Reclaiming Overgrown Fruit Trees
The above 50 year old tree was first reclaimed about 10 years ago. The tree was reduced in height from about 25 feet to about 8-10 feet now. It has born fruit successfully every year since. The tree is a Summer Transparent variety. Bearing during the second half of July, its apples make amazing apple sauce, pies and other cooked apple dishes.
Fruit Tree Reclamation
Overgrown fruit trees can often be pruned and managed to return them to useful production. These pages describe why to reclaim overgrown fruit trees, how to decide if a tree is worth reclaiming, the kinds of trees that can be reclaimed, how to decide if the reclamation is likely to be successful, and how to prune the tree to bring back the tree to production.
Why Reclaim Overgrown Fruit Trees
Reclaiming an overgrown fruit tree can supply the owner with large amounts of fruit in just a season or two. Compared to cutting down the tree and starting over, reclaiming your tree can be a much quicker path to getting good production. Planting a new tree and managing it to production will take a minimum of three to five years, sometimes longer, before you get any fruit at all.
Left unmanaged, many fruit trees will grow very tall. Overly tall fruit trees provide very little usable fruit. Fruit trees bear fruit primarily where the sun hits the tree the most. On pome fruits such as apples and pears, the smaller branches are where the fruiting spurs can form. On stone fruits like cherries, apricots and peaches, the fruit forms on 1-2 year old wood, which will be found mostly way up at the top of the tree. On large trees the fruit will grow at the very periphery of the canopy of the tree, often mostly towards the top. Much of the fruit the tree does produce will be too high up in the tree to thin, spray or harvest. As the fruit ripens, it falls to the ground, often creating a smelly gooey mess for the owner to clean up. Also, unmanaged trees often serve as a breeding ground for many insect pests that then spread to infest trees in the surrounding area. Part of effective fruit growing includes keeping your trees as pest free as possible to be a good neighbor to those who also have fruit trees. By reclaiming a tree, you can get more fruit, you can manage the fruit to get bug-free fruit, and you can avoid the mess of wasted fruit on the ground.
Kinds of Fruit Trees that Can be Reclaimed
Apple and pear trees can often be brought back depending on the shape of the lower part of the tree. Sweet and sour cherries and apricots sometimes can be reshaped to provide lots of useful fruit for many years. Peach and nectarine trees can sometimes be returned to production, but many times they are beyond reclamation.
How to Decide if a Fruit Tree is Worth Reclaiming?
The first issue is to decide if you like the taste of the fruit the tree produces. When it is time to harvest the fruit, pick some. Wash it off and slice off some small pieces to try. You may find some bug damage or bugs present in the fruit. For the taste test stage, do not worry about the bugs. Getting rid of them will be addressed later in this document. If you like the fruit, figure out if you had a large volume of this fruit, what would you do with it. If you do like to eat, preserve or share the fruit, you are ready to move to the reclamation stage. If the fruit is nasty, or you have no desire to deal with a large quantity of really good fruit, then cut the tree down.
How to Assess the Likelihood of a Successful Reclamation
There are two main indicators as to whether you can reclaim an unmanaged fruit tree. The first indicator is the type of fruit. Apple and pear trees can often be reclaimed with great results. Sweet cherries, sour cherries and apricots can also be reclaimed in many cases. Peaches are trickier. The second indicator is how low the main branches of the tree branch out. If the tree starts to branch out 4 feet or lower from the ground, you should be able to dramatically shorten the tree and have it regrow. If the tree does not start to branch out until 4 feet or more above the ground, it is less likely that a severe trimming will yield a workable tree. These measurements are from my experience. Your experience may be different.
When to do Reclamation Pruning?
Late winter and Spring are good times to reclaim overgrown trees. We do most of our reclamations from Spring through the end of July. You can also do them in the dormant season from February into Spring. We prefer to do them when it is easier to tell what is alive and what is dead. Really old trees may have a lot of dead wood in them. That dead wood can be missed in the dormant period.
Illustrations of some Successful Fruit Tree Reclamations
Untrimmed Yellow Delicious, about 40 years old. The eight foot ladder and 6 foot fence give an indication that the tree is about 25 feet tall before pruning.
Same Yellow Delicious after first trimming in a single day. The tree is reduced to about 12 feet tall, down from 25 feet. This tree was covered with a Kootenay Cover for the 2021 growing season. The tree bore fruit this same year, about 2 bushels of apples. The owners were very happy that they did not have a huge mess of rotten apples under the tree in the fall.
Same Yellow delicious tree 1 year after pruning. Note all the little branches that have formed in the previous year. The pruner will take off roughly 12-18 more inches off each of these trunks in the coming weeks. About half of the new little branches will also be removed to keep the tree growing to a size the apples can be picked.
MacIntosh Apple, roughly 40+ years old, untrimmed for 30+ years, approximately 25 feet tall, 25 feet in diameter. There were a lot of dead branches in the tree. The apple bearing spurs were all at the outer perimeter of the branches. The branches were growing over the fence and neighboring sidewalk.
The trimmed tree is on the right. A second tree, still untrimmed is on the left. The trimmed tree did not bear any fruit the year after pruning. All the apple bearing spurs were cut off in the initial pruning because the tree was extremely overgrown. However, the tree did grow many new sprouts, a few of which may have apple spurs on them this season.
Bing cherry tree planted next to the street. One year ago this tree was shortened from 20 feet to about 10 feet tall. The goal is to grow cherries closer to the ground so they could be picked from a ladder. The tree was covered by a Kootenay Cover. The tree produced a light crop of about one gallon of cherries, all maggot free. This year the cherry tree has a lot of new wood with blossoms attached. In the summer of 2022 the tree produced enough cherries to feed about 5 families. We did not keep an exact measurement, but it produced 7-10 gallons of fruit, all worm free with zero bird damage.
This Bartlett pear was first reclaimed about 10 years ago. It was shortened by about 10 feet, or 1/2 the height of the tree. It has been pruned every year since. The tree bears well every year. It requires substantial thinning of the young pears to get good sized fruit. This tree was also covered by a Kootenay cover last year. It produced a nice crop of bug free pears.
This apple tree was shortened from about 20 feet to about 10 feet 10 years ago. The tree bears well every year. Last season it was covered by a Kootenay Cover. It produced about 5 bushels of caterpillar-free apples with no spraying.
How to Prune Fruit Trees for Reclamation
The first step to reclamation pruning is to create an initial concept for how tall and how wide you want the tree to be when it is at its new reduced size. This initial concept will generally evolve over time as the tree is pruned and grows back. I usually use my 8 foot ladder as the initial target for the new height of the tree. I like to pick a height that balances the amount of fruit I want to get from the tree with the reality that I prefer not to do a lot of work on the tree on a tall ladder. The second step is to cut out, or have a professional tree service cut out with your direction, the major upward facing trunk(s) to their new size. The next step is to decide the rough diameter you want the canopy of the reclaimed tree to be. Shorten the primary lateral branches to achieve this length. Then thin out the medium size branches and thin branches to allow light and air into the canopy of the tree.
Some pruners follow a guideline of not removing more than 1/3 of the canopy of the tree in one year. For major tree reclamations I often violate this guideline. The trees almost all survive just fine. They do send out a lot of sprouts the following spring, but those are easily trimmed off as they appear, or when the tree gets its next pruning. You can choose to remove only 1/3 of the canopy of the tree per year. However, it may take you as many as 3-5 years to get the tree to the size you want it, instead of a single year with an aggressive first pruning. You have to remember that between each pruning the tree will grow back as much as 10-20% each year. It is your tree, you get to decide whether to go fast or slow with the reclamation.
Using a Commercial Tree Service
You may decide you need a Commercial Tree Service to help with this resizing of your tree. They typically have the saws and industrial chippers to make light work of the resizing. One note of caution, not all commercial tree services and the arborists who work there are familiar with fruit tree pruning, especially major reclamations. With most landscape tree trimming, arborists remove low hanging branches and focus on encouraging upward growth. With fruit tree reclamations you want to aim for a very different result. You want to shorten the tree and leave most of the lower branches in place. If you use a tree service, talk through your reclamation plans in detail. Be present when the work is done, if possible. Insist on the service following your guidance before any contract is created.
Why isn't there a lot of Documentation on How to Reclaim Overgrown Fruit Trees?
Overgrown fruit tree reclamation is rarely practiced in commercial orchards. They have different objectives for their orchard management. Instead of shortening an orchard full of overly mature trees, they will often cut the trees down, pull out the roots and plant a new orchard. Landscape arborists typically do not promote tree reclamation because it is not part of their training. Many homeowners let their trees get overgrown because annual pruning and then spraying for bugs is a lot of work. Many people decide that growing fruit is just not for them. But then a new homeowner may come along, or the existing homeowners decide they would really like to try to get some good fruit from their tree(s).
A Note of Caution
Dramatically resizing a tree occasionally may result in the tree's death. If the tree is already struggling, it may finish off the tree on a faster path. Indications that a tree is struggling include major branches are already dead. Fruiting has been declining. The leaves do not look full sized or healthy.
How to keep Bugs out of the Fruit on Your Reclaimed Tree
Once you have resized the fruit tree, you usually want to get good fruit from the tree. To do this you need a way to keep the bugs that bring the worms and maggots to your fruit out of your trees. You will also want to keep the birds from eating your ripe fruit. While you can keep the bugs out with a diligent spraying regimen, there is no spraying regimen that will keep the birds away. Therefore, we recommend using the Kootenay Covers instead. They keep the bugs out of your fruit with less work, greater effectiveness, and no chemical residues on your fruit. They also keep the birds out, and they save you a lot of time you would otherwise spend spraying.