Old fruit trees are prone to a host of problems, especially if they've been neglected or improperly pruned. If the tree doesn't have a strong structure, it can split or crack, becoming vulnerable to disease, insects and rot. Most fruit trees are relatively short-lived. While an oak can live for hundreds of years, fruit trees generally die after 30 to 50. You can't turn back the clock, but there is a lot you can do to restore and preserve an old tree's health. Begin a three-year renovation process in fall, when the tree is dormant.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- Long-handled pruning shears
- Short-handled pruning shears
- Pruning saw
Clear away underbrush, weeds and saplings in a circle at least 20 feet in diameter from the tree's trunk. This will reduce competition for nutrients from other plants and allow old roots to flourish. It also will increase air movement and light penetration in the tree's canopy, preventing fungus, mould and lichens from taking hold.
Examine the tree carefully, from top to bottom, to identify dead and diseased branches. Look for holes from boring insects, spongy areas on the bark, mould and fungus. Cut these branches and limbs away, using pruning shears for branches 3 inches or less in diameter, and a pruning saw for limbs larger than 3 inches.
Clip away suckers or shoots from the base of the trunk. These growths never will produce fruit and will sap the tree's vitality if you allow them to grow.
Mentally target branches that are crossing each other or rubbing, beginning at the top of the old tree's canopy and working your way down. This process of thinning the canopy should be done over a period of three years. Cut no more than one third of the limbs that need to be removed in any given year to reduce stress on the tree.
Cut one-third of the branches that need removal. Always prune entire limbs back to the trunk if possible. Cutting ends or parts of branches actually causes more trauma to the tree. Cut or saw at a 45-degree angle downward, leaving a small stub that will drain water instead of collecting it. Never cut limbs flat or flush with the trunk.
Spread mulch in a 3-foot-wide ring, 4 inches deep, 12 inches from the trunk of the tree. Mulch keeps weeds down, retains moisture and helps regulate soil temperature--all important factors in an old tree's health.
Tips and warnings
- Check the tree in late spring and look for new shoots and suckers that emerge. They are likely to show up in the top branches if you shortened the height of the tree the previous fall. Clip them off to encourage more light and air penetration in the tree's canopy and help the tree produce fruit on lower and inner branches.
- Resist the urge to zap old trees with fertiliser or excessive watering. Too much nitrogen in the soil will cause a lot of vegetative growth, especially if applied late in the year. The tree will not produce fruit and will be more susceptible to frost and cold damage.
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