Fedco Trees Tips for Renovating
Old Apple Trees
to download a PDF (1 MB) of this information.
Cut out dead branches and limbs anytime. Cut back cleanly to living
wood, but avoid cutting into it. In winter prune the entire tree
following the directions in this pamphlet or using a good book on
fruit tree pruning.
Remove competing trees and shrubs to let in light and reduce competition.
If the tree is in a heavily wooded spot, don’t cut out all
competing vegetation in the first year or you may stress the tree
with too much sun all at once.
Spread soil amendments (listed below) on the ground around the
drip line and several feet beyond. No need to spread close to the
10-15 lbs each:
Hi-cal lime (long-term calcium)
Colloidal phosphate (short-term calcium and phosphorus)
Azomite (long-term minerals and trace minerals)
Granite meal or greensand (for improved soil texture and potash)
Menafee humates (aids mineral and rock-powder breakdown)
5 Lbs: Greenstone (aids plants in nutrient uptake)
For building high levels of humus add 5 lbs each:
1/4 – 1/2 yd compost
Cover the amendments and compost with a 6-12" mulch of lawn
clippings, leaves or chipped "brush" which will smother
the sod, conserve moisture, prevent leaching, and provide a habitat
for soil organisms to break down the fertilizers.
The following article/information was published
by Michigan State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
Renovating Old, Abandoned
By Charles D. Kesner and Keith L. Lamkin
Department of Horticulture; County Extension Director, Emmet County,
Old, abandoned or semi-abandoned apple trees occur throughout
Michigan. Often the cultivars are very old and are no longer grown
commercially. Many of them, however, if properly managed, could
produce good fruit for use by homeowners for fresh eating or for
processing into applesauce, apple jelly, apple butter or cider.
When trees of desirable cultivars are near residences, people are
often interested in attempting to care for them so the fruit can
Often the old trees are 25 to 30 feet tall and have not been pruned
for many years. The average homeowner is simply not equipped to
spray and care for them, so the fruits produced are generally small,
diseased and severely damaged by insects. A tree that is reasonably
structurally sound may be renovated and brought back into production.
The trunk should not be severely rotted, and large lateral limbs
should not be hollow. Unsound trees can be successfully renovated
but they will not live as long.
Once the owner has decided that a particular tree or trees are
worth keeping, how can he/she bring the trees back into production
with quality fruit and, at the same time, reduce the tree size to
make them more manageable? In some cases, aesthetic value may also
be a consideration. The following renovation procedure is suggested.
An abandoned or semiabandoned apple tree is
generally very tall and very thick and contains a large number
of dead or dying limbs inside the canopy (Figure 1). Such
a tree is obviously unmanageable and its size needs to be
significantly reduced. Very severe cuts can be made without
doing permanent damage. Latent buds within the tree will produce
new, very vigorous limbs to replace old, weak ones.
Figure 1. The typical abandoned apple tree
is very tall with many weak and dead or dying interior limbs.
Study the main limb structure of the tree closely before
deciding where to make cuts. Try to locate some relatively
new water sprout-type of growth in the lower portion of the
tree that can be left to produce part of the new tree structure.
Water sprout growth is identified by very smooth bark that
indicates it is new growth that has occurred within the past
two to four years (Figure 2). Older limbs will have heavy,
scaly bark and generally should not be saved.
Figure 2. An unpruned, abandoned apple tree showing several
water sprouts (new growth within the past 2 to 4 years). Note
the smooth bark on these limbs. Older limbs have scaly bark.
Leave some of this young growth to begin the new tree structure.
Renovation is best done in early spring, usually in April. If
water sprout growth can be found in the lower areas of the tree,
remove all the old, large limbs about 8 to 12 inches above this
new growth (Figure 3). This is most easily accomplished with a chainsaw.
Undercut these large limbs slightly before removing them so that
they don't tear the bark severely when they fall. The old limbs
will generally be very large and heavy. Be careful that they do
not break off the shoots you intend to leave when they fall to the
ground. When making the severe cuts on old limbs, try to cut them
more or less perpendicular to the ground. Cuts that face upward
will collect and hold water from rainfall, causing ice damage in
winter and decay in summer. Paint these large cuts with white outdoor
latex paint within a few days to protect the wound from the weather.
Outdoor white latex paint is not toxic to the tree and seals moisture
out, preventing decay.
Figure 3. The first severe pruning of an
abandoned apple tree. Note that some newer water sprout growth
was left on this tree and large limb cuts were made 8 to 12
inches above the origin of these small branches (A). Also,
note that the terminal ends of the small branches have been
cut back infavor of more outward growing laterals (B).
Making the major limb cuts will generally remove a significant
portion of the old tree. The root system under such a tree is very
extensive and will produce much new top growth the first season,
so avoid fertilizing the tree the first season after cutting. Trim
back the shoots left on the main cut limbs so that new growth will
be forced outward. Usually this means cutting off the upright shoots
in favor of a lateral limb on the shoot (Figure 4).
Figure 4. A renovated tree two growing seasons after major
limbs were removed. Note cut made on upright growth to force
By the end of the first growing season, this severely pruned tree
will have produced large numbers of new, vigorous shoots. In the
second spring (usually April), most of these new shoots should be
removed, leaving only those in desirable locations that can be trained
outward. The shoots that are left as permanent limbs should then
be headed (the top portion removed) to a more lateral limb parallel
to the ground (Figure 5).
Figure 5. In the second spring, many small
limbs produced the first summer are removed, leaving only
the most desirable. Note that the upright portions of new
shoots denoted by dotted lines should be removed to prevent
the tree from becoming too tall.
During the second growing season after the severe pruning, very
vigorous new growth will again occur, producing a tree very similar
to that shown in Figure 6.
In April of the third growing season, many of the new shoots produced
during the second growing season should be thinned out, leaving
only the most desirable limbs chosen earlier. The limbs left should
also be tipped again to promote more lateral rather than upright
growth. Generally, a small crop of fruit is produced the third year.
Figure 6. By the spring of the third season, the tree has
now produced many new, vigorous branches and is capable of
producing a small crop of fruit. Note that many of the small
limbs left the first spring have developed to relatively large,
The new tree structure produced using this pruning method will
generally result in a tree 12 to 15 feet tall, or about half the
height of the original tree. All the growth on this new tree is
also quite vigorous and will produce good crops of large, high quality
fruit. The reduced tree size will also make the tree much easier
to spray and manage (Figure 7).
Each succeeding spring, remove some limbs and thin the growth
on permanent limbs to prevent the tree from getting too thick. The
shading that will result from underpinning will reduce fruit production
and cause weak growth in the inner portions of the tree.
Figure 7. A renovated tree after three full
growing seasons. Note the productive capacity of this "rebuilt"
tree. Also note where cuts have been made to force outward
rather than upright growth.
This system of renovating old apple trees is very severe but has
proven to be very successful in producing smaller trees with good
production of high quality fruit. These trees can also be maintained
relatively easily for many years.
MSU is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Institution. Cooperative
Extension Service programs are open to all without regard to race,
color, national origin, sex, or handicap. Issued in furtherance
of Cooperative Extension work in agriculture and home economics,
acts of May 8, and June 30,1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department
of Agriculture. W.J. Moline, Director, Cooperative Extension Service,
Michigan State University, E. Lansing, Ml 48824.
This information is for educational purposes only. Reference to
commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by
the Cooperative Extension Service or bias against those not mentioned.
This bulletin becomes public property upon publication and may be
reprinted verbatim as a separate or within another publication with
credit to MSU. Reprinting cannot be used to endorse or advertise
a commercial product or company.
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