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revive ancient apple trees?

 
Landon Sunrich
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I have these two 90ish year old apple trees. All I can think to do is post some pictures and see what people think. I have very little Idea where to start. I watched some video, read some webpages, but this tree thing is new to me and I've never seen trees quite like this before, Most over grown trees I've seen as examples have been 40 year dwarfs and the like. These guys are massive and used to fruit very well. I did a half prune on one late last january or early last february. It is fruiting more than the other - which isn't saying much - it also recieves more light. This will be "tree one" Warning picture heavy thread.

Tree One ----->
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Landon Sunrich
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Best Fruit branch, which is right next to a not so good looking fruit branch. Also worst of the fungus and mosses
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Landon Sunrich
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Tree Two: Has not been pruned in at least 10 years - perhaps more. It literally takes me three pictures to go from trunk to tip of this tree
There is something like 3 tiny fruits on it


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Landon Sunrich
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Both trees (especially tree one) are pretty gnarly


More pics easily available upon request
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Craig Dobbelyu
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The thing to look for is whether there is a graft line near the bottom of the tree. If so you need to make all cuts above that line or you'll propagate the rootstock and not the fruit stock. There may be a faint line where the bark creates a seem joining the two pieces. On older trees, sometimes one stock grows faster then the other so the graft looks like a restriction point where one side is larger in diameter than the other.

I've got that exact problem too. I've got a lot of dead/bad wood up in a tall tall tall apple tree. The apples are always cat-faced and fall before ripening. They are also so high up that even a ladder is useless in harvesting them. My plan is to cut back to the main branches around head height, leaving as many branches attached to them as possible. At that point I'm going to let the tree figure itself out. Once all the bad wood is gone and the area around the dripline is replanted with beneficial plants, my work is done. The tree should be all good.

I did this with a few others about 2 years ago and I'm expecting fruit in great numbers next year. They looked really bad for the first year but they all came back really nice. There is a tendency to want to cut all the little sucker branches. Don't. The tree will do that part on it's own. And it will look nicer too
 
Adam Klaus
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I have a similar situtation, except I have about 50 trees that age. It is a ton of work! What I reccomend is having a multi-year plan, it is too hard on the tree to do it all at once. I would do one step every six months to a year apart. Remember that you can cut dead wood anytime it is convenient. Cutting green wood in summer is preferable because it will not cause an explosion of vegetative vigor. Summer pruning encourages flowering bud development, which is what you would want to do. Here are the basic steps I have followed over the last seven years, with good results.

-First things first, cut out all the dead wood. This is by far the ugliest work, as dead applewood is so tough and hard.
-There are also branches that may be technically not dead yet, but they are the living dead. Better to cut them off now, cut back to healthy tissue. Cutting that stuff out now makes it a lot easier to cut since it is still at least partially green.
-Open up the canopy by cutting out vertical growth that is purely vegetative. It is interesting how some branches, generally suckers, produce no flowers and just block out light for the rest of the tree.
-Finally, thin branches, even healthy ones, as needed to balance the tree. You are aiming for even light penetration, which will increase the number of flowering buds.

There is likely a huge mineral deficiency from 80 years of apple crops, so I would take a soil sample under each tree. I needed to add phosphorous, boron, potassium, zinc, copper. Tree cant make fruit without the necessary soil minerals. Soil testing is a very useful tool.

It is a huge amount of work but very satisfying. The trees will thank you for your efforts!
 
Landon Sunrich
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Thanks for you're replies! You've basically reiderated what I read in Leonard Wickenden's 1954 book 'Gardening with Nature'. I don't know if a digital copy of this great book has made it to the interwebs yet. but I will quote it here. I have a few questions still as well (alright perhaps more than a few. I'm new to this tree/internet forum thing)

It begins:

"pruning in any case should be delayed until leaves have fallen and trees are dormant. While waiting for that to happen you can start improving your soil"

So I've been delaying pruning anything major because of this. It had occurred to me to prune as the tree was flowering. But I haven't. I would be open to starting to prune now if there is a general consensus that summer pruning of vegetative growth is the way to go. In the mean time I've set up my goose pond under the trees and moved it all around the root base in a 30 foot circle in an effort to at least start providing the tree more phosphorous. Also - these trees where very seldom harvested by anyone but the crows. So many if not most of the apples have sat and rotted under the tree. I don't move the grass around these trees so everything has been managed 'naturally' for at least 6 years. Prior to that lawn mowings where on high settings and infrequent

"as soon as leaves have fallen get to work with you're saw the first thing to do is cut out dead wood" ... "during the following spring and summer, get to know your trees. Notice those in which growth is too dense or which are too tall, or which have boughs that are so long that they throw the tree out of balance or that interfere with one an other"... "When, once more, the leaves have fallen, get ready to prune"

This is where I am at now and why I'm asking so many questions I have lots of observations but am somewhat unsure how to interpret them.

He continues...

"This second pruning will have the following objectives:

1) To thin the tree to let in more air and sun light
2) to shorten the branches that rise to high or that spread to far or that cross each other and rub
3) To produce a lower top in those trees whose trunks are relatively bare but who's upper branches seem to be trying to reach to the clouds
4) To shape the tree so as to bring it into balance and improve its appearance "

My primary questions arise from #2. If you look at that first picture (I may have to go take some more provided you are willing to bear with me) I basically have an apple tree growing on top of my apple tree. It seems vigorous but I am also unsure if its too high and will never fruit.

Again Wickenden

"Caution should be the order of the day. Prune too little rather than too much, particularly with older trees. Be satisfied during this second fall, to make a beginning only. This applies especially to objectives 3 and 4. The process of lowing the top of the tree is one that should be done gradually, sometimes over a period of three or four years. Otherwise, a long barren period may result. When, however a tree has many lusty lower branches and or sprouts, it is safe to cut back the top branches more rapidly.

An indication of the vigor of trees may be found in the presence of water sprouts and suckers. The former are succulent shoots which sprout from a limb or trunk of a tree; the latter are similar growth rising from around the base of the trunk. If tour old trees show many strong growths of this kind it is a sign that they are still lusty and have good roots"



I am unsure about the 'vigor' of my tree as I have little to reference as comparison. It seems like the lower branches are all pretty old and feeble though while the upper 'tree on top of a tree' seems to be quite lusty. I think I do have a fair amount of water sprouts but not suckers. Again I can take more pictures (or video perhaps?)

Finally. I am almost certain that my trees are not grafted to rootstock. There are VERTICAL fold running down the main trunk all the way down to the roots. No signs of being grafted that I can see at all. I am also really needing a bit more of an explanation on "dead wood" obvious dead branches should be taken out. But more of the main limbs on these trees have dead rotted spots that seem to have healed over by themselves and all of the growth seems to occur on them.

I have here (for emphasis) two pictures of a neighboring apple tree of similar age that has been better maintained.

Also needed: Someone to hold the ladder




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Dead wood?
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South facing branch
 
Adam Klaus
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By dead wood, I mean branches that are 100% dead all the way through. Those ones should get cut off. It does not matter what season you do this in, as they are totally dead and have no capillary connection to the tree. The rotted knots and such are fine, they will continue to heal over. Their healing will be sped up by caring for the tree in general.

I am suprised by the advice about fall pruning. My understanding is that you want to give the pruning cuts ample time to heal and harden off before winter cold could potentially damage the tree through these cuts. For dead wood, it wouldnt matter. For green wood, I always thought that you want to prune in summer or winter, not spring or fall. That's just what I know.

With point #2 above, I would be cautious. When you try to shorten tall branches, you will hormonally encourage a proliferation of watershoots at the site of the cut. I would not try to shorten branches. As you remove dead wood, and cut out watershoots at their base, the increase in light penetration will promote a renewal of branches lower down on the tree. From my experience, I would say to never cut a tall branch that is growing vertically, part way. If you want it gone, cut it off at its base, where it joins a lower branch. This would be part of the third step I described above.

Your tree may in fact be grafted. Some grafts are well matched in terms of vigor between rootstock and scion, so that after all the decades there is absolutely no physical indication of the tree origionally being grafted. Many of my trees have this appearance, despite clearly being Jonathans. Its one of those things where oftentimes appearances can be decieving.

Invest in two things- a good japanese pruning saw, like this- http://www.groworganic.com/samurai-ichiban-pruning-saw.html
and an aluminum orchard ladder, 12' tall with tripod leg. You'll thank me later for both reccomendations.
For a lot of your pruning I reccomend climbing the tree rather than using a ladder. Always felt a lot safer to me. Knock on wood...

Oh, and FWIW, I use the terms waterspout to describe any vertical growth that is nearly or completely devoid of flowering buds.

Hope that helps, good luck!
 
Landon Sunrich
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Adam Klaus wrote:

There is likely a huge mineral deficiency from 80 years of apple crops, so I would take a soil sample under each tree. I needed to add phosphorous, boron, potassium, zinc, copper. Tree cant make fruit without the necessary soil minerals. Soil testing is a very useful tool.


I unfortunately cannot afford soil testing there used to be cheep/free soil testing available in my state but I believe this has gone by the wayside (anyone who wants to prove me wrong please send links!!)

What I did do is spread 5 gallons of wood ash in concentric rings around the Tree One at 5, 10, an 20 foot distances from the trunk and then water them in. I have 5 more gallons of ash ready to go but I'm holding off (I really don't want to screw up)

I'm an avid tree climber with a hell of a pull saw. I don't think another later is in my future though. I have just about one for every job, though some are janky PoS
I am brainstorming things worth spending money on though so thanks again for the advice.

I like your argument. I don't know if I want my cuts healing over when the rains are just starting - especially with all the fungus.
 
Adam Klaus
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Landon Sunrich wrote:
I unfortunately cannot afford soil testing there used to be cheep/free soil testing available in my state but I believe this has gone by the wayside (anyone who wants to prove me wrong please send links!!)

What I did do is spread 5 gallons of wood ash in concentric rings around the Tree One at 5, 10, an 20 foot distances from the trunk and then water them in. I have 5 more gallons of ash ready to go but I'm holding off (I really don't want to screw up)


$20 per sample, LoganLabs.com Do it. Money well worth spending. I would not add any woodash until you know what the tree really needs. From the hip I would guess phosphorous, calcium, boron. But dont trust me, spend the $20. I just sent off four samples from different areas of the farm last week.

Sounds like you are well-equipped. I love janky old ladders! I finally scored an aluminum one at a yard sale a few years back, but definitely wouldnt spend the money on a new one. Until then it was half broken, second hand, wooden orchard ladders. A true menace to bodily safety. Maybe that's why I like tree climbing better.
 
Brian Hamalainen
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Landon: We have several ancient apple trees on our land too. They probably grew up with the house which was built in 1905. One produces lots of so-so tasting scabby apples and the other main one produces only a small handful of very tasty apples.

One of my old friends, who has been successfully doing Permaculture on his land for 35 years, suggested we spread a heavy layer of woodchip mulch inoculated with mushroom stock around the trees, out to the diameter of the branch tips. The way he put it was that his plain mulched trees did twice as good as his unmulched controls and the mushroom mulched trees did three times better than his unmulched controls. That was fairly consistant across many species of fruit trees of many varying ages. One that note, I just started a bucket of Oyster Mushroom stock from extra bits from my kit.

Once you are comfortable with me knowing where you live, I have a wood chipper/shredder, a chainsaw, a work truck, and a bunch of misc tools that might be able to become available for use.
 
Matu Collins
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Lots of good advice here. The only branches I would be sure to prune now are large ones that rub together in the wind. This makes an open wound that keeps reopening.
 
Michael Newby
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Hi Landon, nice old trees you have there.

First off, let me put my credentials out there so you know where I'm coming from: I'm an ISA Cert. Arborist of 6 years with an operating tree service in an area with many old neglected homestead orchards and I've also been fortunate enough to work on some of John Muir's orchard trees at his Martinez house.

With that said I'll explain to you how I go about rehabilitating a neglected old fruit tree then how I go about maintaining it once I've got it back to good form and health.

One of the most important starts is to determine the vigor of the tree because this determines how heavy handed you can be with your pruning and how much planning you have to do. The tell-tale signs are vertical suckers/sprouts and the distance between the growth points on the young (1-2 year old) branches - a general rule of thumb is the more distance the more vigor. You can also look at how rapidly the tree is trying to close over it's wounds. I would say your trees have decent vigor but not great - about what you could hope for with unmanaged 90+ yr old trees. That kind of vigor will let you prune up to about a third of the canopy but only if done right! Less is more if you have any doubts at all while pruning a tree.

Here's the breakdown of how much to prune vs. vigor that I use with most fruit trees:

Very low vigor: minimal, completely dead or broken branches only - on broken branches cut to the next side shoot behind the break if possible, on dead wood cut without damaging any live wood. Focus on the soil and root zone to increase vigor before taking on canopy restoration. Identify the reasons for low vigor and try to correct - I usually asses the growing conditions first, then look for signs of disease.

Low vigor: dead wood and 10-15% of overall canopy pruned - first I focus on large broken branches, then on cutting back over-weighted outstretched branches that are likely to break under fruit or snow weight. If I think it can handle it, I'll move on to correcting defects like rubbing branches or branches running from one side of the tree through the canopy to the other side. It's rare I make it very far in the corrective pruning on year one with a low vigor tree.

Average vigor: dead wood and 25-30% of overall canopy pruned with the same focus order. If all corrective cuts have been made then start working on establishing the form you want - for maximum fruit yield you want to prune for light penetration to all parts of the tree and then work to train new growth to fill in any voids in the canopy while still maintaining filtered light through the whole tree.

High vigor (young trees or well cared for older trees): Same as average vigor but I'll go up to 50% canopy reduction, especially if I know I'll be back to care for the tree again to deal with the new growth that will be stimulated.

Usually after a few years of holistic care you can nurse a low vigor tree that isn't terribly diseased back to at least average vigor.

As far as when to prune goes, with low vigor trees aim for the winter dormancy, I like late winter before the begin to swell. The more vigorous the tree the less your timing matters but avoid pruning during flowering or fruit set if you're worried about the yield. Pruning in the spring can help cut back on the number of water-sprouts you get after heavy pruning on a vigorous tree.
 
Adam Colbenson
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Call a nearby Tree Care company who employs a Board Certified Master Arborist and have them send out a consultant to assess your apple trees and your desire for the trees. Then either proceed with a work agreement with them, or hire someone less educated, or do nothing. Just don't prune them yourself.
 
Matu Collins
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I love the idea of getting advice from a certified arborist. I was able to do this for free from a tree service company I buy mulch from. They had different ideas about the value of a couple of my trees than I do but the info was helpful. I have two apple trees that probably will never produce a lot of apples so I "should" cut them down (their opinion) but I enjoy the shade and the many many birds who use them for habitat and food. I appreciate their part in the water cycle and microclimates of my property. Perhaps they have a relationship with fungus underground. I may replace them some day but until then I am happy to keep my unproductive trees.

What is the concern with someone pruning their own trees? I would rather learn the skills myself than hire someone. Even if I make mistakes, I'm learning. Many of us have no extra money to hire people, so we gain the skills. So valuable in the long run.
 
Adam Colbenson
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I agree that learning these skills for yourself is a great asset. But consider the risks to yourself. Making a mistake in a high angle situation can lead to injury or death to yourself, or massive health problems to the trees. Please climb per OSHA standards for your own sake and prune per Anzi standards for the trees sake. Most people don't know these standards or have the equipment or skills to do this successfully. Those arborists who only want to remove the trees are only out to optimize profit. Disregard them. Your trees are valuable, and so are you! Adam
 
Patrick Mann
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My question is what are you trying to achieve? Do you want to maintain an old tree primarily as habitat for birds, insects, etc.? Then just remove dead or diseased limbs and focus on improving the soil around the tree.
Do you want to preserve an heirloom variety? Then graft from this tree onto some new rootstock and eventually replace the tree.
Are you simply looking for production of quality fruit? Then just replace the tree.

If you have enough space I'd plant new trees and perform only minimal maintenance on the old trees.
 
Dale Hodgins
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Adam Colbenson wrote:Call a nearby Tree Care company who employs a Board Certified Master Arborist and have them send out a consultant to assess your apple trees and your desire for the trees. Then either proceed with a work agreement with them, or hire someone less educated, or do nothing. Just don't prune them yourself.


I can just about guarantee that whatever happens to these trees will be done by Landon. He's a very do it yourself sort of guy. I have pruned hundreds of trees and have always made better money on pruning jobs than on taking them right down. When pruning, I am only competing with others who do that. When leaving a stump, I'm competing with every guy in town who has a wood stove and a dream. Some of the best and worst maintained trees that I see, are maintained by the owners.
 
ted agens
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You should really try and get some kind of soil testing done. Old apple trees and often surrounded by old pesticides that contain large amounts of lead and arsenic. That stuff lasts for centuries. So you may put a lot of effort into the job only to get tainted fruit. If the stuff does exist, it will effect anything else you plant there as well.

I hope you do not have it. It is very common this side of the country. A lot of housing developments have been built over old apple and other orchards and the new homeowners are finding large amounts of lead and arsenic in their soil.
 
Ann Torrence
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Is the fruit exceptional? Or are you just wanting to care for them as venerable specimens? If the fruit is worthy (tasty and not disease prone), I would take some scion wood from the best fruiting branches this winter and graft them to "back up" the tree, preferably on some manageable rootstock appropriate for your climate. Those trees are going to be an annual pruning challenge even if you rehabbed them. I would honor and keep them, but not try to push them back into production, especially if the fruit was anything less than magnificent. There are plenty of great fruits out there, I'd let these grand old dames age into graceful retirement.
 
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