Help pruning fruit trees?

HoozieMarch 5, 2013

A couple years ago we moved into our new place, and much to our surprise, this row of trees turned out to contain four Apple, two Plum, and one Pear tree!
Knowing a bit of history about the property, the trees probably haven't been touched in 10+ years. As such, they're so overgrown I don't know where to start pruning them. Most of the 'how-tos' I've looked at online start with trees that aren't near this tall and overgrown.

For a scale reference, the yellow step ladder in the attached photobucket album is ~8' tall. We're located at ~4200' elevation, in the high desert of South/Central Oregon.

Pictures are all labeled X - Y. X is the tree number, and Y is the picture number of that tree.

#1 is an Apple tree. A huge split at the base necessitates the two poles I have holding it up. It's at least 25' tall. It will probably need to get replaced at some point since its trunk is just horrible. :(

#2 is another apple tree. There is one big dead limb I'll trim once everything starts growing again. Otherwise, it's also way too tall.

#3 is a Pear tree. It has lots of good tasting and good sized pears. Problem is, I can't get to half of them (LOL).

#4 is another apple tree. It has ~1" diameter apples, and lots of them. My wife thinks it's a crab apple tree, but I think it just needs pruned.

#5 is just like #4.

#6 & #7 are some sort of plum trees/bushes. We've had a total of 5 fruits on one of them two summers ago, but none this last summer. I'm hoping to change that this summer if I can get it cleaned up.

My main question is to learn how to make them shorter and still bear fruit. I've seen that you're not supposed to remove more than 5' of height per year. However, that would encompass 90% of the fruit bearing limbs on most of these. If I cut them shorter, will the trees put new limbs out lower for fruit?

Or, should I find a tall ladder so I can just thin out the branches, cut the water sprouts, and otherwise do normal trimming, just 20' up? We lost a side trunk in #4 last year after it grew too far out and couldn't hold the weight. So, I really want to avoid having too much weight too high and too far out.

I'm also thinking about taking pictures each year as I trim them and making a PDF showing what I did, and the progression over time of each tree.

I can also host a .zip of the pictures if that would be easier to browse than photobucket.

Thanks in advance for any tips.

Here is a link that might be useful: My fruit trees on photobucket

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dmtaylor(5a (WI))

Man.... this is really tough. It basically looks to me like none of these trees have been pruned at all in like 20+ years, and/or they were pruned for their arboreal beauty alone, as opposed to wanting to collect any fruit on them whatsoever.

Well, I am no expert on pruning really old trees, but, if I were you, here's how I would go about it:

1) On the trees that have two main trunks, first cut one trunk right off. Gone. Now you only have half the mess you had before.
2) On the trees that have somewhat of a central leader but all sorts of main scaffolds going every which way, cut out the central leader. Gone. Thus begins the process of clearing out the centers of the trees.
3) After steps 1 or 2, on every tree, cut out roughly 1/4 of all the main scaffold branches, especially any of them growing mostly vertical. Gone. Less of a mess already.
4) On every tree, of course you'll want to eliminate all dead or diseased wood. You should also get rid of anything else growing vertical, and keep most of the stuff that is drooping way down to the ground.
5) Remove all fruiting spurs on the undersides of all branches. These are shaded the most and produce the smallest and least desirable fruit. Removal of these fruit spurs will reduce the total fruiting capability of the tree, in order to maximize fruit size and quality of the fruit spurs that remain.

And then step away, and hope for the best. You'll need to do all of the above steps every year for a few years in order to keep the centers open, allowing improved light penetration and air circulation, plus the droopier branches will grow longer and closer to the ground so that it won't be so dangerous to reach the fruit. But…

You will probably want to invest in a taller step ladder.

Alternatively, I was seriously considering whether you might want to just hack the trees down 100%, at perhaps 2 feet from the ground, and start all over. I would bet you that this will NOT kill the trees, as the roots have the power to send up an overwhelming amount of growth if you were to do this, which you could then shape into whatever shape tree that you like. But the base of the tree would look super funky, and you would need to take extra care not to allow suckers from the rootstock to take over, versus the variety that was originally grafted on most likely at the base of the tree below that 2 feet. But you would indeed run the risk of a variety that you did not want. As another alternative, though, you yourself could graft whatever varieties you want onto the "new" tree at that point. But perhaps this is too outrageous and risky an idea. Not sure if I would do it. Personally I'd be more likely to try out my first plan first, and see if conditions improve.

In any case, it will take many years to get the trees down to where they are manageable. Many many years. I will say this -- they are beautiful as they stand right now. Just not any good for fruiting is all. So ultimately, it depends on what you want out of them. Ugly trees that produce good fruit, vs. beautiful trees that have very poor if any fruit.

Best of luck to you.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2013 at 6:55PM
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alan haigh

Not so tough if you have the map and the easiest route is train to a weep. I've spent much of the last 25 years turning just such trees into beautiful apple factories.

Find a copy of Ecological Fruit Production In The North, Hall-Beyer, and read the chapter on renovating old trees like the ones you picture. Get yourself a quality pruning saw such as a Silky Gomtaro, 30 MM, course tooth. It is the black handled straight bladed saw in the AM Leonard catalog (

Cut out all the uprights and leave lots of spurry weeping wood the first season. Get some spray on them and harvest your apples.

Next season you can continue the process but it's not a matter of 1 or 5 years- it's a continuing process where you gradually bring the tree down in height but you fearlessly cut a lot of wood- especially the first year.

Summer pruning, both mid and late are excellent for this purpose but start the process now. Summer pruning is less likely to cause scorching of the bark.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 5:49AM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)


You ever used a Silky saw w/ foldable blade? I knew you recommended Silky on the Nafex forum a some years ago when I was on it, but I couldn't remember which Silky you preferred.

My kids got me a coarse tooth Silky w/ foldable blade for Christmas. I haven't had a chance to use it yet (as I'd already had the big pruning done) but I was a bit disappointed in how thin and flimsy the blade is. I'm wondering if this is specific to the foldable blades? Or maybe it's an advantage in some way?

Your typo made me chuckle as I envisioned someone using a tree saw w/ a one inch blade. I'm sure you meant 300mm, not 30mm.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 10:02AM
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greenorchardmom(Ga Mts 7)

I am no expert like olpea or hman
but I had 3 apples almost as big & overgrown as yours
an absolute tangled mess
the apples my 1st year here much to my surprise impressed me
so I began the overwhelming task of pruning
I had to prune branches to get to dead wood
one large limb came off
then any lesser branches interfering with healthy ones
after crossing branches then upright branches
by then I had opened it up enough & taken off 1/3 or so
They looked so tidy!
Instead of improving the health of the trees
they grew a massive amount of waterspouts in response
so now Ive cut down the big upright limbs leaving one weeping limb per tree
& will graph onto now hip height stumps
creating multi varieties trees

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 11:42AM
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alan haigh

Olpea, yeah, 300 and flimsy is good in a blade in that it means the metal is thin so cutting is easier. Never used the silky folding one but you should get a real pruning saw and keep that one for the tool box. When you are doing a lot of pruning and switching from saw to pruner to lopper you need to be able to quickly fit the saw in a sheath.

I use the Silky for up to 4" diam. wood and then switch to my Stihl tree topping (light and extremely fast) chain saw for larger- as much to save the silky blade as my arm.

GMMom, if you have the right saw it is amazing how quickly you can go through that wood. However, I didn't read the text carefully and they are apparently much, much taller than I assumed. Are they over 50' tall? If so that is quite a project but if they are not more than 35' it is quite doable and each tree shouldn't require more than 4 hours of work the first pruning.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2013 at 6:14PM
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Thanks for the replies.

After reading the comments a few times, and looking at the trees more over the last couple days, I think I have identified some of the uppermost scaffolds that could be removed. I also have some tangled messes I'll feel better about thinning.

I do have quite a few branches coming off the trunks of some of the trees. Should I cut off all but a couple of them to make new scaffolds that are closer to the ground?

Harvestman, I did find a copy of that book on amazon for ~$13. I'll order it soon.

Should I do most of the work now before they start to green up? Or should I do most after they green in early summer/fall?

And lastly, I have a wanted post on craigslist looking for tall orchard ladders, haha.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 3:35PM
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alan haigh

How tall are those trees?

I would probably remove half the wood first go while dormant. Even if some lower wood gets scorched it will probably just be wood you later replace with still lower wood. If tree still looks pretty full when you are done they will be fine.

Oldtimers used to say you're done pruning when you can throw a cat through it- probably not the first year with those trees. Really cruel when it takes more than one try.

If you email me I can send you some articles I've written about pruning that may give you a better picture of how to choose what to lose. I have a more technical and logical approach to structure than what is articulated in EFPITN.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 7:57PM
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The apple trees are in the 25-30' tall range.
The pear tree is probably 16' - 18'ish.

After looking at them more, most of them have one or two mostly vertical branches that add a few feet of height. I was thinking I could take them out, remove the vertical watersprouts, then lightly thin some of the remaining.

I'm planning on this being a multi-year project. Last thing I want to do is kill them by taking too much at once.

I'll email you through the forum right after this. Thanks for any documents you can send my way.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 8:07PM
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alan haigh

You won't kill them by taking too much wood- even if you cut everything to 8" diameter stubs (this was a routine method used by old timers called dehorning).

The thing is, there is plenty of weeping wood so you can greatly reduce the height- probably 8' the first year and not appreciably reduce the trees access to light. Just leave lots of small wood close to biggest branches where it exists without leaving any stubs.

The trees will look much better after first pruning and the photos in the book will make the process pretty easy to grasp.

The trees are a practical starting height and typical of trees I've rebuilt over the years.

In spite of what Hall-Bayer suggests, I eventually turn such trees into huge open centers.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2013 at 9:35PM
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My copy of EFPITN showed up a couple weeks ago. The chapter on restorative pruning is short, but good.

I borrowed an electric saw on a stick, which has been quite handy. The pear tree is done for this round, and half of the split apple is pretty much done.

Basically, I removed some of the upper branches, any dead stuff, and lightly thinned the branches that were too close to each other. I also specifically left a couple of the really high branches so I can take them out next year. Now most of the branches are downward pointing, and within reach of the step ladder.

The apple tree was so thick I found a long-dead loose branch that was tangled and hung up in the other branches, that I couldn't see from the outside.

Once I'm done I'll probably take a few more pictures for general feedback.

Is there a thread here on recommended sprays for worms? That's been our biggest problem thus far.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2013 at 1:24AM
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alan haigh

Low Spray Schedule for Home Orchards in the Northeast

Here's my spray schedule for the scores of orchards I manage around SE NY adapted for home owners managing a few fruit trees. It has functioned well for me for over 2 decades, although J. Beetles and brown rot of stone fruit increases the number of sprays and necessary pesticides some years some sites. Stink bugs are also an increasing problem requiring more subsequent sprays when they appear. Time of spray is based on apple bloom as that is the predominant fruit here but I generally get away with spraying all trees at the time I spray apples.

Please note that pesticide labels must be read before their use and my recommendations do not override the rules on the label. The label is the law. This document only communicates what has worked for me and your results may vary depending on local pest pressure, which may require a different spray schedule.

Dormant oil (this is optional if there were no mites or scale issues the previous season, which is usually the case in home orchards). Do oil spray somewhere between the point where emerging shoots are 1/2" and the flower clusters begin to show a lot of pink. Mix Immunox (myclobutinol) at highest legal rate (listed on label for controlling scab and cedar apple rust on apple trees) with 1 to 2% oil. If it's closer to pink use 1%.

Don't spray again until petal fall when petals have mostly gone from latest flowering varieties and bees have lost interest. Then spray Triazide (Spectracide Once and Done) + Immunox mixed together at highest legal rates. Repeat once in 10 to 14 days.

Where I manage orchards, the space between earliest flowering Japanese plums and latest flowering apples is only 2 weeks or so which usually allows me to wait until the latest flowering trees are ready to begin spraying anything. Plum curculio seems to time its appearance conveniently to the rhythm of the last flowering apple varieties. This may not be true where you are.

If plums or peaches need oil they may need application before apples. I’ve only had mites on European plums here and never need oil for other stone fruit.

All this is based on plum curculio being your primary insect problem which is the case most areas east of the Mis. River. These sprays will also absolutely control scab, CAR and Mildew as well as most of the crop fatal insects. Apple fly maggot is an exception, but I haven't had much of a problem with this pest in the orchards I manage. This pest can be controlled with a lot of fake apples smeared with tangle trap.

If you don't want to use synthetic chemicals try 4 applications of Surround about a week apart starting at petal fall. You may need to start on earlier flowering varieties as soon as they drop petals because Surround is a repellent and can’t kill eggs after they’ve been inserted into the fruit..

Stone fruit may require the addition of an application or 2 of Indar (Monterey Fungus Fighter is closest available chemical for home owners) starting 4 weeks before first peaches ripen. Apricots must be sprayed sooner if they are scab susceptible with same compound.

Because I manage so many orchards so far apart I have to resort to a spray schedule that is based on expectations rather than actual monitoring. You may be able to reduce insecticide sprays with monitoring but PC can enter an orchard over night and if your insecticide lacks kick-back (as is the case with Triazide), do a lot of damage in a couple of days..

Other problems may occur later in the season and you will in time learn to monitor and react to the pitfalls.

Good luck, Alan Haigh- The Home Orchard and Nursery Co.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2013 at 6:49AM
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