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Apples and pears: renovating old trees

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last updated Sep 18, 2012
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Apple trees with areas of congested new growth need to be renovated. Image: Tim Sandall/RHS

Old, overgrown apples and pear trees can still be attractive and productive features in the garden if brought under control with pruning. Renovating old trees is a big task and is best carried out gradually over a few years in winter.

Suitable for... Back to top

This method of pruning is suitable for old, overgrown apples and pears. Whenever pruning an overgrown tree, ideally do it in stages, over a number of years. Pruning back hard in one year only encourages excessive, vigorous and unfruitful growth.

Only trees with a sound, healthy trunk and main branches that show signs of having grown and cropped well in the past are worth attempting to renovate.

Assess if the work is manageable by you, and if not, employ a qualified arborist.

If yield is the most important factor, it might not be worth renovating an old tree. Consider replacing the tree with a new one on a dwarfing rootstock. This would crop at an early age, be easier to manage and take up less space per kilo of yield than a big old tree.

When to prune Back to top

Renovation is best carried out in winter, when the tree is not in leaf. It is easier to see what you are doing without leaves, plus winter pruning encourages strong regrowth in spring.

How to prune Back to top

When pruning, always cut to the main stem or trunk, or to above a well-placed outward-growing side branch.

Branches should not be cut back flush to the main trunk or left with a large snag as these will result in excessive dieback or poor callusing and healing.

The ideal point is immediately outside the 'collar', which is normally visible as a distinct bulge – occasionally continuing all the way around the branch. The 'collar' may extend some way out but should not be cut into even if a 'snag' appears to remain.

The objective is to improve branch spacing, so that light and air can reach all parts of the tree and picking and maintenance are made easier. Aim for an open, goblet-shaped branch structure.

Aim to remove no more than a quarter of the canopy in any one year, saving the rest for succeeding years if there is a lot to remove.

Mulch renovated trees in the spring following pruning, and feed with a general balanced fertiliser such as Growmore (at 70g per sq m/2½oz per 10 sq ft) to encourage good regrowth.

Here’s how to prune two types of old fruit tree, firstly a typically overgrown, large tree, and secondly an old, stunted and gnarled tree.

Overgrown, large trees

  • First, remove all dead and broken branches and any low branches that obstruct passage
  • Remove branches that are badly placed or crossing, and any tall, centrally placed branches that block air and light from the centre of the tree and are hard to reach for picking
  • Remove or shorten any branches that are growing too close together - with less than 60cm (2ft) between them if next to each other, or with less than 90cm (3ft) between them if growing one above the other

Stunted, starved trees

These trees often have few new branches, but have overcrowded, dense spur systems (clusters of short, stubby branches producing flowers and fruit on older wood).

Thin out some of the spur systems, removing those that are unproductive or that are overshadowing others. This will give the remaining spurs more space, and allow the light to reach them, resulting in better fruit size and more even ripening. This will also encourage tree vigour, and new branches should grow. These will eventually replace the older, worn-out branches.

Problems Back to top

Over-pruning (removing more than one quarter of the canopy in any one year) may result in the production of water shoots, which are tall, upright and leafy branches, producing no flowers or fruit.

Deal with water shoots as follows:

  • In the first year, remove any water shoots growing directly from the trunk or from the lower parts of main branches and cut away half of the remaining upright water shoots from their base
  • Tip-prune the remaining water shoots, simply cutting off the top 10cm (4in) or so, to encourage branching.
  • In the second year, remove half the water shoots retained in the previous year. Prune the remaining shoots to an outward-facing bud or branch, to encourage an open-centred branch structure
  • In the third year, continue to prune to outward-facing buds or branches. Fruit buds should have started to form on the new shoots. Where this has occurred, revert to routine winter pruning

Look out for common problems of old or neglected trees, such as canker, woolly aphid and biennial bearing.

Quick facts

Suitable for Old overgrown apples and pears
Timing November to February
Difficulty Moderate
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