Nova Scotia Apples - Rejuvenate old apple trees
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Planting Fruit Trees | Rejuvenating Fruit Trees

Rejuvenate old apple trees

Occasionally, new property owners find themselves in possession of fruit trees that have been neglected, and wish to rejuvenate these to a healthy, fruit-producing state.  The following is designed to assist them in this process.

When fruit trees are neglected, they grow in a natural, unchecked manner, which is not conducive to the production of quality fruit.  When their growth is unchecked by pruning, fruit trees tend to become tall and excessively "bushy." This leads to the inner portions of the tree becoming shaded; eventually, it will also lead to weak or dead wood.

There is one further problem that neglected apple trees suffer from: disease.  Apple trees that grow in the wild usually have some degree of resistance to diseases and insects because they are the product of a natural selection process that allows them to survive in nature without assistance.  Unless the neglected cultivated trees in question are an insect- and/or disease-resistant cultivar, they will usually fall prey to insects and/or diseases when neglected, so growers will have to use extra vigilance in the control of insects and diseases in such trees.

There are three main things that growers can do to return neglected trees to a healthy state: pruning, increasing tree fertility, and controlling diseases and damaging insects.

Trees should be pruned in late winter/early spring, i.e. before growth starts.  However, even if the trees in question have been severely neglected, growers should not remove more than 25 to 33 percent of the tree canopy in any one year, as this may cause the tree to expend its growing energy in an undesirable fashion by producing "suckers" rather then the desired limb growth.

Owners should prune neglected trees by first removing broken, dead and diseased wood.  After such limbs are removed, the trees can be pruned for proper shape and size.

To achieve the proper shape, limbs – both large and small – should be removed in such a way that the remaining limbs generally radiate outward from the centre of the tree.  This will allow sunlight to reach all parts of the tree canopy (and the fruit).  Horizontal limbs should be cut back to the point where they will not hang down under the weight of fruit into the row, on to the ground, or on to lower limbs.

Older neglected trees may have become taller than is desirable, and they should be pruned to a more manageable height.

If trees have been neglected for a long period of time, it is not usually possible to return them to their proper size and shape in a single pruning season because the amount of wood that has to be removed is excessive.  In these cases, the pruning process should be extended over two or more years, depending on the amount of pruning required, after which only a light annual pruning will be required.

Increasing Fertility:
When fruit trees have been neglected for enough time, they tend to lapse into a state of low "vigour," meaning the trees are no longer growing new shoots.  This is due in part to the fact that the trees can no longer obtain enough necessary nutrients from the soil.  The nutrient that is usually most lacking is nitrogen.  Applying a fertilizer with a good level of nitrogen is appropriate.  Fertilizer should be applied prior to mid-June.  However, growers should be careful to avoid heavy pruning and heavy nitrogen fertilizer application in the same year, as trees usually respond to this combination by growing at a greater rate then is desirable, i.e. producing too much growth in the wrong places.

Owners will sometimes find themselves with younger and smaller neglected trees (less that 5-6 feet tall).  With these it is important to remove competing grass and weeds from underneath them by cultivation or mulch.

Insect and Disease Control:
Some insects and diseases affect the growth of apple trees themselves, while other insects and diseases attack the fruit.  Owners will usually find that neglected trees are affected to a greater or lesser degree by these problems.  A full account of insect and disease control is beyond the scope of this page, so growers should consult a complete reference source to educate themselves so as to make correct plans and decisions.  Control methods may be biological, mechanical or chemical depending on grower preference and specific circumstances.

Note: Growers should not worry if neglected trees do not bloom in their first year of proper care.  It may take a year of growth before trees produce flower buds that will yield fruit.  Rejuvenating neglected trees is not an immediate process, but usually it can be done effectively over a period of a 2 - 3 years.