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What to do with an unproductive apple tree--use as a trellis & hope it produces, or plant a new one?  RSS feed

 
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5 years ago we planted a Braeburn apple. It came with apples already on it, and was already a good size at 6 feet tall. The next year it made no apples. The year after that, it had two blossoms, which the deer ate. The year after that, it did nothing. Then this year it didn't even bloom. The first two years I didn't prune it, other than to trim the top. Then I let my mom prune it last year, and she pruned it back quite a bit, much like she prunes her (very productive) espaliers. This year, I pruned it. The tree is probably 9-10 feet (I'll try to take a picture tomorrow).

I've been waiting for it to start producing, giving it a lot of time in case it's my pruning or management that's making it not productive. But, the tree is mature now, right? I've been just planting more underneath it, like strawberries, daylillies, garlic chives, hostas, blackcap raspberries and now an artichoke plant. It's currently making a rather nice "trellis" for my blackcaps, so at lest something is growing there. Should I keep planting more forest-y, edible plants underneath it in hopes that it produces sometime...or just cut it out and put a new tree there?
 
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Keep it.

A. It has already provided a decent amount of mulch by the sound of it
B. It is a mature tree infusing the soil with carbon (Fruit trees have approximately 25% root die-off on an annual basis).
C. It is providing a perfect microclimate for forest berries.
D. Like you said, it is a ready trellis.
C. It's an apple tree. You'll get apples eventually.
E. What you already have is always more efficient than what you don't have: in the worst case scenario, graft it. The established root system is an asset; grafts should produce in short order. You can find any tasty apple tree in the area and ask to owner for some cuttings--or order some on Etsy.
 
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All good points by Nathanael

Some additional questions and thoughts

Do you know what rootstock the tree is on? From the growth rate it sounds like a bush tree to me. Smaller trees tend to be more fussy and don't like too much root competition, meaning they're not ideal for polyculture plantings. That said, a lot of people still manage to make them fruit well, so it's probably not that.

Are you in an area with late frost? If the blossom catches frost it may have died off resulting in no apples later in the year.

Sounds like you've got some other apple trees around, so pollination may not be an issue. That said,if all your apples flower at a very different time then they may never meet the Braeburn! More info on pollination (and many other apple related things) here: https://www.orangepippintrees.com/pollinationchecker.aspx?v=1008
If you are lacking a pollination partner you could always graft a compatible variety onto the same tree to make a family tree out of it. Or if you have enough space, plant a separate tree.

As Nathanael says, 5 years is nothing in the life of an apple tree. Bush trees mature around 8-10 years after planting, standard apples can take as long as 20-25 years.
 
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hau Nicole, I can see a few things about that apple tree but first Nathanael and Tomas have covered some great areas.

When you plant a fruit tree that has set fruit, you have two options, let that fruit stay and see if it will mature or pluck it and prune the tree so it will spend the majority of energy into the new root system.
Since you didn't prune it for two years after planting, the tree was putting equal amounts of energy into bottom (roots) and top (branches) growth, this has the effect of slowing down establishment in the new home.
As has been said, five years is not long in the life of an apple tree, and if this isn't a full sized tree, odds are that it will not like root space competition.
And with our changing weather patterns it is hard (here in Arkansas at least) to know the blossom timing (we may all have to start covering to protect from unexpected frost events).

You might also want to get mushroom slurries into the soil around the tree's drip line, all fruit trees love and need to have mycelium mingling with their roots.
 
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Just to clarify. Dwarf apple trees will not do as well as semi-dwarf which will not do as well with standard in a polyculture setting because they are less tolerant of root competition.  ?
If you live in a town and a standard size tree is just too big, can you plant a standard and keep it trimmed to semi-dwarf size?
What rootstock is the best for trees that you want to have a polyculture under?
 
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One more question: Other than producing no fruit, did the tree do well? Does it look healthy and grow a decent amount every year? If not, there may be a problem with root growth altogether. Do you have voles?
 
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Definitely don't remove it. Every tree is different, like humans, some develop faster or slower than others. If it is putting on new growth and doesn't have any signs of blight then it will eventually give you fruit if you are patient.

You could plant more cultivars nearby in a polyculture to help it pollinate. 
 
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Is it possible that while trimming the tree you're eliminating the fruit buds? Learn to identify which is which before you trim the next late winter. The fruit buds are round and fat compared to slender leaf/growth buds. Or, don't trim next year except possibly crossing and dead branches.

I planted a dwarf apple tree about thirty years ago which never flowered till it was 20 years old and that year it had one blossom. I had sold the land to a developer and they excavated that tree about 20 feet deep putting in the road. On that property there had been thousands of crab apples which never flowered except for 3 which I called master crabs. Is it possible that your tree is on a rootstock that carries on this tradition of not flowering. Or was there something in that land that inhibited flowering? I don't know, just grasping for an explanation.

 
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You have described the two box store trees in my yard. I chose to cut branches back (while dormant) to about a 4 foot wide crown on these semi dwarf rootstocks. This left branches from 1-5 inches in diameter, four on tree one and twelve+ on tree two. One branch of the original tree was left untouched. Each branch was grafted with a different variety in March (after the bark slipped) and completed two weeks later in April.  One inch branches got one graft, two inch branches got two grafts etc.  We have been using neem oil to combat the aphid attack, and frequent rain has allowed too much moisture under the grafting tape. All the tape was removed this weekend and we are hopeful that the moldy areas will survive.  That said, there are successful healthy grafts on all but one branch. The plan is to retain the most healthy grafts and cull down to one or two at most grafts per branch.  The larger tree should produce a dozen or more varieties. It is interseting to note that there has been new growth sprouts ranging from 10" to some at 4'-5' (feet).
My vote is to keep and top graft the healthy base tree. It will supposedly bear fruit in 2-3 years as opposed to 7-10 years if you re-plant.  For context, this is my rookie season for grafting, so having had modest success, I would encourage you to give it a try. U-tube videos were helpful in giving confidence to try something never before done by anyone in my circles.  k
 
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My thoughts are that the tree might not be getting enough sunlight. Apple trees need a LOT of sunlight in order to make flower buds. I have seen apple trees doing the same thing you describe when they were planted in the wrong spot. Instead of blooming, the apple trees will put on a lot of vertical growth trying to grow taller than the trees or buildings that shade it. Apple trees should be planted where they will receive at least 6000 lux hours per day between summer solstice and autumn equinox. 6000 lux hours = 6 hours of 1000 lux sunlight, for example.
 
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It could be the tree or it could be the soil...  Do you have other apple trees growing nearby?  I have an area where trees died after a few years,  I dug down and discovered there was a old oiled road several feet down.  Comfrey growing under the tree might help.  I vote for leaving the tree and also trying another variety.
 
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my guess is that if you went a couple of years without pruning that all the fruiting spurs were up high where the light is, and when you did prune all the fruiting spurs were cut off with skyward branches.

plant a grape vine to grow up the trunk
 
Nicole Alderman
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Tomas Remiarz wrote:All good points by Nathanael

Some additional questions and thoughts

Do you know what rootstock the tree is on? From the growth rate it sounds like a bush tree to me. Smaller trees tend to be more fussy and don't like too much root competition, meaning they're not ideal for polyculture plantings. That said, a lot of people still manage to make them fruit well, so it's probably not that.



I'm pretty sure it's a semi dwarf. And, when I went out there today to take a picture, I realized it's a lot taller than I estimated. It might be 15 feet now!

Tomas Remiarz wrote:Are you in an area with late frost? If the blossom catches frost it may have died off resulting in no apples later in the year.



I don't recall having any late frosts, and my neighbors across the street and next door have apples on their trees. But, of the 7 apple trees we have, only the Honey Crisp flowered and made apples this year...and it's a late bloomer. (I'm thankful for bees and my neighbors' trees for evidently pollinating my honeycrisp!)

Tomas Remiarz wrote:Sounds like you've got some other apple trees around, so pollination may not be an issue. That said,if all your apples flower at a very different time then they may never meet the Braeburn! More info on pollination (and many other apple related things) here: https://www.orangepippintrees.com/pollinationchecker.aspx?v=1008



I have a gala, gravenstein, liberty, honeycrisp, Antonovka, and a random seedling from a gala apple my husband planted (the latter two trees are on their own rootstocks, so imagine it'll be a while before they flower or produce.) But, since the tree didn't even make flowers, I don't think that's the issue.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
You might also want to get mushroom slurries into the soil around the tree's drip line, all fruit trees love and need to have mycelium mingling with their roots.



When I made the mushroom slurry for the corn/squash/been bed you helped me with (which is doing FANTASTIC, by the way! The corn growing there is twice the size of the other corn, and I'm finally growing sunflowers after years of trying and failing. And, there's some random tomato plants thriving in there too, somehow!), I also put the slurry around all my fruit trees and in my compost bin. The compost in that bin is awesome (it's formed into little balls that look like poops, but are just bound together by the organisms growing!). Hopefully they will help my tree, too. I'll make another batch and water everything again with it. Thank you for the reminder!!

Philipp Mueller wrote:One more question: Other than producing no fruit, did the tree do well? Does it look healthy and grow a decent amount every year? If not, there may be a problem with root growth altogether. Do you have voles?



No voles. We have moles and shrews, but the cats LOVE to catch those. They catch the moles and poop in the mole holes. It's hilarious! The tree usually grows a lot every year, often growing 3-4 feet. This year it grew denser rather than longer, if that makes sense.

John Duda wrote:Is it possible that while trimming the tree you're eliminating the fruit buds? Learn to identify which is which before you trim the next late winter. The fruit buds are round and fat compared to slender leaf/growth buds. Or, don't trim next year except possibly crossing and dead branches.



I don't think I cut the fruiting buds. I was really excited in the spring and was counting all the buds...or at least, what I thought we buds....and then there were no flowers. Either I couldn't tell what the buds were, or my property did get hit by a late frost that wiped them out. I'm on a northfacing slope, so I thought I was more protected against that, as they'd stay dormant longer. But, maybe not...

Frank Cordeiro wrote:It could be the tree or it could be the soil...  Do you have other apple trees growing nearby?  I have an area where trees died after a few years,  I dug down and discovered there was a old oiled road several feet down.  Comfrey growing under the tree might help.



John Duda wrote:I planted a dwarf apple tree about thirty years ago which never flowered till it was 20 years old and that year it had one blossom. I had sold the land to a developer and they excavated that tree about 20 feet deep putting in the road. On that property there had been thousands of crab apples which never flowered except for 3 which I called master crabs. Is it possible that your tree is on a rootstock that carries on this tradition of not flowering. Or was there something in that land that inhibited flowering? I don't know, just grasping for an explanation.



I do wonder if it's something in the soil. The previous owner was not environmentally friendly (I discovered dumped burnt plastics and trash in the place I had made my duck yard), so he might very well have dumped something nasty there. Or, maybe my soil is deficient in phosphorous? My cherries still aren't producing, either, and my peach didn't make any fruit this year, though it flowered. My mulberries also haven't fruited. And, sunchokes barely grow for me (I had a patch of them die out all on their own!)

Nick LeClair wrote:My thoughts are that the tree might not be getting enough sunlight. Apple trees need a LOT of sunlight in order to make flower buds. I have seen apple trees doing the same thing you describe when they were planted in the wrong spot. Instead of blooming, the apple trees will put on a lot of vertical growth trying to grow taller than the trees or buildings that shade it. Apple trees should be planted where they will receive at least 6000 lux hours per day between summer solstice and autumn equinox. 6000 lux hours = 6 hours of 1000 lux sunlight, for example.



The tree gets about 2-4 hours of sun from fall equinox to spring equinox, due to being on a northfacing slope. But, from spring to fall, it gets 8-10 hours of sun. I planted the trees in the sunniest place on my property.



I managed to get a picture of the apple tree, complete with my cute kids for scale. My son had the idea to pretend to pick apples, and so had his sister pretend to, as well.

Under the apple is daylilly, garlic chives, strawberries, an artichoke and a random squash that decided to grow. Last year I also planted black cap raspberries there, and they are doing fantastic! The tree is mulched with tree tipmmings and duck bedding, and usually once-per-year I bury a shovel-full of meat scraps next to the tree. To the left of the tree is my lasagna/hugel garden bed (more about the garden bed https://permies.com/t/50364/Raised-Garden-Bed-Hugel-Fruit).

The cats do love to climb this tree, though. Would their claw marks damage the tree?

This is also my largest fruit tree, and the closest we have to a "climbing tree" (we have five acres, 3 of which are wooded, but no good climbing trees!), so I'm glad everyone is saying to keep the tree! My conventional gardener friends and family say I should get rid of it (in fact, I have some of their non-producing trees planted on my property, that they gave to me so they could plant other varieties in their place!)

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"Picking" apples :D
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It's bigger than I think!
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One of the cats that likes to climb the tree, and the black cap raspberry, which is 9 feet tall!
 
Nicole Alderman
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Just after my last post, we went and blended up some oyster mushrooms and sprinkled it around the tree (and all sorts of other places, too!).

My daughter thought the beverage was quite tasty, and was drinking it out of the blender!
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