The monster tree that got away

Moving into a new property with existing fruit trees can be very exciting, with the promise of ready-made fruit harvests outside the back door without having to plant trees and wait years for them to mature.

The reality is often quite different, as it often turns out you’re inheriting problem fruit trees. You know the ones – the “monster” trees that have been abandoned, neglected or just unloved, and they get a little wild.

Getting them back under control is possible but needs a bit of specialist care – we call it renovation pruning. As the name suggests, it’s all about bringing trees back into good repair and productivity.

How would you prune trees like these?

Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years
Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years

This example is actually a whole lot of monster trees in an organic orchard that was left unpruned for a few years. They were neglected for years and ended up crowded, tangled, and full of blackberries.

Here’s another typical example of a backyard fruit tree that got away:

In both cases the trees are still healthy, and so the good news is it’s completely possible to bring them back into production and make them manageable again, so if you’ve inherited some fruit trees that haven’t been cared for for some time, don’t despair.

Here’s how we’d approach the first example (you can modify these instructions to suit your own situation of course):

  1. Firstly, remove all the blackberries. This can be a challenge because blackberries love to regrow, but a combination of grubbing out the canes, cutting the rest very low, and if possible following up with sheep or goats, or mowing regularly should gradually get rid of them. We wouldn’t use poison on them around fruit trees, because it’s not good for the soil.
  2. Start pruning by removing any dead wood from the trees.
  3. Decide what shape of tree you’d ultimately like to achieve (e.g. ‘vase’ or ‘central leader’), and select the permanent limbs you’re going to keep in the tree to give you the best approximation of that shape.
  4. Remove limbs you don’t want.
  5. Reduce the height of the tree by pruning each retained permanent limb down to a lateral that is at the right height to become the new ‘leader’ of that limb.
  6. Now do the regular maintenance pruning job on each limb. Starting from the top and working down to the bottom of the limb, make a decision about how to treat each lateral (or side branch), which boils down to either leaving them alone, shortening them or removing them.

Here’s the same trees after the first year’s renovation pruning – the blackberries have started to be removed, suckers have been removed, some limbs have been removed, and some lateral growth shortened. They’re starting to look like fruit trees again!

Apple trees after the first year's renovation pruning
Apple trees after the first year’s renovation pruning

Renovation pruning has many challenges, including the fact that when you remove a large amount of wood you’re likely to stimulate the tree to grow a whole lot of new wood to replace it, often at the expense of growing fruit.

As we explain in our Pruning by Numbers ebook the way to minimise the shock to the tree and help keep it calm and fruitful is to create a renovation pruning plan over a number of years – the larger the tree, the longer it might take you to finally get it under control.

A backyard plum tree after the first year's renovation pruning
A backyard plum tree after the first year’s renovation pruning

How long is your fruit season?

One of the questions we were asked this week, is “how long can you stretch out your fruit season by planting the right varieties?”

Some very late season Lady Williams apples
Some very late season Lady Williams apples

Great question! A long season is something we’re constantly testing and aiming for, as it’s one of the best tools available to (1) increase food security by harvesting fruit for as long as possible, and (2) decreasing the risk of losing our food supply from environmental conditions, because when bad things (like hail) happen, they rarely affect all fruit crops the same way.

If you’re lucky (or well organised) enough to have some very late fruit varieties (e.g., Lady William or Sundowner apples, or Winter Nelis pears), you might still be picking or have fruit on the trees.

A late season Winter Nelis pear
A late season Winter Nelis pear

These very late varieties are an excellent way to stretch the season, particularly because some varieties (like Lady Williams, for example), will actually store quite well on the tree for weeks or months before they need picking (as long as you can protect them from the birds, of course!)

Right now at the start of May we’ve just finished picking the Pink Lady apples, but lots of growers in our district are still picking, and the Lady Williams aren’t ready yet.  

Extending the season has a couple of management consequences. For one thing, you need to pay attention for longer, and for another, the late varieties have different water needs, so it can be hard to keep them in mind.

It’s been (another) very dry summer here, and in fact we’ve only just had the first bit of rain for ages – which is welcome relief!

Poppy enjoying the novelty of drinking from a puddle!
Poppy enjoying the novelty of drinking from a puddle!

Even in a dry summer, you can usually still drastically cut back (or stop) irrigating your mature trees once you’ve finished picking the fruit from them (which is just one of the water-saving strategies we recommend in our short course How to Grow Fruit in a Drought.)

But it can be easy to forget that as long as your trees have fruit, they still need water. If the soil around your fruit trees is dry, make sure you keep the water up to them until the fruit is properly finished, and harvested.

And remember that young trees are a different case altogether, and should never be allowed to dry out while they still have leaves on them.

Apple variety delight

Don’t you just adore apples?

Organic Geeveston Fanny apples at market
Organic Geeveston Fanny apples at market

We’ve just enjoyed a brief trip to Tasmania, to visit fellow organic orchardists and friends Matt and Coreen from Our Mates Farm, amongst other things.

Certified organic spartan apples
Certified organic spartan apples

Being apple season, on the Apple Isle, we were of course surrounded by apples. We’re always on the lookout for locally grown, certified organic produce wherever we go, and to our great delight, we didn’t have too much trouble finding some.

The apple museum at Willie Smith's in Geeveston
The apple museum at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed in Grove

We also visited the apple museum at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed, in Grove. It’s probably a bit hard to read the poster explaining its history (try clicking on it to enlarge it), but the apple museum is very close to the old Grove Research and Demonstration Station, which was an important part of apple R&D in Australia.

It’s funded by local growers rather than the government these days, and it continues to house Australia’s biggest collection of heritage apple, quince and pear trees.

The most fun part is the amazing apple display in the museum. There’s space for more than 390 apples, and each year fresh specimens of the different varieties are put on show. It’s wonderful.

We resisted taking photos of ALL the varieties (it was tempting…) but restricted ourselves to (a) the varieties we’ve planted in our heritage apple orchard, (b) varieties we’ve heard of but never seen before, and (c) varieties whose names were just too cute to leave out!

Honestly, you couldn’t make these names up!

Apart from being fun to look at (if you’re apple nerds, like us), it’s also an important reference collection.

We only managed to find one of the heritage varieties that we’ll have for sale for the first time this year through Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery. Well, a version of it anyway (we’re selling Democrat tree and this is a slightly different cultivar called Democrat Early).

And we thought we were doing pretty well with 25 varieties of apples for sale in the nursery!

We’re especially chuffed that we’ve managed to have 18 different heritage varieties on offer in our first year, including some very unusual varities you may not have heard of, like Roundway Magnum Bonum, Bess Pool, and Elstar.

But the bar has definitely been set higher for us now, particularly as so many of these lesser known varieties look so delicious!

Hmm, wonder if we’ve got room for 390 different apple varieties….