Winter Pruning: Rejuvenating Old Fruit Trees

Fruit trees have incredibly long lives, and they can grow very large and out of control before you know it. Instead of cutting an old, neglected fruit tree down, you can slowly but surely rejuvenate it so it will keep bearing for years to come. The best time to work on rejuvenating a fruit tree is in the winter when the tree is dormant and the limbs are bare.

Best Fruit Trees to Rejuvenate

Apples and pears are the easiest trees to rejuvenate. The success rate is much lower with cherries, and peaches and nectarines are better cut down and replanted.

Length of Time to Rejuvenate a Mature Tree

If the tree is very large, it can take up to 3 years to prune it back to its desired size. You should never remove more than 1/3 of a tree's growth at one time, to avoid putting it into shock. Therefore, extremely tall and overgrown trees must be reduced in size gradually over several winters.

Things to Consider

Before you go through a years-long process of bringing an old fruit tree back to life, consider

  • the quality of the fruit - Is it an heirloom variety of superior taste that is not grown anymore? Is the fruit exceptionally good for canning or cooking?  
  • the location of the tree - Does it shade an inconvenient part of the yard? Would it interfere with mowing? Is it too close to an adjacent structure or power lines?
  • the health of the tree - Are the trunk and main limbs structurally sound? Is it infested with insects or diseased?

Signs the Tree Can't Be Saved

If your fruit tree has large hollow spots on the trunk or major limbs, it probably is a lost cause. Signs of fungal disease, such as orange-brown scaly growths, also indicate a tree beyond rescue. If you can't save the tree, you may be able to grow a new one by rooting a healthy limb or cutting or grafting a scion onto another healthy tree.

Steps for Pruning Old Fruit Trees

Pruning a badly overgrown tree takes a lot of time and expertise. Keep in mind that this is not a one-shot deal, and it can take years to complete all the steps. If you feel overwhelmed and don't want to harm the tree further, call your local tree service like the one found at before you start hacking away at it.

  1. Clear out dead and diseased branches. Remove any branches that are crossed or rubbing each other.
  2. Open the canopy to sunlight by reducing the number of branches overall, but especially in the middle of the tree. This is where you need knowledge to know which limbs to cut and which to leave. You are aiming for removing branches growing straight up and leaving those growing horizontally.
  3. Shape the tree gradually over a few years by removing no more than 1/3 of the growth per year. Shaping includes training new branches to grow horizontally instead of vertically. If you don't know exactly how to do this, it's best to call in a pro, because supple, young branches are easily damaged.

Rejuvenating a healthy fruit tree is well worth the effort, but it requires patience, time and knowledge. To ensure that the job is done properly so that the tree has a better chance of survival, call your local tree service for a consultation and estimate.