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.

Harvesting rootstock trees

Back in August 2018 we tried an experiment to grow our own rootstock trees, in a technique called a stool bed, and the results are out – we’ve just done our first harvest!

Merv harvesting apple trees from Carr's Organic Fruit Tree Nursery stool bed
Merv harvesting apple trees from Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery stool bed

So, did it work?

Well, yes and no.  We have two different sorts of trees in the bed. The first is a semi-dwarfing apple, and they worked fantastically well. We planted just 10 rootstocks of a semi-dwarfing variety called MM102 – we think they’ll perfectly suit our customers.

From the initial 10 we layered into the stoolbed trench, we harvested more than 60 trees! And that’s just year 1. We fully expect to get more than that next year.

Apple rootstocks with lots of roots being heeled in
Apple rootstocks with lots of roots being heeled in

The other rootstock in the stoolbed are cherries, which are notoriously hard to grow from either seed or cutting, so stoolbeds are the traditional way of growing them.

An unsuccessful cherry rootstock from the stoolbed
An unsuccessful cherry rootstock from the stoolbed

We started last August by layering 20 cherry Mazzard rootstock trees, and while we also harvested more than 60 of these, they were much less successful, particularly in the root department.

For some (as yet unknown) reason, root development was very slow. Some trees had enough roots that we’re confident they’ll grow well, but some trees only had a couple of roots, and some had none at all!

Lots of the rootstock trees grew over-large, which makes harvesting them extremely difficult – if we didn’t have Merv’s expertise with his secateurs we would have struggled to get them out of the ground at all!

This excessive vigour is also possibly one of the reasons that roots failed to develop on some of the trees, as it seemed to be more of a problem on the larger trees.

Fingers crossed that next year’s crop of trees is smaller, and much rootier!