How to Give New Life to an Old Apple Tree
If you purchase a property with a neglected garden, you're bound to be faced with challenges. But if your garden includes neglected fruit trees, you are gifted with opportunities.
My current home came complete with two old apple trees. At first glance they were no more than potential firewood
However, after applying basic principles of organic garden management, I was rewarded with a large harvest of heritage apples.
If you have a fruit tree that's destined for the too-hard basket alongside your fireplace, I urge you to take a moment and consider the options.
With a bit of love and attention, you might share my success.
If you live off the grid, as I do, or simply hope to achieve a goal of being as self-sufficient and sustainable as possible, it is important to become creative about problem solving in the garden. Our gardens provide us with fresh fruit and vegetables.
In today's economy, waste is not an option. If rejuvenating an existing fruit tree increases the amount of fresh food available to you and your family, any effort becomes a small price to pay.
My methods are a little different to the advice gardeners normally offer. But you just need to look at the photos to see there was nothing normal about my tree!!
I choose to be organic. My solutions to any problem in the garden rely on nature's remedies. As you are about to discover, my apple trees responded well to my techniques.
Could you have the same success with a different type of fruit tree? Maybe. You certainly won't know unless you try. :)
My Top Tips for Rejuvenating Old Apple Trees
- Prune in the spring, before new growth begins.
Don't be too savage at first. Anything ancient deserves respect!
- Aerate the soil.
Encourage your hens to scratch and feed at the base of the tree
- Strengthen the roots.
Hen manure, comfrey leaves and mulch helped mine.
- Provide another apple tree for cross-pollination.
Choose a variety that flowers at the same time of year.
- Control insects and pests.
Fennel attracts bees and at the same time deters unwanted pests, particularly pests that spend part of their life cycle in the ground.
- Water thoroughly.
I didn't water often, but when I did I gave a thorough soaking around the root line.
- Protect fruit from birds.
Cover with netting if you hope to make lots of apple pies!
Is an ancient apple tree worth saving?
We inherited two old apple trees on our property. We were told they were more than 100 years old. By my reckoning that makes them ancient.
I asked the former owner what I could expect; red or green, sweet or tart? In the ten years that she'd lived here, she'd never seen an apple and had often considered chopping the trees down. Their removal jumped close to the top of my husband's list of things to do.
There's little point in having a completely unproductive tree in any orchard, but I'd never seen an apple tree so old and I agreed in principle to its removal - on the condition that I get at least one season to see if I could detect any signs of life.
We pruned the old tree but the signs were not good. The trunk was rotten and hollow and my husband was not to be trusted alone with the chainsaw.
As you can see from my photos, the tree was so old it had created its own crutch. The only thing stopping it from toppling over.
My daughter and I covered the tree with netting because that's what one does with apple trees. My husband and I later removed the netting because only strangely eccentric women put netting over dead apple trees.
Okay, the man had a point.
In your orchard ...
What's the likely outcome if you had a dead-looking fruit tree?
Visitors were convinced the trees were dead and laughed at my stubborn determination to give the trees a chance. They would have laughed louder had the netting stayed in place.
Cockatoos, galahs and other native birds will devour the fruit on any tree given the chance, but we were not convinced we'd see any growth in the old apple trees. When leaves are unlikely, there's no need to worry about apples.
We were genuinely surprised by the first signs of new life. As the season progressed, there was green on the crusty old branches. Then flowers.
Flowers!! That was exciting.
Sadly though, no apples.
The second year, I was determined to see fruit. We have two old apple trees but they are positioned too far apart for convenience. We were already planting our orchard to extend between the two ancient trees and I'd planted Granny Smith and Pink Lady apples, plus another apple tree with multiple grafts so it would produce gala and delicious apples. But they were only young.
I watered and mulched the new apple trees, but I gave extra attention to the grand old lady with the crutch.
When my husband announced he would build a second hen house to accommodate a different breed of chickens, I convinced him to create a temporary hen house and fenced area around the base of the old apple tree. I hoped their scratching would help aerate the soil, their pecking would help eliminate any bugs in the ground and the branches, and their manure would provide much needed nourishment for the roots.
The hens moved in and spent the winter scrambling up and down the frame of the tree, and busying themselves around its base.
When springtime arrived we relocated the hens and I put the next stage of my plan into action.
Our first big vegetable garden was productive and attracting bees, but I wasn't confident that would solve the pollination issue for the apple trees. I bought a dwarf Pink Lady apple tree that was small, but flowering, and planted it in the biggest pot I could find.
I mulched it with comfrey leaves and watered it well while waiting for the ancient apple trees to flower.
We dragged the potted Pink Lady to rest beneath the first old tree to flower, then dragged it again to spend time with the other.
Can you imagine how happy I was to see fruit? Not a lot of fruit, I confess, but we had apples forming on both trees. The one I'd neglected had no more than a dozen tiny apples, but my favourite one was dotted with tiny fruit.
Cockatoos ate every single one of them. Grrrr.
How big will Comfrey grow?
It is very disappointing to come so close to success and be thwarted at the last moment. I still didn't know if the apples would be tasty or not, but I was determined to find out.
I had plenty of time to make further improvements before my third season arrived. It was time to get serious about pruning, and watering, and keeping birds and bugs away.
We pruned most of the top of the tree but I was reluctant to give it too much of a shock, and insisted we keep the low hanging branches to enable me to create new roots for a new generation of tree when they touched the ground within a few years
I planted fennel at the base of the apple tree because fennel, in my experience, deters all kinds of pests. It is particularly useful for protecting fruit trees from cherry and pear slug and I had seen plenty of the slugs on our hawthorn trees (also inherited) as well as my new pear trees, cherry trees, plums, apricots and peaches.
Call me crazy, but I suspected they might also like to feast on apple trees.
This time as the trees filled with leaves, then flowers, we dragged the potted Pink Lady apple tree back for short visits to each tree. Every Saturday we moved it again.
At the first hint of fruit, we replaced the netting. Generally my husband and I build a frame over a tree to be netted but the ancient apple trees are huge. The best we could do was toss the nets up and over.
Worthy of netting at last
Look at it now!
The same tree. Happy, healthy, and laden with apples!
A real apple tree!
One happy old apple tree!
I am delighted to tell you that the apples are wonderful. They are firm and crunchy, the way we like our apples.
This year there was no need to drag the potted Pink Lady across the grass. Nature took care of pollination, and my other apple trees are all fruiting as well.
The grand old apple tree, my favourite, has contributed hundreds of apples to our harvest this year.
I have no way of knowing how much longer it will last because the trunk is still hollow and feeble looking, but this year was a bumper crop.
Anyone with an ancient apple tree, or even just an old one, should make an effort to try and rejuvenate it. The rewards are terrific!
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