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5 Holistic Pruning Steps to Restoring Old Fruit Trees

My family is restoring an 1892 Farmstead in Northern CA. I’m in charge of the heirloom orchard and garden renovation. Other family members are in charge of restoring the farmhouse and outbuildings. You can read more about the project HERE.

Restoring an heirloom orchard

“Caring for the orchard is about what we can give these old friends, so that they in turn can offer us the bounty of many fruitful years.”

~Michael Phillips “The Apple Grower”

Learning a New Approach to Orcharding:

This past month has been a bustle of activities, as we had to winter prune the 60+ fruit trees at the farmstead. This farmstead land has always been cultivated organically and of course I am keeping it that way. But I am also learning a new (to me) approach to orcharding and I thought I would share some of it with you in this post.

I’ll also share how we are working to restore some very old, neglected fruit trees as part of this holistic approach. If you have a fruit tree that needs a little bit of TLC pruning, it should help you as well.

The Holistic OrchardWhat is Holistic Orcharding?

Michael Phillips first changed the conversation about healthy orcharding with his book The Apple Grower and then later with his book, The Holistic Orchard. In both books, he demonstrates that producing healthy fruit is not about manipulating nature. It is about supporting a balance orchard ecosystem.

He highlights the importance of:

  • Home orcharding and permaculture
  • Native pollinators
  • Under plantings
  • Cover crops
  • Using the latest research to handle pest problems.

He helps the home orchardist navigate that delicate balance that is needed to grow organically and sustainably. He even has a DVD out that is so packed with information, you have to constantly pause it to take notes. (Really! You will.)

I learned a lot from Michael and am slowly implementing his tips and techniques at the farmstead as I am working to create a more balanced ecosystem.  I will cover more details on the ecosystem in another post.

Here is a clip from his DVD and I have a full resource list at the end of this post.

Our Heirloom Tree Situation:

Of the 60+ trees around the property, most are heirloom apple trees (with no two trees are alike). My two favorite apples are Spitzenburg and Arkansas Black but all the other trees are also delicious with incredible depth of flavor. Some of these trees are 100 years old. We have:

  • Over 30 different apple trees
  • Pear trees
  • Asian pear trees
  • European plum
  • Miner plum
  • Fig trees
  • Several different cherry trees (sour and sweet)
  • Many different kinds of peach
  • Nectarine
  • Apricot
  • Walnut

I have also planted a few new additions to the orchard including persimmon, quince, white peach and Utah cherry.

Deena Miller and Robbie Martin

Deena & Robbie with help from farm dog Jen

Although they were originally well cared for, they have been neglected and mismanaged after the owner passed away 15 years ago. Many were in bad shape with toppings (probably to reduce size), waterspouts and dead wood that had never been cleared.

Getting Help:

Given my limited time when I am working at the farm, I certainly could not prune all 60+ of these needy trees alone! So I enlisted the help of some local friends.

Deena Miller and Robbie Martin have been instrumental both last year and this year in helping me come up with a game plan for each tree and in helping me implement it. They own Sweet Roots Farm and also happen to be degreed horticulturalists with awesome fruit tree pruning skills. It was Deena who first turned me on to the teachings of Michael Phillips. Lucky me!

The Restoration Plan:

This is the second year into our 3-4 year restorative pruning plan. For us it is about looking at the “big picture” of each tree: Where it has been and where it is going. It’s not about just looking at the immediate tree response to winter pruning. So it fits with the holistic approach I am implementing going forward.

We are taking it slow, as you just can’t fix everything in one season. Doing so would over-excite the tree and only produce vegetative growth with no fruit. So our steps below are being done in stages over several years.

Winter Fruit Tree Pruning

Our 5 Step Pruning Plan for Each Tree:

1. Clear Out: This was our main focus of year one. We removed dead and diseased branches as well as crossed and rubbing branches.

Tree Pruning

2. Open Up: Our goal is to open the canopy of each tree to give the fruit more sunlight. We spent some time on this in year one and continued our work for year two. But that first year, most of the trees were complete rat’s nests of multiple branches. They were a mess! It took forever to clear some trees, as we had to carefully think through each cut.

This step was the hardest part for me!  These trees were so bad it was overwhelming and I wasn’t sure where to start. Then, I started over-thinking each cut and I worried that I would only make the situation worse. But Deena had a lot of experience with restoring abandoned trees and she helped guide me. Together, we plowed through. Then as the trees opened up, I could finally see the structure again! By the 2nd-3rd tree, I started to feel more confident. And now (a year later) as we prune again, I can see how well our cuts worked last year. 5 steps to restoring old fruit treesPruning Pear Trees

3. Shape: General overall shaping – a little bit each year.

4. Stimulate: Deena taught me a lot about how to mend some of the damage to the trees. We have been making rejuvenation cuts where some of the trees had been slightly butchered or “topped”. We did a few rejuvenation cuts in year one and year two. It will take years for the new growth to be nurtured back into filling some of the spaces. But already new branches are forming and the trees are responding.

5. Train Young Wood: In year three, we will start to shape and bend the young branches so that they will bear more fruit going forward. Training new vertical branches to go horizontal will allow them to develop more fruit buds.

Of course, these old trees will never have perfect shape, but they are each beautiful in their own way and they are still producing a lot of fruit.  They add character to this place. Luckily, we have the space to let these old beauties grow next to newer, younger trees that can offer more fruit.

Big project, right? I will keep you posted on their progress!

Resources I Recommend for Home Orchards:

The Holistic Orchard – Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips

The Apple Grower – A guide for the Organic Orchardist by Michael Phillips

Holistic Orcharding – DVD: This is basically a visual version of the book with Michael himself teaching while you follow him through all the seasons in the orchard.

The Home Orchard by University of CA Agriculture and Natural Resources

Orange PippinA great website with a large database of information on apple varieties. I especially like the detailed photos and the tasting notes on over 600 different apple varieties. It is a great resource when trying to ID an apple or if you are researching for a tree with particular traits.

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy®. For 9 years, Theresa was the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.