in alternate years. It is best to
prune heavily just before the heavy?bearing year. If fruit buds
can be recognized, much thinning of the crop can be done in
the pruning operation.
Wind, heavy crops, and disease can break and kill branches.
Overcrowding and lack of sunlight also will cause branches to
die. Pruning is necessary to remove dead, damaged, broken, diseased
and weak branches. Limbs that cross the center of a tree should
be removed, too. Cut out the weak, thin wood. Cut out any shoot
growth that is pulled down by former fruit crops or is shaded
out by stronger shoots. Remove water sprouts each year, as they
Cut old wood out when it begins to weaken instead of letting
it continue producing smaller and more poorly colored fruit.
The strong new growth remaining will produce fruit similar to
that of young trees. In other words, the object is to have young
wood on the old tree.
If left unpruned, trees will become too large to harvest.
In addition, most of the fruit of unpruned trees will grow in
their tops. Once a tree has reached a height of 10-15 feet,
it should be pruned annually to keep it at that height. A combination
of thinning out and topping upper limbs can be used effectively
to maintain reasonable tree height for most fruit trees.
Old unpruned fruit trees often are eye?sores producing few
fruits, that are, for the most part small, wormy, and worthless.
In most cases, these trees can be rejuvenated, and made attractive
in your landscape. An old tree may have several large, tall,
primary branches emerging at narrow angles, close to each other.
There may or may not be any low side branches. The functional
portion of the tree is usually a solid canopy of weak but crowded
branches at the top of the tree.
At first sight, pruning one of these old trees may look like
an impossible task. But if you keep the following system in
mind, pruning becomes manageable:
1. A few large pruning cuts accomplish more than many small
cuts. Often the elimination of one or two misplaced, large,
primary limbs in the center opens up the tree and gives it an
entirely new look.
2. In reducing tree height and opening up the top branches,
simply apply this same principle—a few heavy cuts rather
than many fine ones. Only one to three cuts on each remaining
primary branch may be all the tree needs.
Once pruned, much wood and bush have been cut away from the
tree. Such drastic pruning tends to invigorate the tree and
brings heavy vegetative growth the following spring. Avoid applying
any fertilizer containing nitrogen for at least a year after
this heavy pruning.
It takes 2 or 3 years to rejuvenate an old tree. Direct prune
by selecting well placed new branches as eventual replacements
for the old higher ones. Control excessive shoot growth by thinning
out and heading back those that are left. Leave the tree open
to be sure that enough light penetrates to its center. This
helps promote fruit bud formation on the new interior shoots.
Continue to head back and thin out the top of the tree, gradually
eliminating the old top as newer branches begin to take over.
Very old plum trees are difficult to renovate. Old apple trees,
if cut back severely, will readily produce new shoots, but this
is not true with old plum trees. Any heading back of large branches
should be done at a side branch or shoot.
It is possible that some trees are so far gone that there is
no salvation and the best choice is to start over with a new
tree. So if the trees do not respond with heavy growth the year
after pruning, they should be removed. Also, old trees with
just a limb or two that is still alive really will have very
little productivity and should be removed as well. A new tree
can be grown to a productive state in 3 - 4 years or less, so
it is not like the end of the world to take out old non?productive