University of Vermont Extension
Spring, Summer News
Department of Plant and Soil Science
RENOVATING AN OLD ORCHARD
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Perhaps you have property with
some old apple trees, or perhaps you had a fruit tree orchard that
has suffered from years of neglect due to other priorities. You’re
faced with a decision if you want to make changes—should you get out
a chainsaw or hire a tree service for such removals, or should you
try and save the trees? If the latter, how should you begin? If
you want to renovate an orchard, first assess which (if any) trees
are worth saving. Follow a few simple pruning practices slowly over
a few years to reclaim desirable trees.
When deciding which fruit trees to save in a neglected orchard, keep
in mind that a small number of well-cared-for trees will be far more
productive and much more satisfying than a large orchard of even
partially neglected ones. Those with good tasting fruit (even if
small) are candidates to save. Their trunks should be solid and
firm, not hollow on the inside, nor falling apart. A worthy tree to
save should have one trunk, not multiple ones growing in clumps
(usually arising from “suckers” or offshoots of the original trunk,
which may have died).
If trees are evenly spaced apart, they were likely those planted and
not seedlings that came up randomly. A few such trees from
seedlings may be worth saving if they have good fruit or are
ornamental. Trees worth renovating should have a good branching
structure, with good lower branching, and of a good height and
habit. Those either too tall (over 18 to 20 feet high) or short, or
lopsided, or straggly (perhaps lower limbs were browsed off by
animals), would be difficult to reclaim. Finally, consider if the
trees are important either historically (they may be antique or
heirloom cultivars seldom seen) or sentimentally (as in being
planted by a relative).
Once you’ve decided which trees to work on saving, follow these
1. Remove unwanted trees. These are ones that bear no fruit or
none desirable, are too close together, are from seedlings, are weak
and just too old, or are weedy— either fruiting or others.
2. Remove sprouts arising from the base of trees you want to save.
These “water sprouts” will sap energy the main tree needs to regrow
from subsequent pruning.
3. Burn or chip tree prunings to avoid keeping around any diseases.
4. The first year, lightly prune trees anytime, removing broken,
diseased, or rubbing and crossing limbs. An old tree won’t tolerate
severe pruning at first, so start gently. Prune whole limbs off,
don’t just “head back” or prune the ends. Remove any old fruit.
Check the soil pH or acidity (kits are available from your local
Extension office and many complete garden centers). Correct, if
needed, to 6.5 to 7. Fertilize lightly in spring as with 100 pounds
of dried manure spread evenly, or lightly with an organic complete
fertilizer, or 5 to 7 pounds of 5-10-10, or similar. Then, in
early summer, thin fruit when the size of marbles so that they are
at least 6 inches apart, and only one in a cluster. Mow or mulch
around trees during summer. Remove any “drops” (those fruit that
fall off naturally in June, and during fall). Rake leaves up in
5. The second year, when trees are dormant but temperatures above
freezing, thin out some limbs to allow more light into the center,
removing whole limbs. Remove weak or very old limbs first. Proceed
with other culture as in the first year.
6. The third year, prune similar to year two, only more heavily.
Follow culture as previously.
7. Finally, in subsequent years, prune normally with normal culture.
More details on such culture to grow apples successfully can be
found in the book The Fruit Gardener’s Bible.