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Reviving Your Orchard: A Guide to Pruning Old Apple Trees

It’s easy to procrastinate when there’s a need for pruning old apple trees. Even in a backyard orchard with maybe a half-dozen trees, there’s a lot of work in shaping things up.

But pruning old apple trees improves the health of the orchard which, in turn, boosts apple yields. Read on for some tips for reviving your apple orchard with smart pruning to ensure your trees’ continued health, and your continued enjoyment of their bounty.

An orchard of mature. older aple trees. Pruning old apple trees means you can bring new life to an apple orchard.

Developing a Plan for Pruning Old Apple Trees

As a first step in pruning old apple trees, you’ll need to assess the overall condition of your orchard. If it’s been neglected for a long time, you’ll find that the tops of trees throughout the orchard have a dense network of overlapping branches.

Those overlapping branches are shading lower sections of the tree, limiting apple yield and compromising the trees’ overall health.

You’ll also likely find a proliferation of suckers — stems that grow from the base and roots of trees — across your orchard. And you’ll almost certainly find water sprouts — similar to suckers, but growing from the sides and branches of the tree — that you’ll need to address.

An old apple tree that with lots of smaller branches.

Removing Suckers and Water Sprouts From Apple Trees

Removing suckers and water sprouts is part of pruning old apple trees, and it’s best not to wait to do it. Take steps to remove them as soon as you notice them, no matter what time of year.

Removing suckers and water sprouts is crucial because they rarely, if ever, grow to produce any fruit. Instead, they take resources away from your trees’ productive growth.

‘Opening up’ Your Apple Trees

In addition to taking quick action against suckers and water sprouts, the major focus of pruning old apple trees should be to ‘open up’ the trees to sunlight and air circulation. Read on for more information on how and where to make effective cuts as you work on pruning old apple trees.

Types of Pruning Cuts

As you consider pruning old apple trees, another goal beyond opening them to air and sunlight will be limiting height to boost production and facilitate harvesting. And, of course, you’ll want to remove any diseased or otherwise problematic branches.

As you reshape your orchard through pruning old apple trees, you’ll be making mostly “thinning cuts.” You may also need to use “heading cuts” in some limited circumstances.

Thinning Cuts

Thinning cuts are the pruning decisions you’ll make to open up your old apple trees. You’ll be dealing with all kinds of branches, from thin shoots that won’t require anything more than a pair of pruning scissors to remove, to large branches that will have to be sawn off the tree.

In making thinning cuts, get rid of limbs that are damaged, rubbing against each other, or crisscrossing. Step back from the tree occasionally to ensure that you’re opening it up evenly.

Heading Cuts

An old apple tree with large branches removed.

Unless your trees have a lot of damaged or misshapen limbs that have been removed with thinning cuts, you may not need to use heading cuts as a strategy for pruning old apple trees.

Heading cuts are cuts made on major branches to stimulate the growth of new branches. So, unless prior pruning has left your tree with unsightly gaps, you likely won’t need to worry about heading cuts.

Deciding Where to Make Pruning Cuts

In pruning old apple trees to shape up your orchard, it’s a good idea to maintain older apple trees at 16 to 20 feet tall.

If your trees are significantly taller, plan on getting them into that range. But do the work over a matter of at least a few years. Don’t remove more than a third of the tree’s excess height in any single year.

Shaping the crown of your tree is as much art as science, but a good guide for the work is to ensure that the top branches are shorter than branches in the tree’s midsection. Another tip is to target branches in the crown with old, scaly bark, leaving behind the healthier glossy branches.

Pruning Interior Branches

As you move down the tree, your focus for pruning should be ensuring a strong framework by removing any vertical or horizontal branches. Vertical branches are weak and not fruitful. Horizontal branches won’t be able to support a heavy fruit load.

At the end of your pruning, your trees should be left with branches that extend from the trunk at a 60-degree angle — the 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock positions on a clock face.

Tools for Pruning Old Apple Trees

Before you get too deep into contemplating the work of pruning old apple trees, you’ll need to be sure to have the proper tools. Effective pruning of old apple trees will require a variety of tools for handling various sizes of branches and limbs.

A ladder leaning into an old apple tree.

Read on for a quick introduction into the tools you’ll want to have on hand for pruning old apple trees.

Pole Pruner

Working with old apple trees, you’ll find yourself needing to prune branches as high as 20 feet. While a ladder could get you to many of those branches, a pole pruner is indispensable for pruning old apple trees.

Pole pruners use either a squeezing or scissoring motion to cut branches. Mounted on a pole to extend their reach, pole pruners are a great and safe way to get rid of smaller branches high up in your apple trees.

Pole Saws

If you need to prune high branches that are more than a couple of inches thick, you’ll need a pole saw. Because they require use of a sawing motion, pole saws are more difficult to use than pole pruners, but they will be able to handle limbs as thick as 8 to 10 inches.

Pruning Saws

Working closer to the ground, pruning saws are a primary tool for shaping up old apple trees. To do the most effective job, you may need more than one pruning saw.

For example, if you’ll be trimming branches up to 3 inches in diameter, using a curved, fine-toothed pruning saw will be your easiest option. For larger branches, a course-toothed pruning saw will provide the quickest solution.

Hand Pruners

Man using hand pruners to prune an apple tree.

There are a variety of hand pruners, each designed for a specific task, that can help you do a professional-quality job when pruning old apple trees.

Bypass pruners, for example, are great for branches of a half-inch diameter or less, and they won’t damage live wood.

On the other end of the scale are loppers, long-handled pruners that provide leverage and reach to handle branches up to 2.5 inches in diameter.

In between are anvil pruners, good for cutting dead wood; ratchet pruners designed for people with arthritic or small hands, and double-cut pruners with blades that can handle both living branches and dead wood.

Tripod Ladder

It’s neither advisable, nor in most cases even possible, to climb into the top branches of an old apple tree for pruning. You’ll need a ladder to get you close enough to those branches to get the job done.

Luckily, a tripod ladder, sometimes called an orchard ladder, is designed specifically for that work. Orchard ladders feature non-slip rungs that taper narrower and narrower with the height of the ladder to provide effective access to the tree.

The ladder is supported by a single leg that can fit into narrow spaces in the interior of the tree while still providing adequate support for the user.

Pruning Old Apple Trees Frequently Asked Questions

As you take a closer look at pruning old apple trees, you may develop some detailed questions. Read on for answers to some things you may be pondering.

Apples growing on branches of an old apple tree.

When is the best time to prune old apple trees?

Deciding what time is best for pruning old apple trees in your orchard depends on your goals. There are good reasons for choosing to prune apple trees in almost every season, with fall as a notable exception.

Winter pruning

Winter is an excellent time for pruning old apple trees, as long as you wait until late in the season. Pruning your trees too early in winter will subject them to a long period of cold weather, which will make it harder for pruning cuts to heal.

On the other hand, pruning in late winter will mean your trees will soon be taking advantage of the sunshine and warmer temperatures of early spring, ensuring fast healing of your pruning cuts.

Also, removing problem areas of your tree in late winter will ensure that the energy imparted by spring weather will be focused on the most vigorous areas of your trees.

Another reason to prune your apple trees in winter is that the leaves and fruit will have dropped, giving you a clear view and making it easier to plan your pruning cuts.

An orchard of old apple trees that are in need of pruning.

Spring pruning

Even though your trees will be actively growing in the spring, there is a case to be made for pruning at that time. For one thing, it’s easy to identify branches that didn’t survive the winter and need to be removed.

One caution for pruning old apple trees in spring is not to do it as the trees are blossoming. Pruning at blossom time can facilitate the spread of fire blight, a disease that can severely damage apple trees.

Summer pruning

If your goal for pruning old apple trees is to get larger trees back to a more manageable size, summer is a good time. The growth of your apple trees will have slowed, so cuts you make will be more effective.

Summer is also an opportune time to prune any problematic new growth such as crisscrossed branches.

Fall pruning

Fall is not a time for pruning old apple trees. As in winter, fall pruning can subject your apple trees to a long period of weather not conducive to quick healing of pruning cuts.

How much of an old apple tree can be pruned away?

One of the dangers of pruning old apple trees is that cutting too much can quite literally kill the tree. Removing too many branches, which might understandably be a temptation with an old and gnarled tree, will severely — perhaps catastrophically — limit the tree’s ability to take up and use nutrients.

A good rule is to limit pruning to 20% of an apple tree’s canopy per year. Following that rule will mean you’ll have nearly fully restructured trees in your orchard within four years.

How long should it take to prune a neglected orchard back into shape?

Your answer to this question will depend on the size of your orchard. If you have a large orchard, you may not want to tackle pruning every tree every year, and that’s OK. As long as your pruning keeps your trees healthy and productive, just enjoy the progress you make annually.

In the end, you should consider pruning an older orchard to be a years-long endeavor as you commit to doing it deliberately and carefully.

For more guidance, Minneopa Orchards offers plenty of help for pruning apple trees.

Wrapping up Reviving Your Apple Orchard With Pruning

A birdhouse hanging in the branches of an old apple tree growing red apples.

Now that you’ve learned about pruning old apple trees, you’re ready to get to work when the time is right. Before you do, though, take a look at Minneopa Orchards for more help with growing and caring for apple trees.

You’ll also find suggestions for storing, processing and cooking the fruits of your labor at Minneopa Orchards. And if you’d like to visit other apple orchards for ideas, you’ll also find online help at Minneopa Orchards.