"Top working" large diameter trees/stumps

Hey all,

So I’ve got some trees that my Grandpa planted in the 50’s. I read the other form in the “Is your topic similar to”, and I’ve still got some questions. I’m familiar with bark grafting, as I did a few trees last year, but I am wondering how low I can cut an OLD tree. As you’ll see in my pictures, a few of the trees have bad wood down to a few feet of the ground. I’m nervous about grafting this low as it will take a LONG time for the wood to heal over.

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Last year started top working a friend’s old apple tree that resembles yours. The “Risible” Red Delicious as Burford calls it. Bark grafted some eight and six inch diameter stumps just high enough to avoid some deer browse. I placed eight bark grafts on the largest stumps. Have no idea if they’ll ever fully heal or if I should cut off some of the grafts to make the remaining grafts grow more vigorously. Just feeling my way along by the seat of my pants. Advice welcome. Plan to do another third Spring 2016.

I suspect you have a better chance to fully heal the wound if the cut surface faces up vs to the side. If deer aren’t a problem you are fortunate and have more options where to cut.

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Deer are kind of a problem, but I’ll be able to fence them with concrete mesh for a few years. I’m just wondering if I cut the trees 8 inches from the ground with no “nurse branches” if they’ll grow.

I guess I’ve just never seen a graft on a tree THIS large where you redo the whole trunk.

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We had a discussion of stump grafting last year on the NAFEX facebook site. The general consensus was that with no nurse branches, just one giant stump, it works maybe half the time, the other half it kills the tree. You just takes your chances. My friend considers the tree he lets me work on as surplus but still I don’t want to kill it.

There are youtube videos of commercial boys grafting over entire orchards by stump grafting with no nurse branches although their stumps are maybe three to four inches diameter, the ones I saw.

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Hopefully there will be some water sprouts that I can use as a branch.


Your trees lack the vigor needed to do more than sprout a few feeble branches maybe a couple feet long. My guess is it will kill off the tree.

Your best bet is to take cuttings and graft onto new rootstocks and re-plant well away from that tree, lest you run into re-plant disease. Only vigorous trees should be topworked, old-timers like yours rarely do well.

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Interesting. Wouldn’t a winter pruning the year before restore a certain amount of vigor?

I only wonder about these other trees because I seemed to have pretty good luck on the grafts I did this year. I got a few grafts (on one tree) to put on about an inch in diameter.

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Generally what has happened if the tree lacks vigor is the bark dies on the circumference of the cut except the one small portion that’s feeding the graft. Borers get in and finish it off.

Alan has had a lot of experience topworking large specimen trees for clients, he usually does it on water sprouts a limb at a time instead of lopping off big limbs like this. I only tried it because the branch had died farther up.

What usually kills the tree out here is the leafy canopy gets interrupted somehow, either through bears or snow loads breaking branches off, allowing the sun to burn the top of a large branch that used to be in the shade. The bark dies, allowing borers in, which girdle the rest of the branch, allowing more sunlight to burn more of the tree, etc. It is a slow decline from there.


Got it. Well, I’ll make sure to keep a watersprout if I find one that grows that low.

So then if you graft a watersprout, do you then cut the large limb later?


You need to fence the trees in right after you cut the them back. The deer will chew back all the lower growth as fast as it sprouts.


i agree, one can’t expect much from a huge trunk if the tree is already in decline

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If I were to replant a tree, how far would it need to be from where this tree is? I am somewhat limited on space.

Now, if I were to not graft onto this, where would I prune off that bad spot with the open bark? Right against the main trunk? (1st, 2nd, 3rd picture)

You can successfully graft a 200 year old apple tree if it has vigorous growth. It is all about vigor and a runted out 3 year old tree is just as poor a candidate as a 100 year old tree that has almost stopped growing. In general, healthy old trees on vigorous rootstocks can transform grafts into large branches more quickly than most trees.

The problem with the photographed trees is they appear to be growing in terrible soil and. as Appleseed astutely observed, are just not happy at all. They don’t even have enough vigor to close large wounds without burning the bark below. The one in front in the photo of two looks like it may have suffered from a grade change and had soil piled high against the trunk, which can be terrible for a tree, but that is just a guess and I may be misled by the photo.

Anyway, with any old apple tree I think the safest and best approach is to bring it down gradually- maybe a third of the tree at a time. If there are some water sprouts lower in the tree that get decent light you can begin the transformation, but grafts in the shade don’t tend to grow.

Giving the trees whatever might help them to obtain greater vigor is helpful (especially if fire blight isn’t a huge issue in your region). This is mostly about nitrogen, adequate water (and air in the soil) and any possible reduction from competition of turf and any nearby forest trees. 3 or 4" of arborist chips under the branch spread can be helpful.

Stumping of healthy, vigorous apple trees will usually inspire a riot of growth with vigorous shoots just below the cut, but sometimes too much water is lost so covering the cut with Lac Balsalm might be helpful. I’m not sure about that because that isn’t how my clients want me to transform trees on their estates. I’ve done it with young trees on my own property- 10 year olds, and it worked well. I put grafts on water sprouts that formed the season after cutting. It was easier and just as quick as if I’d performed bark grafts the year before.

As Appleseed mentioned, my standard method is to reduce the tree gradually and keep a lot of the existing branches until the grafts have been pulled over them and taken their place in the sun.


You are correct, the soil isn’t great. I will be starting to use well aged compost around the trees this year. A few of the trees did push out a fair amount of new growth. Fireblight is a *bit * of a problem, but I’ll be applying copper this spring in order to get it under control. I have a source for wood chips, so I can put those around the base of the trees. I might apply a bit of fertilizer, but I’ll most likely stick with aged manure or compost.

“Stumping of healthy, vigorous apple trees will usually inspire a riot of growth with vigorous shoots just below the cut, but sometimes too much water is lost so covering the cut with Lac Balsalm might be helpful. I’m not sure about that because that isn’t how my clients want me to transform trees on their estates. I’ve done it with young trees on my own property- 10 year olds, and it worked well. I put grafts on water sprouts that formed the season after cutting. It was easier and just as quick as if I’d performed bark grafts the year before.”

So maybe rather than trying to bark graft it this spring, cut it, and then protect the root suckers or watersprouts? That might work.

In general I’m really trying to keep these trees, just because my Dad has an emotional connection with them.

Other than normal winter pruning, should I be removing any of these larger limbs? Would this increase the vigor? I would have to think that since a few of these trees put out a fair amount of fruit and the water sprouts grew well, they’ve still got a bit of life left.

I should also note that those pictures were taken in October.

My apologies on being so scattered with my questions. They seem to mirror my thoughts on this. I keep thinking that I’ve gotten all of my questions out, but then I find others!

As I said, don’t remove more than a third of existing tree. This means leave 2/3rds of leaf buds in the process of removing big wood. That will assure adequate sap will be pulled through the wood to keep bark reasonably cool. You bring down the height gradually.

I am only basing vigor on what I can see. A tree with good vigor on full sized or nearly full sized rootstocks will usually send out lots of shoots at least 2 ft long. Heavy crops will reduce the vigor on any given year and you can increase vigor by reducing the knobby short spur wood where fruit and flowers form. If you take off half of that from the wood you leave it can be helpful as well.


Whenever I see large mature trees in decline like that it is usually because surrounding trees have grown tall enough to block most of the summer sun. You’re in zone 5, so I wouldn’t expect sunburn issues, especially in mature trees with a thick bark layer. If there is a soil problem, it must have developed after the trees reached full size. I would be looking for evidence of disease or pests.

That tree at the top appears to have a center crotch that will collect debris and water. It’s an ideal environment for rot organisms.There isn’t much you can do about it now. It’s a good example what happens when you don’t shape a tree properly in the first few years.


i guess we think alike.

it is hard to say this tree ‘runted out’ due to soil conditions because suckers are growing well, per OP. That it reached that enormous size and then now slowed down seems to point to senescence/diseases more than anything else. Quite likely that the rootstoc is more vigorous/disease-resistant than the scion(which is now a dying trunk–the only part runting out), so if the soil is supected to be bad, but the suckers are growing well, it is probably just an ageing/declining/disease-ridden scion on a still youthful rootstock.
if this tree was actually growing on its own roots(from seed), then growth difference between main trunk and suckers indicate localized disease infecting the main trunk


If you decide to replant, I’d keep it outside of the dripline of the old tree. The roots of the old tree will harbor pathogens that will stunt the growth of your re-planted tree. Commercial orchards used to fumigate with methyl bromide or blast the planting hole with Dupont Red Cross Dynamite to combat replant disease, both of which are frowned on now. There have been reports of mustard seed meal being used to combat replant disease. I’ve incorporated Pescadero Gold from Farm Fuel Inc. in the old tree holes at my place, since I’m forced to re-plant in the same holes due to space reasons.