Needing advice on old(er) apple tree pruning -- what branches are worth keeping

Hello everyone,
I am new here, and new to fruit growing in general – well, mostly new – my grandparents had fruit trees when I was growing up, and I’ve done a little bit of basic pruning, but that’s it – so I would be very grateful for any help or advice! My husband and I purchased a 7 acre property in VA (zone 6b, Shenandoah Valley) last summer. This apple tree (and two crabapples) that are here haven’t been tended or pruned in at least a few years as the original owner passed away 2 years ago and was in a nursing home before that.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the old gardenweb forums (somehow that led me to here, and I understand a lot of the “wise ones” there are now here! ) as we are purchasing a few new fruit trees this spring and I am incredibly thankful for the advice given out in the past and I hope you are willing to share yet again. :slightly_smiling:

I am guessing this apple to be a Winesap type judging by the few apples we saw last year and their ripening time – the squirrels ate them, though, so can’t tell you the taste! (We have cats now, who are very good hunters – I am hoping they will be of some help in the future!)* I would like to take out anything that is in bad shape/crowded, of course, and maybe keep the tree 3 feet smaller or so – it is about 15 feet tall now and looks to be at normal/mature height. I would also like to be able to graft another variety or two in (not this year, maybe next) if the trunk/roots are healthy enough. (I have a longer list of apple varieties that interest me than we have need for full trees! ) Here’s the tree:

The bark damage/scars on the branches on this apple puzzles me. (See picture below) I know the little holes all over indicate that woodpeckers have been digging out bugs (and maybe that infestation means the tree is doomed? I don’t know on that either!), but I could not find anything that matches this in my Googling**.* I need to know whether any scarred branches should be cut out.**

I_ also would like to know if there is something special I should do (leave a few watersprouts, cut to encourage new sprouts in a certain place?) if I want to have a place to graft in another variety or two next year – provided this tree isn’t doomed_.

The old, spreading crabapple I did get to see in bloom when we were touring the property, long before we bought – it was loaded with white-type blooms and the fruit was the small, edible apple type (like Chestnut Crab). I don’t really know whether I want to cut it back significantly or just do enough pruning to help it out with air circulation – it has such a gorgeous old tree form, was in huge bloom last year, and is in our front yard.* But – if I am not able to spray it completely because of the height – will that pose significant danger to the other apple and to any new trees I plant? (The other established apple is probably 200 ft or more away, and the new orchard will be probably 200 -300 yards) And if I do prune it back significantly – should I do it now, or in summer? Here it is bloom last spring :slightly_smiling:

Here it is now:

I will be grateful for any advice! ~JoAnna

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Those holes are caused by sapsuckers .

Overall the form and structure of both trees is pretty good. As with all pruning start with dead branches, crossing branches, and growth that is growing straight up or towards the interior of the tree. Depending on what that leaves you for tree you can begin removing some of the older would to encourage new, productive growth. I wouldnt encourage water sprouts, you have some good scaffold branches that you can graft on when that time comes. Welcome to the forum!

Thank you both! Yes, I believe these trees were taken care of in the past, just have gotten a little lonely the past few years!

I know the small holes are from birds (I call them all woodpeckers if I see them peck a tree, but the official name is helpful!) but it is the large areas of missing bark that concern me. That is the only picture I have at the moment but there are multiple areas on several branches. I did run across something just now – could it be anthracnose cankers?

Just by looking at the pic it looks like it was caused by some kind of damage like hail ,ice, damaged when pruning , etc ( maybe even severe sapsucker damage) .

I just went out and took more pictures. I just want to be sure the limbs aren’t diseased because if they are, I would want to cut them out and necessarily have a pretty different pruning plan.

Third pic from the last – I will take out the limb on the right for sure though, it does not look good.


Thank you! :slightly_smiling:

I have been looking around at other pictures of older apple trees, and I guess I may be hypersensitive – trees seem to endure a good bit of rough looking wood. I want to be sure I rule out fireblight with the darkened areas – but I leaning more towards some other natural cause like mold.

Damage from deer is a possibility for the missing bark, too; I didn’t think of that at first but saw it suggested elsewhere.

Deer and black bears are abundant and bold in that region. I have family spread throughout that part of VA. This past summer I was unhappily impressed by the number of deer engrossed in mid-day munching of foundation plantings. They appear to have lost most of their timidity and realized that many tasty morsels are found close to houses.

The bear also seem to have increased their population and become increasingly bold. Both can cause considerable damage to trees.

We see lots of deer, but not on our property-- there’s a river and cow pasture not far away, and I think we’re less attractive – for now (wait til we get a garden going!). There was a big black bear killed by a car not a half-mile away.

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I have been working on pruning the apple (may not get to much of the crabapple this year!) and have decided that the branch damage has come from the sapsuckers. There must be a terrible bug infection because they drilled so many holes in some sections of the branches that the bark died in patches and is starting to slough off. I cut off (well, actually husband did with his long pole saw!) the two highest branches above strong lateral limbs and am hoping I made good choices to encourage the tree to stay a bit smaller. Will post pics when I get finished and see whether y’all think I butchered it or not! :wink: