Pruning an old apple tree

Tiffany Daneff / 05 February 2015

Gardening editor Tiffany Daneff tackles an old apple tree and shares her pruning tips.

With the puddles frozen and the ground not just too hard but too unwelcoming we decided to try our hand at restorative pruning a very old eating apple.

It produced no fruits in 2014, but 2013 had been a bumper harvest (for an old granddaddy tree) as you can see from the picture. You can also see how horribly congested the poor thing had become.

The tree is one of half a dozen that were once part of an orchard but have long ago been abandoned. I’m guessing they were planted by a Victorian tenant, but who knows? We found the apples were very good eaters, cox’s perhaps.

We’ve pruned apples before, indeed only last weekend we’d tidied up a small apple in the garden. This, though, was in a whole new league. A tree expert had had a look at it and his advice was:

  • To prune it over three winters. To do too much in one go might give the tree such a shock it dies.

Mark Diacono, who grows fruit at Otter Farm in Devon had these further suggestions:

  • Take photographs as it’s easier to work out what you want to achieve by looking at a two dimensional image.
  • Pause regularly, stepping back and considering what you are trying to achieve.

We also consulted various books which repeated the familiar rules of removing:

  • Dead wood
  • Diseased wood
  • Crossing branches

My final tip would be to do the job with someone else. Unless you’re a pro it is much easier to work out what should go by discussing it with someone else – on the two eyes are better than one principle.

Armed with a saw pruner, ratchet secateurs and our Stihl cordless chainsaw (which is a brilliant tool, capable of sawing branches up to six inches in diameter for a good 45 minutes without recharging) we marched up to the subject. Cordless are so good now that I’m never going back to messy fuel.

Without the leaves to hide them the tangled mass of lichened branches and twigs looked wilder than ever. It was like trying to work out which of Medusa’s writhing strands to go for first.

Before doing anything we had to decide what would go and what could stay, bearing in mind that we wanted to remove only a third of the total growth. The easiest way was to start from the trunk and then follow it through to the main branches. Then it becomes easier to work out which are the healthiest and which form a nice open shape. And then you can start.

We discovered that a major branch had split ages ago but since it’s growing strongly we left that to see another year. We also found a ruddy great parasitic elder lodged into a large cleft between two branches. Its branches were nearly 3 inches thick and reached six or more feet into the air. Which can’t have been making life any easier for the old apple.

It was about an hour’s work in all, producing a heap of apple wood for the fire, which was nice. But the real pleasure came in revealing the shape of the tree and in freeing it from suffocating under its own weight.

Next year we will have to call in a profession to help reduce the main trunk (which is way too high up for us to reach) and then perhaps by Sept 2018 we might see the final results of our work. This, of course, is assuming it hasn’t been so shocked by the haircut that it gives up the ghost, which is always a risk. Fingers crossed. 

Tiffany Daneff is also the editor of the award-winning intoGardens app - the world's first magazine app for gardens. Visit the appstore to download a free sample or go to the website for more information. Gardening has never looked better or been more exciting. Visit for more info.

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