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Pruning old apple trees and the best apple varieties

Val Bourne / 22 August 2014

Gardening expert Val Bourne offers advice on dealing with an old apple tree, including tips on pruning, grafting and using the trunk as a garden feature.

Apple tree pruning
Val Bourne offers advice on dealing with an old apple tree

This will depend on the state and age of the apple tree - and whether you wish to keep it or not. Is the fruit fairly plentiful and palatable? Does the tree sit happily in its space? If it’s a large tree in a small garden it’s probably better to remove it.

Leaving the tree trunk and using it as a garden feature

If you decide to remove the apple tree you could leave the stump and grow a clematis or climbing rose over the trunk. Or you could reduce the tree to a compact skeleton and then grow a rose or clematis over the remaining framework. This will also depend on situation. Only cover the tree with other plants if it’s still sound at the core and not hanging over a main pathway or seating area.

Suitable roses and clematis for growing over an old tree trunk

Good tree roses include the pale-pink double ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ and the white ‘Bobbie James’. Both will be smothered in flower in June and both need a largish tree. ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ cascades down once established like a floral waterfall.

Viticella clematis are also excellent scramblers and they flower between July and August. The pale-blue ‘Prince Charles’ shows up well in trees. A purple clematis (such as 'Étoile Violette') can get lost among dark branches. 

Plant your clematis in spring, in April ideally, digging a large hole about a metre away from the trunk. Slant the clematis towards the trunk. In following years, once the clematis is established, prune back to the lowest buds in spring, usually in early March. Pull the old growth away after pruning and this will keep it tidy and vigorous.

Keeping your old apple tree productive

Many apple and pear trees live for a long time, so if you like the fruit, the shape of the tree and the wildlife it brings in to your garden, you may opt to keep it. If so there are two options.

Rejuvenate by pruning in three, four or five stages - over a series of years.

If you opt for pruning this must be done in the winter when the tree is dormant. Never remove more than a quarter at once.

The main starting point is to look carefully from every angle and assess the shape and condition when the branches are bare. It may be healthier in one part, but in a poor state elsewhere. In which case you remove the weakest part first.

If the tree is very large, consult a tree surgeon because tree pruning can be hazardous without training. A trained arborist can scale the tree and use chain saws safely, lowering the branches carefully. He can also spot terminal decay - and advise.

If you can manage it yourself use ladders with care, preferably a tripod ladder. ( You will need a fold away pruning saw for small wood, a hand saw or a chain saw if you’re competent. If possible make it a two-man job, for added safety, and take your time. If you do it alone you continually have to get down the ladder to look at the tree - you cannot see what you’re doing close up. The person on the ground must know what they’re doing so ideally let the novice wield the saw under instruction.

You have to make big bold cuts at this stage, on a selected part of the tree bearing in mind the shape. Aim for an open airy shape if at all possible and don’t be afraid to remove a tall crown. Branches closer to the ground are easier to pick and an open middle allows the sun to shine in. When a decision has been made to cut away a large branch, make an undercut first. This is a cut from the bottom upwards and it will prevent the weight of the branch tearing from the trunk as gravity takes over.

When cutting, make a smooth clean cut and make sure that the branch juts out a little from the trunk. Do not cut it flush, because you may damage the trunk. Remove any crossing branches.

Repeat the process for four years or so.

Related: how to grow apple trees.

Taking scion wood - and start again by grafting

Take some scion wood and either graft it on to a new tree, not as hard as it sounds, or take the scion wood to a fruit specialist.

Whip and tongue grafting is the most common. It is best done on to a rootstock, but you can also do this on a young apple tree.

Cut the scion wood in December or January, when the weather is good. Look for wood that’s about an inch wide ( 2.3cm) and cut nine-inch lengths (23cm) or slightly longer.

Bundle the lengths together in fives or sixes and heel them into the ground, in a sheltered position, leaving a couple of inches showing. Or wrap them in polythene and keep them in the fridge.

In February select the small apple tree or rootstock, preferably a rootstock, and cut the top off the rootstock at about 15-30cm (6-12in) above ground level. Then trim off any remaining side shoots.

Make a downward slice from top to bottom, making the cut at least an inch and a half long to expose more of the cambium. Make a small vertical cut into the diagonal slice - 15mm from the top.

Trim your scion back to three buds and make a sloping cut of the same length behind the lowest bud. Make a vertical cut at the lower end - 15mm away from the lowest point. This is the tongue.

Place together slotting the two vertical cuts together, one on top of the other. The scion should be smaller than the rootstock and the scion cut should be visible above the rootstock to create a church window effect.

Bind the cut with grafting tape, stretching slightly as you go, and then tie it. The graft is usually sealed with grafting wax. Tape and wax can be acquired over the internet, although many a gardener will use raffia and vaseline. Add a cane as a support.

The graft takes between eight and twelve weeks to callous over.

Good apple varieties

Five staple favourites still performing well

‘Discovery’ (pollination group C)
Early red, dessert apple - does not store
(Essex 1949)

‘Worcester Pearmain’ (pollination group C)
Early sweet, red dessert apple September -October
Good in colder regions
(Worcester 1873)

‘Charles Ross’ (pollination group C)
Midseason, sweet, red-flushed dual-purpose apple for cooking and eating - September - December
Berkshire 1890

‘Kidd’s Orange’ (pollination group D)
Dessert apple, similar to Cox, but redder and sweeter
November - January
New Zealand 1924

‘Laxton Superb’ (pollination group D)
Dessert apple with aromatic Cox flavour
Befordshire 1897

Five newer apple varieties that perform

‘Jonagold’ (pollination group D)
Sweet flushed, late apple with a rich, honey flavour -November - January
USA 1943

‘Park Farm Pippin’ (pollination group D)
Early dessert, flushed apple with sweet juicy flavour and good disease resistance and self sterile

‘Red Falstaff’ (pollination group C)
Late, red dessert apple - October -December
Kent 1986

‘Rajka’ (pollination group D)
Disease resistant, mid-to-late red dessert apple October - December self-sterile
Czech Republic

‘Pinova’ (pollination group c)
Late, fruity dessert apple with good disease resistance - November - January
Germany 1986

Tips for growing fruit trees

Try to plant fruit trees in a warm position to encourage pollinators.

Use an ornamental crab apple to cross pollinate apple crops. Possible varieties could include ‘Golden Hornet’, ‘Red Sentinel’, Winter Hornet’ or ‘Profusion’.

Read our guide to planting a tree here.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.