What to do when apple trees are overgrown

It would be nice if fruit trees produced consistently every year without effort—but they don’t. In fact, our care has a lot to do with fruit production.

This can be especially true for apple trees. For example, when we don’t prune for a year…or two…or more…the tree responds by producing more branches. When it does, the tree sends energy to branch production—with little left for fruit production. Since that’s the reason for having the tree in the first place, the loss of that production can be frustrating. Combine that with the fact that overgrown apple trees are more difficult to harvest or spray and all of a sudden our tree management should become a greater priority.

Overgrown trees don’t have to be a lost cause but in many cases the best ‘remedy’ is removal. For trees with sentimental or ornamental value, revitalization may be an option, with the understanding that it will be a multi-year process that takes time, effort and patience.

As you start, keep in mind that not more than 30 percent of the tree should be removed in any one year. The process is slow, but higher removal rates can hurt the health of the tree and its ability to respond to the revitalization process. You can follow these four steps as a guide: First, remove dead wood. It doesn’t count toward the 30 percent, but is important to allow you to see the tree’s true shape; second, remove suckers from the base of the tree; third, choose six or so of the best branches to keep as scaffold branches. Remove branches with narrow crotch angles (which are more likely to break in wind or ice storms) and those that cross other branches you want to save.

At this point, you may have removed 30 percent. If so, stop, keeping in mind that the process is slow. Any removed branches should be cut flush to the branch collar (the natural swelling that occurs where a branch connects to the trunk or to a larger branch). Removal of the collar can leave large wounds that heal poorly—if at all. Wounds will heal more quickly if left to their own process and do not need to be painted or treated.

If you haven’t reached the 30 percent level, thin the branches on each scaffold branch. Remove crowded branches to open up the tree to light and allow humidity to escape. Shorten each scaffold branch by cutting back to a side branch. When you are through, the tree should have enough wood removed so that a softball can be thrown through it.

This heavy pruning will likely result in vigorous side shoots from the trunk called water sprouts and suckers from main branches (they grow straight up). Remove them during the growing season so the center of the tree stays open. This removal is a time-consuming and difficult, but very necessary practice to bring an overgrown apple back into shape.