How to prune big old apple tree

I have a very large very old apple tree in my back yard. It has not been maintained much the last few years. It consists of a few main branches and hundreds of suckers growing straight up from the branches. Should I remove all of the upright growing suckers? I hate to butcher the tree, but it is in serious need of some TLC.
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The suckers should be removed as they destroy the shape of the tree and don't produce as much fruit as a lateral branch. You should not remove more than 1/3 of a tree in any given season. Hopefully, you have enough lateral branches growing that should be encouraged to grow faster when the tree re-directs it's energy away from the suckers. Don't do any cutting while the tree sap is actively flowing, or that will encourage the tree to send out more suckers. Early Winter or late Fall might be the best time for this kind of pruning. Try to encourage a single central branch or leader to direct the tree to a more pleasing shape, although with your very old tree that may not be possible.
Sherwin D.
Zootal wrote:

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Unfortunately, this thing is huge and probably past the point where I can shape it. It's about 100 years old and the trunk is about 3 feet in diameter, and the branches that split up from the trunk are easily 12". I hesitate to touch them because they are so big. I can remove the vertical suckers, and thin out the existing branches - but what else can you do with a huge old tree? I'll try to post some pics this weekend so you can see what I'm dealing with. Now that the leaves are gone, it's easier to see what I'm working with.

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Here is some pics of the tree:
http://zootal.no-ip.info/stuff/2006%20November%20Garden/images/DSCF6433.jpg
http://zootal.no-ip.info/stuff/2006%20November%20Garden/images/DSCF6429.jpg
It's been butchered in the past, and now it's this big sprawling thing and I'm not quite sure what to do with it.

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After seeing the pictures of your tree, it looks as if it is very far gone. Almost every small branch is a sucker. However, you do have a few lateral branches which could be encouraged to be the dominant growth. I would start removing the suckers when the tree is dormant, taking off no more than 1/3 of them in any season. The root structure appears to be vigerous and healthy, so hopefully that energy can be directed to more lateral growth. I'm curious if you are getting any apples from it. Any idea what variety it is? Once you get apples from it, you should taste them to determine if it is worth keeping the tree. I see from the picture that you are starting to grow some new trees. If this old tree is not producing good apples, it's better to cut it down to make room for new trees.
Sherwin D.
Ook wrote:

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"Ook" <Ook Don't send me any freakin' spam at zootal dot com delete the Don't send me any freakin' spam> wrote in message

Hi, all, thank you very much for all your comments. My neighbor tells me that a few years ago, the guy that lived here (I just bought the house a year ago) cut all of the main branches way back because it was sprawling so far out. And you can see exactly how he butchered the poor thing.
To answer some of the asked questions:
I'm in Lebanon, Oregon, a small town about 90 miles south of Portland, Oregon. I'm in the middle of the Wilammette Valley. The tree produces green apples with red streaks. I see them at the store, but I don't know what they are called. They are medium large sized, and actually quite good. The tree was half covered with them - there were several places that did not bloom, but had plenty of foliage. I cut down it's neighbor because the trunk forked into two vertical branches, and one fork was badly rotted to the point where it was dangerous. I didn't think the tree could be saved, so I put it out of it's misery. I counted about 75 growth rings in the stump. This trunk is much bigger, I'm guessing it's at least 100 years old. I'd like to save it simply because of it's age, besides having good apples.
Here are a few shots of what they tree looked like when it was green:
http://zootal.no-ip.info/stuff/2006%20September%2030%20Garden/images/DSCF5840.jpg
http://zootal.no-ip.info/stuff/2006%20July%20Yard%201/images/DSCF3751.jpg
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Another choice would be to take some scion off the old tree and graft it onto a decent dwarf rootstock, so it will start producing apples quicker. If it were in my yard, it would have to go because I'm pressed for space and this thing takes up a lot of it. There are many other interesting fruits you could plant in the space that
opens up. The tree is not attractive, and probably not worth the effort to restore it, especially since you can preserve the apples with a newly grafted tree.
Sherwin D.
Ook wrote:

http://zootal.no-ip.info/stuff/2006%20September%2030%20Garden/images/DSCF5840.jpg
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you are right to not trim the large branches on old trees. they are balanced for the whole tree. however, you can remove the suckers. I think what happened is somebody whacked at the tree in spring and it stimulated suckering spring pruning stimulates suckers late summer pruning is for removal what I cant remember is whether to rip the suckers off or cut them off to hinder their regrowth. Ingrid

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Boy, someone has been pollarding your apple tree. It's pretty ugly.
Does that tree produce any apples at all? If it produces good apples, it's probably worth trying to save. If not, it's firewood. But it's an old tree, so it probably *could* grow good apples, if people would quit cutting all of the fruitwood off of it.
Where are you? There's a group called the "Rare Fruit Explorers." They probably have a chapter in your area, since you have an old tree like that. They would probably love to come get cuttings (scionwood) from your tree to graft onto their trees, and they could help you rehabilitate your tree.
Email me.
Jan Homer, Alaska PS: I took my Master Gardener training from a fruit tree guy in CA in 1983, then made a living pruning fruit trees for the next 7 years. Then I moved to Alaska and have been trying to grow apple trees up here, with pretty good success.

--
Bedouin proverb: If you have no troubles, buy a goat.

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Zootal,
Do you really want to keep you big, old Apple tree? Whether it bears fruit or not?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, I suggest you look upon the tree as having undergone masive surgery, with a near death experience thrown in. It is a mature tree that has had almost half of its energy annihilated in one foul sweep, the sucker growth is its attempt to recover from such a shocking experience. For any tree to successfully compartmentalise wounds of that size, quickly enough to prevent any infection from opportunistic bacteria, is a tremendous feat. For an old Apple to still be alive after what looks to be between two and five years after the fact says something about that tree.
The Apple seems to have had a show of foliage this summer- I would say a bit thin, but not sparse. The overall shape of the crown, although mainly secondary growth, could be worse, asthetically speaking, it has a hole at the top at the mid-section, and what looks to be a few straggly branches at the base of the crown.The suckers are an eyesore, indeed, the result of a foul deed- what Alex Shigo says is a crime against nature (to top a tree).
At most, if it were my tree, and I appreciated its character and presence, and wanted it to have a chance at looking handsome again, I would resist the urge to remove some of the suckers, for two more years, and lay a generous amount of some lovely, well rotted mulch around the base of the Apple- at least to the outer edge of the tree's crown. Again, I would resist the urge to shape this not-quite-as-dynamic-as-it-once-was-Apple into something more pleasing to my eye and sense of what this tree should look like. If it is dry, then I would water it, not excessively, but enough.
However, unable to resist leaving the tree be, I would have a nose around, check out the condition of the main stem,(sound? Not?), deeming it sound I would climb the tree, and cut those stubs back to the branch- not flush, slight angle along the markings given by the base of the branch/stub-, and carefully remove any dead or diseased branches.
Then I would leave it alone, apart from the odd check for rot, etc., for two full years; perhaps a raking and an adding of mulch.
I might plant a couple of climbing Rose bushes that offered a beautiful fragrance, and encourage them to climb the Apple.
If, after two (or more) years the Apple is still alive, then I would look to removing perhaps one out of three of the really busy sucker clusters whilst keeping an eye on the shape of the whole crown, and the possibilities of growth directions, so that I removed the least number of branches to encourage the crown to grow into the shape it offers naturally combined with what is visually more attractive to my eye.
Then I would repeat the whole thing. ;)
Zootal wrote:

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Zootal wrote:

I do not remember exactly where I originally obtained the information that I used to guide me in pruning my old apple tree. But it's a common enough problem that there was once a web page devoted specifically to the subject. Google for it. The guide recommended taking a full three years to get the tree to its final shape. Winter was recommended as the best time for extensive pruning, when the tree is out of leaf. You don't say where you are located. But if you are in the Northern Hemisphere, then your apple tree should be going dormant for the winter soon.
The guide suggested pretty standard pruning cuts -- eliminating the long vertical suckers, interior crossing branches, and branches growing downward; selecting well-spaced side branches with good angles between them; and, modest heading-back of the branches you do keep. As for the shape, an "open center" configuration was recommended. This means that after the main trunk branches, there is no central leader. Supposedly this lets light/air/pollen/pollinators into the center of the tree, resulting in more fruit.
I still get suckers every year, but they're a lot shorter and less numerous than before. This season, I tried pruning a few of those suckers while the tree was still in leaf. No harm appears to have befallen the tree. I'll be pruning much more next month.
Good luck!
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John Ladasky wrote:

I'd certainly take out the central boughs. Do it on a frost morning. See if anyone locally wants the apple for turning. It's excellent for that. Aim to keep the boughs that permit the easy use of a ladder.
If I had kids, that tree would be a tree-house by now.
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Zootal wrote:

Remove all crossed and rubbing branches and dead and diseased wood.
No need for pruning paint. Derryl Horticulturist Calgary AB
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