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

Pruning in spring?

We’ve been getting lots of good pruning questions lately, so we thought we’d share some with you today.

Pruning plums that have started to flower - a good idea?
Pruning plums that have started to flower – a good idea?

1. Is it too late to prune now?
No, is the short answer.

Generally we prune most fruit trees (apples, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums) in winter while the trees are dormant, but as with all aspects of pruning – there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do, just cuts and consequences.

So, what are the likely consequences of pruning in late winter/early spring?

Pruning in winter encourages a strong growth response in the trees, and the later you prune the less the tree is likely to grow in response. If your trees have already broken dormancy when you prune them, you’ll be wasting some of the energy they will have already put into growth. But that may be better than leaving them completely un-pruned.

2. What’s the difference between a heading cut, and a thinning cut?
At the end of every branch or lateral (smaller side-branch) is an ‘apical’ or ‘terminal’ bud, and it releases a hormone that suppresses the growth of the buds below it. Any time you make a cut that removes the apical bud it’s called a ‘heading’ cut, and therefore the effect of a heading cut is to create branching. This is a very stimulating type of cut, as usually the 2 or 3 buds immediately below the cut will start to grow.

2 year old cherry tree responding to heading cuts

On the other hand, if you make a pruning cut back to a lateral, but leave the lateral intact – i.e. leave its apical bud in place, that’s called a ‘thinning’ cut.

This is a less stimulating type of cut, and is a good way to remove some wood from the tree without creating branching.

3. Should you remove all growth going into the middle of the tree?
Large branches that are going into the middle of the tree, especially high up in the tree, can create shading over the lower branches, and should usually be removed.

Very hairy fruit trees that need some central growth removed
Very hairy fruit trees that need some central growth removed

If there are a lot of large branches to remove, it’s a good idea to do it over a few years rather than all at once, because trees will try to replace all the wood you remove from them, and the aim is to keep the trees in balance between producing wood, and producing fruit, therefore aim to remove as little wood as needed each year, to create the shape you want.

However, small branches (or laterals) that are going into the middle of the tree usually do not need removing, and in fact can be very useful fruit-bearing wood.

In fact, removing all laterals that go into the middle of the tree is one of those “rules” that can end up doing quite a bit of damage to your tree, as it’s easy to create long bare patches on your limbs by removing these laterals, particularly low down in the tree where it’s easy to reach them. Those bare patches become wasted real estate, as you’ve effectively removed all the fruit growing wood – it’s one of the rookie mistakes we help you avoid in our Pruning Mature Fruit Trees short course.

How to Plant a Fruit Tree

It’s nitty gritty time! Time to get on the end of a shovel, dig a hole, and plant your fruit tree.

Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree
Digging a hole to plant a fruit tree

We often see fruit trees tied to elaborate staking arrangements, but if you plant them the right way, there’s no need for stakes at all, your tree should be totally self-supporting.

Let’s assume you’ve already chosen the right site for your trees, and have done some earlier soil preparation e.g., planted a green manure crop, dug in some compost or manure, or even deep ripped the site.

If you planted a green manure crop, ideally you will have dug it back into the soil a week or two before you plan to plant your trees. If not, it’s best to just cut and drop the plants on the surface of the ground, rather than dig in the green manure just prior to planting your tree, as the green manure will often decompose quickly in the ground, and can create quite a bit of heat, which is not good for your young tree’s roots. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t done any soil prep at all – it’s best to get the tree in the ground asap, and then work on the soil later.

It’s great if you can dip the tree’s roots in an inoculant of some sort to populate the roots with lots of good microbes (e.g., bacteria and fungi) that will help the tree get its nutrition as it grows.

Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew
Hugh stirring a lovely inoculant brew

We often use compost tea, or it’s also possible to buy ready-made inoculants, but unfortunately they usually come in industrial quantities.

Next, dig a hole! If you’ve done any soil prep before, the hole only needs to be big enough to accommodate the roots of your tree (and it’s fine to cut the roots back a bit to fit the hole, or to remove any damaged roots). The hole should be deep enough that when the tree is planted it will be at the level it was in the nursery.

A tree in the hole waiting to plant
A tree in the hole waiting to plant

If drainage is an issue, mound the soil up a bit and plant into this, to make sure that any heavy rainfall will be able to drain away from the roots, especially if you’re planting your tree in heavy clay. 

Add any amendments that you’re using, and mix a bit of soil back in.

Now position the tree in the hole so it’s upright, and hold it while you back-fill a few shovels of soil over the roots. Make sure the soil fills the gaps between the roots, and then carefully but firmly tamp the soil down around the roots. Now finish back-filling the hole.

In most situations you don’t need to water the tree in, unless you’re experiencing very dry soil conditions when you plant.

And finally, prune your tree!

A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree
A freshly planted (and pruned) cherry tree

Planting is a pretty simple process, though there are a few extra things to consider if you haven’t done any prior soil prep, you’re planting into heavy clay or very sandy soil, or are planting into a heavily weeded or pastured area without doing any soil prep, so we do go into quite a bit more detail about tree planting in the Planting Young Fruit Trees short course.

New fruit trees are a great investment in your garden and your future food security, and will be the beginning of a journey of exploration as you get to know your new tree, and learn how it performs in the location, your climate, and of course the level of care you give it!

Happy planting!