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Rejuvenate Your Old Apple Tree

Now is a great time to prune your old apple tree. Pruning will lead to a healthier tree and higher quality apples.

Cascading branches of a old apple orchard Pruning an old, overgrown apple treeMost apple trees in North Dakota are grown in backyards, not orchards. These trees provide colorful flowers in spring, shade in summer, and a few nice fruits in autumn. That's all nice—but we can do better.

Now is the time to rejuvenate your old apple tree. Prune it!

PRUNE NOW. Late winter is the best time to prune for several reasons: First, the tree is dormant and will suffer less shock. Second, pruning in late winter minimizes the exposure of wounded tissues to the ravages of winter. Third, diseases are less active in winter and you are less likely to spread diseases on your pruning tools. Wound dressings are not needed when pruning in the dormant season.

REDUCE HEIGHT. This will make the tree easier to manage and the apples easier to harvest. Old trees can be pruned into an umbrella shape, with branches cascading in all directions from the main trunk, not allowing tree height to exceed 12 feet (see photo of the old orchard at top right).

DEVELOP A STRONG FRAMEWORK. The most vigorous branches will have glossy bark (not old, scaly bark). The sturdiest branches will have an angle of 60-degrees from the trunk. Using the face of a clock as our guide, the strongest, most productive branches will be at angles of 2 and 10 o’clock. Vertical branches are not fruitful and their narrow crotches are weak. Horizontal branches struggle to support a heavy fruit load.

Trim just above these vigorous, sturdy branches. This will bring the tree down to size (see BEFORE/AFTER figure at right).

REMOVE CLUTTER. Remove water sprouts (vertical, pencil-thick, unfruitful branches). Remove broken branches, branches that rub one another, and inward facing branches.

We want to get more sunlight and air movement in the tree. This will improve fruit color and reduce humidity that promotes diseases in the canopy.

BE PATIENT. To avoid sunscald damage and shocking the tree, avoid removing more than 25 percent of the tree’s wood at any one time. It’s best to give yourself at least two years to rejuvenate the tree.

BE REALISTIC. Apple trees age like people do. We can live 100 years, but we reach our prime at around 25 years. Pruning an old tree will lead to higher yields and much better quality fruit, but your tree is still old. It’s nice to have a tree with character and charm in the backyard, but it doesn’t hurt to have a young and productive tree nearby. Spring is the best season for planting.

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Photo courtesy of Mark Shirley.

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