Our Peninsula is dotted with old apple orchards and almost every older home has one or two apple trees in the back yard. Driving along the roads you might see a forgotten apple tree covered in brambles and still blooming in spring.
Apple trees can live to 200 years old and still bear fruit getting more beautiful and interesting with age (just like women). Caring for them can be very rewarding. Not only can you improve the quality of the fruit, but you have a living piece of history.
Overgrown and neglected apple trees will bear numerous small not tasty fruit. This can be turned around with renovation pruning. A three-year process which restores the horizontal framework.
Every tree is unique. There are a few absolutes that the home gardener can follow and stay out of trouble. First, never take out more than a third of live growth in one year. Second make a good cut, when cutting a large limb follow the branch back to its source either a primary limb or trunk of the tree. Take off the entire branch, cutting a primary limb back part way makes the tree look like an amputee and any cut not made just beyond the collar does not heal properly. Look for a ring of ridged bark encircling the base of the branch where it grows out from its source. This ring of bark called the “collar” will grow in and wall off the wound. With a handsaw first make a stump by cutting off the limb one or two feet from the Union. The weight of a branch can cause it to rip off before you are finished cutting.
By making a two-step process of cutting off the limb you are much more assured of a cut that heals over quickly. First make a stump one or two feet away from the union. The first cut comes the bottom up about a third of the way into the limb. Second cut comes from the top down to meet the lower cut. The final cut to finish taking off the limb is just in front of the collar. Cut from the top down just in front of the collar. Always take out dead or broken branches. A broken branch invites rot and funguses into the core of the tree. Some large limbs may need a chainsaw if you are not young, foolhardy, or proficient with a chainsaw call a professional, the Nursery will have a list of people to recommend.
The first year of renovation is carried out in late winter. Look for limbs that are growing straight up follow it back to a main healthy branch that is of reaching height. The goal is to reduce the height of the tree and let sunlight back into the center of the tree. Less tree plus sunlight equals better apples. Take out two or three more of these upright limbs and any dead or damaged branches; this is good for the first year. Even though apple trees are quite tough it took decades to get overgrown, so be patient don’t expect to correct years of neglect in one session.
Elsa Kush grew up in Longbranch with sixty apple trees and six siblings. Now she is a certified arborist working in Gig Harbor. Visit her website kushpruning.com for much more information.