If there is one thing this North Country has plenty of, it's apple trees that haven't been pruned, sprayed or maintained in any way, shape or form, for years. And while the trees may bear fruit, the apples are often small, misshapen and scabby. If you have ever considered trying to rejuvenate your old, neglected apple trees, now is the time for dormant pruning.
I'm often asked about rejuvenating such old, neglected apple trees. My answer is that while you can significantly beautify a yard or landscape by pruning and shaping older apple trees to make them more attractive, attempting to restore old, uncared-for fruit trees is a labor-intensive process of renovation, followed by renewal of fruiting wood that is best done prudently, over a two- or three-year period, in order to avoid possible injury from sudden overexposure to sunlight. And while employing proper pruning practices will increase the yield and improve the quality of the fruit of trees in all stages of growth, the fruit quality of older trees is usually not as good as that of similar, younger trees.
Most likely, the canopy of any old, ignored apple tree will be more or less impenetrable. You'll have to fight your way to the center of the tree just to get started.
The first step, as in any pruning, is to remove all of the dead wood, along with any damaged or broken branches and stubs. At the same time, you should remove any diseased and/or insect infested wood, as well as waterspouts (which grow quite rapidly, straight upright, produce no fruit, and greatly reduce exposure to sunlight at the center of the tree), and branches that are rubbing against other branches or that cross each other, as well as those that are growing toward the center of the tree, have narrow angles of attachment, or that are hanging down or growing toward the ground. Essentially, you want to thin out the bush, if you will, keeping in mind that over-pruning may stimulate too much vegetative growth and reduce fruit production. Suckers that are growing up from the roots or from the base of the tree should be removed, as well. Diseased or infested wood should be burned to help prevent reinfection or reinfestation.
Once that has been completed, the real work begins. And a chainsaw will be required to complete the pruning work.
You should carefully consider which of the remaining secondary branches and scaffold limbs should be removed to allow adequate sunlight to reach all of what will be the remaining fruiting branches. In order to develop increased penetration of sunlight, you eventually want to remove about a third of these branches, always pruning as close to the branch bark collar (the swelling where one branch joins another or where a limb is attached to the tree trunk) as possible, but never removing the collar or leaving stubs. If the number of scaffold limbs is excessive, you will need to remove them progressively, over a period of two or three years.
Along with the removal of surplus and/or weak scaffold limbs, the overall height of the tree will need to be reduced, too, sometimes considerably. This can be achieved relatively easily by removing the tallest, most upright limbs entirely, or by cutting them back to strong lateral branches that extend horizontally. If a tree has several of these tall, upright branches, you will need to remove them no more than one or two at a time, again over a period of two or three years.
I've heard it said that, once completed, a bird should be able to easily fly through a properly pruned fruit tree. Most commercial orchard owners will tell you that no other practice will improve the health and well being of fruit trees more than proper pruning at regular intervals.
Once this has been accomplished, you should continue to maintenance prune the tree as you would any other yard or orchard tree. Early season application of dormant oil is another worthwhile practice to consider. Although dormant oil will not prevent or eliminate diseases that may be present (such as apple scab), it will help to eradicate insects that have overwintered on the tree bark. Dormant oil should only be used before bud break and when temperatures are expected to remain above freezing for at least 24 hours.
Regular maintenance will assure that the tree will continue to produce good quality fruit, while adding beauty to your yard or landscape. After all, is there any more beautiful harbinger of summer than apple (or cherry) trees covered with blossoms?