Rejuvenating old fruit trees

Winter is the perfect time to start shaping up overgrown and neglected trees for a productive harvest next season.

MSU students prune apple trees at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center.
MSU students prune apple trees at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center.

If you have large, overgrown, neglected fruit trees, then winter is the perfect time to start shaping them up for a productive harvest. If the trees have been neglected for a long time, it may take two to three years to complete the rejuvenation process. You must also look at the structure of the trees and decide if they are worth saving. Evaluate trees on the following:

  • Where are the trees located?
  • Are the trees generally healthy?
  • Do the trees bear good fruit?

If you decided a tree is worth saving, here are a few basic pruning steps to rejuvenation recommended by Michigan State University Extension. These methods work best for apple and pear trees.

  • Step 1: Remove all dead and diseased branches. Be sure to trim all large cuts to their origin and that they are smooth on the branch. This will reduce the risk of infecting healthy wood. Be sure to sterilize your pruning tools with a 1:1 bleach and water solution after cutting away infected wood.
  • Step 2: Remove crossing and rubbing branches. Remove the oldest branches first. Open up the center of the tree to allow air to circulate and light to penetrate the center, allowing for better growth of the fruit and reduction of disease.
  • Step 3: If the trees are overgrown and you want to reduce their height, remember to only reduce the tree by about one-third of their height at a time. This may take up to three years. For example, if the tree is 24 feet tall and you want it to be 15 feet tall, remove 3 feet per year.

In the subsequent years, you will need to continue thinning the trees and removing water sprouts that have popped up as a result of the first year’s pruning. Rejuvenating fruits trees takes effort, but the reward of bountiful harvests for years to come is worth the effort.

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