Never Underestimate Nature: Rejuvenating Old Apple Trees

By Sam McClary

While dri­ving along coun­try roads in the autumn, watch­ing the falling leaves – I sud­den­ly encoun­tered an old, aban­doned, neglect­ed apple orchard. What would it take to bring this orchard back to life? What unknown vari­eties of apples might be discovered?

I can won­der no more. I recent­ly inher­it­ed an old orchard of my own, six gnarled, twist­ed, and par­tial­ly dead apple trees stand­ing sen­tinel above the mead­ow on our new­ly pur­chased prop­er­ty. My Dad was whol­ly uncon­vinced of their struc­tur­al integri­ty, and masons, roofers, deliv­ery­men, dri­vers, all seemed to notice their sad state of dis­re­pair. Through­out the dis­course of these observers, the ques­tion was begged: could this orchard live again? The answer, resound­ing­ly, is yes! I rec­og­nize the pit­falls, the effort, the patience it takes — like most things worth doing. But I also rec­og­nize that Nature is indeed a great and indomitable healer. 

The first step seemed clear: observe the trees in their cur­rent state. What branch­es need to be removed? Is there dam­age to any bud tips, bark, etc. that could indi­cate the pres­ence of pests? Do I just climb up them with a hack­saw and good inten­tions? Thank­ful­ly, before I dove head first into this adven­ture, I took any and every oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask qual­i­fied peo­ple. The direc­tor of Lan­dis Arbore­tum, Fred Breglia, does an incred­i­ble num­ber of work­shops on every type of prun­ing sce­nario you can think of (and pre­sum­ably a few none of us imag­ined). From Fred I got a crash course on the tools, equip­ment, and the­o­ry behind prun­ing old apple trees.

The first task in reju­ve­nat­ing old apple trees is to remove any dead branch­es. You should also remove ones that are grow­ing at unnat­ur­al angles or crowd­ing out branch­es that are set­ting the most fruit. Do this to pro­mote prop­er air­flow (reduc­ing pests) and prop­er sun­light expo­sure (enhanc­ing fruit set qual­i­ty, col­or and fla­vor). The next place to look is down! Scrape back a few inch­es of soil (up to 6” depend­ing on soil quality/​root preva­lence). Is there evi­dence of ben­e­fi­cial microor­gan­isms (myceli­um, preda­to­ry insects)? Is there evi­dence of harm­ful microor­gan­isms (Japan­ese bee­tle grubs, wee­vils, aphids)? You would be amazed what a new top dress­ing of soil and some aer­a­tion can do! If you dig back some and are mys­ti­fied, send a soil sam­ple to your near­est Cor­nell Coop­er­a­tive Exten­sion office. They’ll be hap­py to let you know what’s real­ly going on down there! Speak­ing of down there, there’s one oth­er key com­po­nent to mak­ing sure your old apple trees are get­ting a new lease on life. You’ve got to check the roots! If you can find any encir­cling or ensnar­ing roots, remove them with a ster­il­ized pruner.

Be patient. It’s best to avoid remov­ing more that 25% of the tree’s wood at any one time. Give your­self at least two years to bring the old trees back. And be real­is­tic: while apple trees can live to a hun­dred years or more, their fruit­ing peaks at about 25 years. Con­sid­er plant­i­ng new trees for the next generation.

That old orchard on my prop­er­ty was plant­ed on land worked by the set­tlers who came here with Sir William John­son in the 18th Cen­tu­ry. Find­ing and reju­ve­nat­ing an old orchard is tru­ly a joy — and a labor of love that reach­es both back to the past and for­ward to the future.

Spring 2024

Volume 42 , Number 1

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