Getting Old Trees in Shape + Adding New Ones

HammiltonMay 27, 2012


First post here, and sorry in advance, I'm sure it'll be long before I finish. I recently bought a home in central Wisconsin. I have about half an acre in back of my house that has nothing but grass growing in it. Near the property line I have three apple trees growing. I don't think they're full sized, but I'm not sure. I'm also not sure what type of apple they are, but those I tasted last fall were delicious and reminded me very much of honeycrisp. I'm guessing they're 15+ years old, though, and they're not in the greatest of condition. Two are ringed with woodpecker bore holes, and one has a small-fist sized hole in it. The leaves look good on all of them, though.

The two bad ones did not bloom this year, though I *think* they did last year. I was planning on pruning them up tomorrow so if they do bloom next year (and this year was really just a fluke due to an ill-timed freeze after a super early spring) they'll be in better condition. The one that did bloom now has apples ping-pong to golf-ball sized. I was going to do light pruning on that to get more air in there and to make spraying easier.

Does that sound like a good idea? Does it hurt to do a little more intensive prune this late with the trees that aren't fruiting?

In any event I've decided that I'm going to put five to ten more trees in this year. The ground is a little low and clay soil, however, so it's not optimal. I am going to run drain tile through the area I'm planting in to enhance drainage, and to bring in composted black dirt to back fill the planting holes.

Do you have any tips on getting the most out of trees in this location? Should I dig an especially large hole when planting and use the composted black dirt? The clay we have is awfully heavy, but it is good rich soil.

I'm obviously not a commercial farmer so I'm not worried about getting the absolute maximum yield from my trees.

What trees would you recommend for the area? I know I want at least one or two Wolf River's and my wife wants a Red Delicious. I would like at least one, maybe two honey-crisps as well.

Are any of these trees known to be adverse to somewhat low ground or clay soils? Drainage isn't great right now, but I can improve it. Are there any trees you would suggest or suggest I avoid?

I was thinking that considering how well my trees did last year, and presumably in years prior, without any fertilizer or spray or pruning (just enough to keep the branches high enough to mow with a rider under them which I appreciate!) or any care at all really, I would expect additional trees to do just as well, perhaps even better, since I'll actually care for them.

Sorry for such a long winded first post! I'm just adding these because I'd like to start making my own apple cider (I'm a huge apple cider fan) and my family likes apples. With a dozen semi-dwarf trees I'll be inundated with apples, I'm certain, and I figured if I end up with too many I can always take them to the farmers market and sell bags for a few bucks. And I like the idea of apple trees. I grew up with a back yard with a four acre field my parents and I planted with a couple thousand pine trees (I'm guessing, it might only be one thousand, or maybe three, I just remember doing a thousand in a week one summer and hating every minute of it!), and now you can hardly walk around back there. My kids will like apple trees a lot more than they like the pine trees at nana's house.

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dmtaylor(5a (WI))

From one enthusiastic apple guy in Wisconsin to another -- welcome! And don't worry -- as you see here, I know all about being long-winded!

Pruning is a great first step for getting your old trees into more manageable condition. I've heard it said that there really is no right or wrong time to prune -- you can do it this time of season if you like and the tree will have plenty of time to recover over the rest of the summer. The only questionable time to prune is very late in the growing season or immediately following growing -- say in September through November or so. Otherwise have at 'er. I've also heard it said that you shouldn't prune off more than about 1/3 of the total wood of a tree in any given year. This is a rough guideline but will minimize the shock to the tree and allow it to continue to fruit (well if not this year then next year) in addition to development of youthful vegetative growth. If on the other hand you just lopped the whole trunk off at like 5 feet high and left no branches, it will take many years for that tree to recover and resume fruiting. The tree probably wouldn't die, but it would be a major shock to the tree and send it into a major vegetative growth mode. So 1/3 is a good balancing point of "a lot, but not too much". You can continue pruning from year to year in this manner over the course of 2 or 3 years if necessary until the tree takes the shape and size that you want.

Be aware that any named varieties of apples do not grow on their own roots. They are all grafted onto selected rootstocks, with weird names such as Bud 9 or MM 111. You can research rootstocks that are good for your soil quality and your needs for disease resistance, the final size of the tree that you would like, etc., and then purchase trees grafted to those rootstocks. Soil amendments are not at all a bad idea, although I'm honestly not certain how big of a deal it really is for apples, which it seems can grow well in all kinds of different soils, especially if you select a proper rootstock for your conditions.

Careful evaluation and selection of good candidate apple varieties before going out shopping will also be beneficial. The more homework you do up front, the more happy you will be several years down the road when your trees finally begin fruiting in earnest. Developed in Minnesota, Honeycrisp is a fantastic option for Wisconsin's climate, and it so happens that it is as excellent for making cider as it is for eating. Very juicy and chock full of sugar. If you are very interested in making cider, you will probably also want tart varieties to blend in with the Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, and any other sweet varieties that don't have a whole lot of tartness to balance. I'm not very familiar with Wolf River but if memory serves, this might be a good tart variety? Personally I'm grafting a number of branches on my trees over to old English heritage cider apple varieties such as Foxwhelp, Kingston Black, Ashmead's Kernel, etc. These all have good tartness as well as some bitterness, or what some might call "snap" or "bite" beyond just tartness. Of these, I am having the best success so far growing the Foxwhelp, but who knows what the future holds. Of all my other trees, I am happiest so far with the Honeycrisp and the Cortland. Cortland is early bearing and is just a beautiful tree I think, although it tends very much to be tip-bearing on last year's wood so you must be very careful not to over-prune it or you'll be snipping off most of the fruiting wood! It is a delicious apple to eat and excellent for pies and sauce, and suited perfectly for Wisconsin's climate. Personally I do not care for Red Delicious, but I have heard many say that when eaten ripe right off the tree, they are indeed delicious. And I know they do grow well in Wisconsin, as my grandfather had several trees and they produced heavily at least every other year (biennial bearing). As for trees to avoid, I would look up the USDA Hardiness Zone that you live in, and stay away from any varieties that are intended for zones far warmer than your own. For example, I enjoy Braeburn and Granny Smith apples, but as far as I know, we haven't had a lot of success growing those types here in Wisconsin, as they originated from warmer climates and seem unable to adapt well here.

Your trees can definitely produce fruit of superior size and quality if you take an active role in their care. Untended trees may produce many bushels of fruit, but it may be very small (i.e., mostly core, and therefore not so much to eat!), full of worms or other disease, all green rather than red or yellow due to excessive vegetation and shading, etc. If you can remove much of the vegetative growth each year leaving most of the fruiting wood, and perhaps thin out the fruits and/or fruit buds each year, your fruit will be larger (less core and more to eat!), more colorful, easier to spray, easier to reach from the ground or a short ladder, etc.

No matter what you do, have fun with it. That is what it's really all about. Enjoy.

    Bookmark   May 27, 2012 at 11:50PM
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I agree with dmtaylor about the pruning, now is fine and about 1/3 removed in one year.

Rootstocks are key, I think M7 is good for cold-hardiness and liking clay loam soils. There are definitely others that are good too, I'm getting my info from "The Backyard Orchardist" by Stella Otto. Honestly, I wouldn't bother with the drain tile and hauling in of soil. If you have apple trees that are doing fine, just dig a hole 2x the size of the rootball but no deeper, and backfill with native soil. It gets the tree used to normal soil, since the roots will eventually extend arther than your amendments, anyway. I do put compost on top of the normal soil and let the worms dig it in. Oh, and I add michorrizae to the planting hole (brand name Myke). The little organisms really help trees establish.

I'm in southern WI, close to Madison. I have quite heavy soil too, and my Honeycrisp is very happy. I also have a Zestar! (early season, crisp like Honeycrisp but good for applesauce too, and thicker skin.). My Fameuse and Liberty aren't bearing yet, but I've read good things. Fameuse is the only apple to come true from seed, which is cool. I don't know what apples are good for cider, sorry. I personally wouldn't plant a Red Delicious, but I understand wanting to keep the spouse happy. Wolf River is a fun variety, very large and great for pies. It's been a while since I had one, so I can't remember if it's tart...

Good luck with the planning and planting! It is a fun hobby to have, keeps me out of trouble, anyway!

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 2:22PM
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Did you do a drainage test? Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and across, fill with water, and let drain. Then fill with water again and see about how long it takes. I can't remember the exact number of hours, but I think if it drains in less than 8 hours your drainage is fine. I would look up the exact directions, but I've lent most of my books to a friend since I'm done planting for this spring.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 9:48PM
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Did you do a drainage test? Dig a hole about 1 foot deep and across, fill with water, and let drain. Then fill with water again and see about how long it takes. I can't remember the exact number of hours, but I think if it drains in less than 8 hours your drainage is fine. I would look up the exact directions, but I've lent most of my books to a friend since I'm done planting for this spring.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 9:52PM
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Sorry for the duplicate post, I must've hit a button twice by accident!

    Bookmark   May 28, 2012 at 10:04PM
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