Apple Tree Revitalization

At my work office, we have three old apple trees that we inherited when my boss bought the place in the late 90s. So these trees are pretty old and well developed, as well as pretty well neglected. Last year my boss decided to turn the front ~2 acre yard (read giant hill that is terrifying to mow) into a more natural area where we planted oak, persimmon, pawpaw, dogwood, and a couple other things. I took a chainsaw to much of the dead wood on all three apple trees to reduce stress on them (one had fallen over a few years ago but is still happily chugging along). I purchased I think 7 more scions of various varieties than I did rootstocks this year with the intention of grafting onto these trees. One tree as I said fell halfway over, one is in pretty good shape but desperately needs pruned, and one is tall and half of the trunk is dead. My questions to all of you are:

  1. How much “good wood” should I keep on a full grown tree if I intend to completely re-work it and turn it into a frankentree?
  2. Should I keep the current branch structure if it seems to be a good structure, or does it make sense to cut it down to just a few branches and “start over”?
  3. Should I only cut part of it this year and progressively prune in following years?
  4. Do you think it’s worth trying to re-work the two unhealthy trees now or should I wait (limited resources) to graft additional scions in a few years from the “healthy tree” once I get it in better shape?

My intention is to have a “mother frankentree” that I can later snag scions from to put on the trees I will be planting at my house, as well as making my co-workers very happy to have free apples to browse on during breaks in the fall. It would be great to have it produce in the next few years since if possible (in case that changes anyone’s recommendations).

-Front yard/future persimmon /pawpaw /nut forest

-Fallen over sad apple

-Half dead trunk sad apple

-Decently structured but neglected apple

-Current buds and representative branch of decent apple

P. S. - I have a couple of m111 rootstocks I will be planting nearby these trees once I graft them and let them develop for the summer at my house where they will be watered.


Beware of virus infection.
Older trees may be infected.
You could spread the disease to the new rootstock.
If the main trunk is rotten;
You’re not going to have much good results.
If it’s sound;
I would not take more than 1/4 of the healthy wood off in any one year.
Eliminate the branches hanging below 90 degrees, and the tallest, most vertical branches on top.

I know there is cedar apple rust on the trees by the road, so I was planning to graft whichever scions I ordered that have the most resistance to it. Other than that I need to do more research on what other disease symptoms may look like.

A naive question…Can you explain to me the difference in the rule of thumb reasonings below:

A. To reduce tree’s size, do not prune more than1/4 to 1/3 branches from established tree.
B. To rework tree via bark grafting, cut trunk at desired height and insert 3-4 scions around circumference.

For example: I’m about to rework my 20’ thirty-year-old Shiro plum. Reducing to 2 or 3 limbs and choosing them to grow on would be easy but would remove 9/10 of the tree. Bark grafting to trunk would work, too, but obviously all the branches would be removed.

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CAR is a fungal infection. Only present on apple leaves (and fruit sometimes I believe) if transferred to the tree in the spring. Very controllable via fungicide.


williams pride and liberty are 2 rust and disease resistant apple varieties i grafted on my trees. we have alot of w. cedar here so the rust is a issue. there are other resisitant varieties that i dont remember. Boizeaus advice is sound. id just remove the fallen over one completely and remove all the dead wood and give a heavy pruning to open up the center of the tree. id graft to the healthy one for now and watch the other for signs of disease. if infected your best to remove them and start from scratch as treating such a old tree is near impossible and not really worth the effort.

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That is great to know. We saw the crazy fruiting bodies on our cedar shrubs at the office a few years ago and finally figured out what they were. It’s actually a fascinating life cycle, needing two completely different types of hosts to continue pro-creating.

I have both of those on order! I did a lot of reading through @scottfsmith and others posts before deciding which ones to get. I picked a few that are not as disease resistant but had very high marks for taste, so we will see how that goes.

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You might try to identify the old trees…could be some rare variety and that’s the last tree of it’s kind on the planet. Not likely, but you never know.

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A couple of years ago I tried fruit from the “healthy tree” and it was a small green/yellow one that was pretty hard and not very good. This was before knowing that some need to ripen for an extended period before developing good flavor profiles. Additionally it might just be a crab that could be fantastic for sauces or baking. I’m planning on keeping at least a few branches for further research. I appreciate the suggestion!


with the pruning out of dead and crowded wood, the next season should show a big increase in quality of the parent fruit. should be easier then to identify the type of apple. why i advised to wait a few seasons to see what the fruit is like.


It’s always tough to cut down an old tree, but some of the old Apple trees were excessively vigorous and prone to biennial bearing.
One year loaded with small apples
The next year, a few big apples.
It’s very difficult to thin apples on a big tree
and you risk falling from a tall ladder during harvest.
A few
Like McIntosh, aren’t too big, but Gravensteins and King are very vigorous trees.

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These trees are biennial as far as I know. Should that trait transfer to the scions I put on if the scion cultivars are not usually biennial?

I have a neighbor that pruned away 2/3 of 2 Prunus x cistena, and the rootstocks threw up suckers. The roots need leaves to sustain them. Maybe you dormant prune 30%, and then Summer prune another 30% after the strong flush of Spring growth. Rinse and repeat until you have the right form.
Bark grafting multiple scions may save you if there is a graft failure, heal the wound sooner, and produce more leaves to feed the roots.


With summer pruning, every time you pinch off a leaf, you literally get two more. At first it seems counter intuitive. How can taking some away give you more? Which I think maybe why lots of people are hesitant to do it. But consistent summer pruning produces bushy branches with lots of healthy leaves for photo synthesis. Very hard to do on tall trees.


Hi Ryan - Here’s a previous thread that might give you some answers: Pruning Old Apple Trees

My experience is, as others have mentioned, that going easy over many years (after you’ve removed all the dead wood) works the best. Slowly over many years I brought down a large wild tree to ladder height, going for wide instead of tall, leaving multi large main limbs. it looked somewhat similar to your good tree when I started. It worked but there’s no getting around that those large limbs stubs left in cutting large wood are not attractive. Cutting to the largest branch you can helps. It gets better as more new stuff grows (and it WILL grow! LOTS of pruning in the future). Since this particular tree is in our front (wild) yard I give more attention to aesthetics. This photo is after quite a few years of pruning. The large pruning is now done and it is looking better with more new growth.


Another multi trunked older tree in my fenced orchard I brought down from 25’ to 14’, again over many years (it’s hard to be patient but for me it worked best). One a year we cut off large low trunks leaving one, with multiple large limb stubs. It shut down production and amped up suckers (not surprising). Took maybe 4 yrs to get back to producing a small harvest. It’s a good apple and worth it but it has been quite a challenge pruning each year and I doiubt it will ever be an attractive tree again. Productive yes, but not attractive. If I were to do it over I would have left the many trunks and just worked to bring it down and out. But each tree is different.

Another tree was poorly before we started and big pruning didn’t help. It continued downhill and we cut it down. And it was in much better shape than your poor one. Seems best to cut that one down.

I’ve put some grafts on older large trees (mostly on watersprouts midway up) with varied results. Best when there is a decent space around the graft and it’s on the southern side.

I wish you the best with your trees and your plans! Sue


There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe in most horticultural activities and bringing old trees into production is an especially good example. Variety and relative vigor are part of the list of variables.

The “decently structured” tree appears adequately vigorous to remove a lot more than a fourth of the “wood” -whatever that is- branches are one thing, canopy spread is another, taking out whole scaffolds is also different than thinning a lot of small wood from an existing scaffold. I have often removed up to 3/4ths of the smaller wood on an excessively dense, neglected tree and have never suffered severe consequences from removing too much- at least since getting a feel for leaving enough budded wood to get adequate sap pulled through the vascular system to avoid scorching bark. If there aren’t enough leaf buds to accomplish this, I believe the strong sun of mid-spring or so is when sap gets so hot it can burn living tissue in the tree. They used to paint trees white to reduce the risk of this happening.

That is a question not answered by the literature as far as I know- not something that’s been researched. However, painting trees white is still standard practice when commercial orchards change over varieties by removing virtually the entire canopy and doing cleft grafts off of butchered scaffolds.

By now, I’ve probably renovated about a thousand huge old apple trees, some neglected and some butchered- some butchered then neglected. I prefer merely neglected. Last week I was working in an orchard I’ve managed for over 20 years with century old trees- the largest have an incredible 60’ spread- literally an orchard in a single tree capable of producing hundreds of pounds of fruit.

They fell within the butchered category when I arrived- almost all small wood was being removed every year and some of the trees were dying. Very few apples were forming because there just wasn’t enough bearing wood.

I need to write a new article about strategies, but you can look up Ecological Fruit Production in The North and the chapter about renovating old apple trees. It was all I had to work with when I started my business over 25 years ago. Because my area used to produce the apples for the “Big Apple” on land now desired for building mansions I was able to build my business around rebuilding huge old apple trees.


Thanks for that example of neighbor’s severely pruned
tree determined to attain original habit by sending up suckers. As Sue remarked in earlier post:

It’s much easier to manage crop load on Semi dwarf and dwarf apple trees. Biennial bearing is triggered by overcropped trees. They are depleted on carbohydrates, and set few apples the following year.
It’s a vicious circle, cause in the off season
the tree stores up lots of carbohydrates for the next season.

And yet I manage many orchards where zero thinning is done and when trees get full light exposure it is the ones on seedling rootstocks that are most reliably productive. It astounds me how these trees can often produce heavy crops of even Baldwin, with its biennial reputation, year after year.

However, you are obviously right- smaller trees less fruit and less fruit to thin which is an important fact if you aren’t doing it chemically, which I don’t.

What is bang for the buck more expensive for more vigorous trees is pruning. On that 60’ spread, 20 ft+ tall tree I spent almost 4 hrs pruning- that’s almost 100 hrs since I first was brought to the site. I’m glad I’m doing it for cash and not apples.

Biennial bearing can be managed on a single scaffold, incidentally. The branches seem to behave independently.

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