Pruning Old Apple Trees

I’m new to fruit trees. I have two old apple trees. I pruned one. See pic. It looked like the other one I haven’t started on. How bad did I do on the pruned tree? What advice can you give me in pruning the other one? Thank you, I’m here to learn and planted a couple more bare root semidwarf apple trees and am excited in getting into this!


Here’s the other one that I’m looking for advice on how to prune.


You whacked it pretty good! But, renewal will keep the branches young and productive. I’ve never gotten that aggressive myself, but my trees aren’t too productive either…with much old growth.


With older trees, trying to get them back under control, they say cut back 1/3 per year until it has been re-tamed. In pruning philosophy, how tall do you want the tree to be? Then prune to height. How far apart should your branches be? Then thin them out. If you have permanent branch structure, are there excessively long shoots? Cut them back. Clean out excessive growth in the tree interior. Trim off shoots on the underside of branches or down growing shoots. Your first tree is liable to fight you this year by sending out excessive water shoots that will want to grow straight upward. Practice almost daily summer pruning of this tree. All of this years growth will have 3 leaves near the branch. Counting these 3 keep this years growth pinched or snipped back to 3 more, or 6 per unit. At first you will think ‘my poor tree, no leaves’. Each time you pinch more shoots will appear and by fall the tree will be very ‘bushy’, with great leaf structure. Next spring you will have fruiting spurs and good structure.


Hi Mick,
That second tree is a beautiful tree. It might be nice to maintain that stately look while bringing it down to a more workable level. I’ve pruned a number of similarly sized old tree and in my experience doing it over many years, five or more, slowly, has worked best. I go for not more than a quarter or less a year. The tree seems to handle it better without the stress of a more major cutback that it would need to recover from. It also helps lessen the overwhelming watersprout growth and sunscald on suddenly naked branches. It’s easy to get carried away pruning and forget about the tree!

If you can plan ahead what you want the future tree to be, then just take out one or two large limbs each year, preferably back to as large a branch as you can. Maybe those going straight up, or one that will open up that left side most. Bring it down in height in stages. Look for a large branch to take out to open up instead of cutting a lot of little ones. Leave a lot of the smallest shoots especially on top to help shade. I’ve caused a lot of sunscald by taking too much off all at once. I make a pile as I cut out and look often at the pile and the tree to make sure I don’t overdo it. It’s easier on the tree and on me than trying to tame an overpruned large tree (assuming it lives) in the following years. Plus you’re more likely to continue to get a harvest.

You can certainly lower a large tree but it will in its heart always be a large tree, which means forever pruning. However, it can be worth it if the fruit is fine, and the necessary pruning does get easier down the road. It’s nice your tree look like they are amenable to being wide instead of tall which helps.

I wish you the best with it. It’s challenging but can be so satisfying, and fun! Sue


I was a little shocked a few years ago when I saw what the orchard had done to these old trees, “Gala Transparents”, which were planted in 1900! But here they are today in spite of my misgivings:


Thank you, I’m going to try this! If I understand, on new growth there will be 3 leaves near the existing branch. Allow the new growth of three more leaves, then pinch, so six on the new growth?

1 Like

Hi Sue, thanks for the response. Yes it is a beautiful tree. It’s fruit has been plentiful, but small, and hard to reach, being about 20’ high. The fruit has been used as “deer apples” and I’d like to see if I can get a tree that I can better manage with better fruit. I am going to take your advice and be much less aggressive on it! I’m thinking trimming the tall vertical branches down no more that 4’, keeping small shoots to help shade as you suggest. I was not aware of “sunscald”. I suppose being in northern Wisconsin you don’t think of such things, lol! I will also try to open up the left side a bit.

One question… I’m worried about the lowest left large branch. It reaches out into the farmer’s field to the south, has much dead wood and am concerned about ripping off the trunk due to the angle and weight of it. I’d like to remove that large branch with a chain saw. Will this be an issue?

Thanks again!

Make 2 or 3 cuts with a chain saw…the final cut should not weigh more than a jug of milk or less.


Oakleaf Taking care of your trees can be very similar to Bonsai. You study your trees, you get to know them. What they like, how they grow. You decide which new growth to keep, which to eliminate. The limbs may need to be tied down, manipulated in different directions. When to spray, what to spray. The new growth shoots will have three leaves close to their base, basal leaves. The continuous summer pruning is to limit the growth to these original three, plus three more. This will produce more shoots and more leaves, and more photosynthesis. With luck, in the spring fruiting spurs and then lots of fruit. With as much pruning as you did the tree will go into overdrive survival mode this year, so you’ll have to keep up.

I like how you pruned the first tree personally. I basically would want it a little lower, but your main structure is pretty set with trees that old. You might be able to get some bends to come back a little lower, but overall I personally think it’s great.

The second unpruned tree has way too much wood where you need a ladder to reach and lower wood that wouldn’t be productive anyway. I’d prune it like the first.

Every year, you can always change your style and let it get big/tall again if you really want.

1 Like

Thanks droshi,

The height of the main structure of the first tree after my aggressive pruning is just under 10’. My goal is to spread it out, keep the center open, and keep the height where I can comfortably reach it from my step ladder to prune it annually - I’m thinking about 12’. So, if a tree wants to keep growing at a height it wants to be (in this case these grew to almost 20’), what happens if I continuously cut vertical water sprouts and prune it annually to under 10’?

Masbustelo, I’m looking forward to seeing what it does this year!

So I don’t keep pestering you folks with newbie questions, is there any fruit tree care books you would recommend? I planted three young bare root semi-dwarf apple trees two springs ago and all are doing well - but one which I replaced this year since it was girdled by rodents this winter. I want to learn how to shape them properly. Thanks!

@oakleaf books are great but i personally find videos more helpful, check out skillcults videos on tree training/pruning on youtube.
also for reading alan has a great pruning guide on this forum if you do a search.


The focus of renovation of old apple trees shouldn’t be to instantly convert it into the tree you want, which your photo seems to indicate was the motivation. When I started my business almost 30 years ago 100 year old apple trees were my bread and butter because the land used to grow apples for the big apple then had largely been appropriated by the very wealthy to create mansions in the rolling hills of counties within an hour of Manhattan.

I already had a lot of experience with fruit trees, but not so much with ancient apples so I sought help in books and found “Ecological Fruit Production in the North” which devoted a chapter to converting such trees to into lower growing and beautiful fruit factories.

The writers advocated something they called the “Swiss method”, although I believe they were giving too much credit to the Swiss for a widely used technique of training such trees to a weep.

The first year, if there is a lot of weaker weeping wood, you concentrate on removing all uprights. Sometimes these trees are like a single tree with a tier of several smaller trees on top of it that started as water sprouts. Sometimes there’s a couple such tiers.

At any rate, you find the tree within the trees and remove as much higher wood without doing what you did- that is removing 80% or more of the leaf buds which often leads to massive sunburn on the tops of the scaffolds where bark is killed and trees are structurally weakened…

Fortunately your trees look young enough to withstand this brutal treatment, but I would have left lots more of the weeping wood and thinned it out gradually for the next 3 or 4 years while probably choosing some vigorous water sprouts close to the trunk to graft other varieties to the tree.

Markmnt shows pictures of another approach, and I really need to show some pictures of trees done the way I manage them, you wind up with a lot more fruit, which obviously wasn’t the intent of the growers who did that pruning. Supposed to be open enough to through a cat through them- not a bear! It also doesn’t encourage lots of lower fruit by way of weeping.

There is a math to allowing a certain amount of small wood (with vegetative buds) to remain to support big wood that helps prevent scorching the bark and also keeps vigorous growth going for the renovation of trees into lower growing structures. You want branches all along scaffolds of an increasingly low and spreading tree- not the palm tree look with long lengths of scaffolds without branches.

Believe it or not, huge scaffolds can gradually bend to a more horizontal position from the weight of heavy crops over the years.


Lee Reich - The Pruning Book.

That is indeed a great book (Ecological Fruit Production in the North). I probably still have my notes taken from a library copy so many decades ago. Though too sketchy (my notes, not the book) I used that as my guide for years. When I finally had money to buy the book it was out of print and no longer available (this was before internet). Unfortunately, I didn’t understand pruning enough back then to make good use of it but it certainly helped later. sue

Hi Mick, I assumed by your zone and photo that you might be a neighbor in northern Wisconsin (I’m in the UP). Yes, as Blueberry said on chainsawing the limb, in pieces. Just leave and not cut into the collar. It’s amazing how well a large cut like that can heal. We’ve done many like that. I learned about sunscald as I guess most of us learn about such stuff - experience. As Alan said though, healthy trees have a great power of overcoming adversity. Though there is a lot of dead sunscalded bark on the top limbs of this particular tree, it grew, and continues to grow, plenty of new shoots to compensate. I just prune off the largest, leave the smallest maybe pull some down horizontal (this is on the top).

It’s nice to give the tree a chance. I’ve had some turn into better fruit, some not. But you can always enjoy the tree no matter the fruit, or cut it down and plant something else. Sue

1 Like

It’s available, just expensive as a used book. $39 in the link I provided. I have a copy on my shelf I never refer to anymore. For me it’s guidance on old apple reconstruction was the main purpose. Prof. Prokopy of U.Mass provided me with the info I needed for low spray fruit production here in SE NY. I never sought commercial pristine fruit when I started and when a few customers started asking for it from their trees, I developed my own schedule which still required less input than Cornell recommends. Their gurus say if you don’t keep summer fungus from establishing in June you can’t control it, but I don’t do the 2 June sprays and still get pristine. It’s weird how their science shows one thing conclusively and my experience shows something else, even in the wettest of seasons.

1 Like

That’s true, Carlin. Thirty years ago, I got scions from Bear Creek Nursery, and failed with rubber bands and beeswax.

Seeing videos from Stephen Hayes, Kuffel Creek and others … and about 4 years ago I got success rate over 80% first try.

1 Like