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Orchard Work Top Fruit Pruning

Mature Apple Tree: Restoration Pruning

Here’s how I went about the first phase of restorative pruning on a mature apple three that has been sadly neglected for a few years.

After a few years of being left to its own devices, this rather lovely mature tree was definitely in need of a bit of care and attention.

One of the plots on our allotment site was taken on last year after a few years of being left to fall into disrepair. This old apple tree – cultivar unknown, but possibly ‘Discovery’ or something very similar, based on the apple I sampled last autumn – had likewise been left to grow unchecked for a few years, and as a result has become rather badly un-balanced.

As you can see from the pic above, the huge majority of the tree’s growth was off to one side – there are hardly any branches growing towards the houses at the back – giving it a very un-balanced structure. And just out of shot to the right, there’s a large Cupressus × leylandii, which looks to have been pollarded a year or three ago, presumably from a much greater size. In previous seasons, this would have blocked a lot the of the south-facing light from the apple tree, causing it to stretch out towards the North-west in search of illumination.

The tree must be finding enough light for fruiting though, as it was highly productive last year; the branches were groaning with apples to the extent that the lower ones were dragging on the floor by Autumn. (We’re going to be doing some thinning in June this year, to help address that problem this season).

A closer view shows the amount of congestion in the fruiting zone; a fair few of those branches were dead or damaged and needed to be removed.

The new plot holders are professional child minders, who are developing the plot to the point where they can use it as an essential part of their outdoor activity programme. Their main concern is obviously the safety of their charges, and so they asked me to remove the large branch on the lower-left, to reduce the risk of eye or head-injury to high-speed toddlers. (Also, given the likelihood of kiddies climbing or swinging on that branch, the risk of the tree toppling if its roots gave way…)

It didn’t take long to cut back the outermost branches with loppers, and then rough-cut the main branch back to about 40cm or so from the trunk, using a bow-saw. After that, I switched to a pruning saw and made an upward cut to the bottom of the branch: around 10cm out from the collar, cutting around a quarter of the way through. I then took the branch off as close to the collar as possible (not wanting to encourage re-growth from this part of the tree, I didn’t use a Dutch cut that would have left more buds on the underside of the stub) with a smooth run of saw cuts.

Mindful of the general adage that you shouldn’t remove much more than 20%-25% of a mature tree in one session, I then carefully thinned out the more congested sections of the tree’s fruiting zones. Focusing on any damaged or dead wood that might harbour or provide access for disease pathogens, I was able to remove just enough material to bring it up to 25%. Ideally I would have liked to thin the congested growth out a bit more, but I didn’t want to risk shocking the tree into excessive re-growth of watersprouts this spring. That’s a job to re-visit next year.

Here’s the tree after pruning:

With the lower branch removed, the tree already looks like it’s better balanced and less likely to topple.

I hope you’ll agree that this lovely old tree now looks a lot less unbalanced, and although there are still a few low-dipping branches on the left-hand side, if they become a problem they can always be re-assessed at a later date.

Meanwhile, judging by the number of potential fruit buds on the tree there’s a good chance – weather allowing – of another bumper harvest this year. Fingers crossed.

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