Apples and pears: renovating old trees

Old, overgrown apples and pear trees can still be attractive and productive features in the garden if brought under control with pruning. Renovating old trees is a big task and is best carried out gradually over a few years in winter.

Apple trees with areas of congested new growth need to be renovated. Image: Tim Sandall/RHS

Quick facts

Suitable for Old overgrown apples and pears
Timing November to February
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

This method of pruning is suitable for old, overgrown apples and pears. Whenever pruning an overgrown tree, ideally do it in stages, over a number of years. Pruning back hard in one year only encourages excessive, vigorous and unfruitful growth.

Only trees with a sound, healthy trunk and main branches that show signs of having grown and cropped well in the past are worth attempting to renovate.

If the work involves a number of large, heavy, branches and working up a ladder consider employing a qualified arborist.

If yield is the most important factor, it might not be worth renovating an old tree. Consider replacing the tree with a new one on a dwarfing rootstock. This would crop at an early age, be easier to manage and take up less space per kilo of yield than a big old tree.

Older fruit trees are valuable for wildlife and ‘structure’ and a focal point in the garden. As long as the tree is healthy and poses no safety risk retaining the tree after renovation is highly desirable. Even if trees are not in good condition, provided they do not pose a safety concern they may be worth retaining if they are an old cultivar that is rare or even lost from cultivation (‘lost varieties’). If you don't know the identity of your tree, local fruit experts can often help. If the identity of the tree is uncertain consider bringing fruit to RHS Fruit Naming days or send fruit to Brogdale Collections.

Also consider propagating older trees by grafting, especially if the tree itself poses a hazard. Some specialist fruit nurseries offer a grafting service. By propagating old cultivars gardeners can help to maintain the genetic diversity and heritage of our fruit trees.

When to prune

Renovation is best carried out in winter, when the tree is not in leaf, as it encourages strong new growth in spring. It is also easier to see what you are doing when leaves are absent.

How to prune

Basic principles of apple and pear tree renovation

Neglected trees often have a crowded main branch framework so the objective of pruning is to improve branch spacing, allowing light and air to reach all parts of the tree and ease picking and maintenance. An open, goblet-shaped branch structure is the ultimate aim.

Size of pruning cuts: When pruning, always cut to the main stem or trunk, or back to a well-placed outward-growing side branch. The side branch should be at least one third of the diameter of the branch being cut out; if smaller (i.e. weaker) they have a tendency to die back and produce watershoots from the cut end. Watershoots are tall, upright branches, that produce no flowers or fruit – see Problems section.

Where to best make a cut: The ideal point to make a cut is immediately outside the 'collar' (i.e. to retain the collar), which is normally visible as a distinct bulge where the branch joins the trunk or main stem. Branches should neither be cut back flush to the trunk or main stem nor left with a large snag as these will result in poor healing or excessive dieback. See our page on tree pruning.

Amount to remove: Aim to remove no more than 25 percent of the canopy in any one year, saving the rest for succeeding years if there is a lot to remove. Removing more than one quarter of the canopy in one year can lead to undesirable regrowth of over-vigorous watershoots. Excessive pruning stresses the tree which will strive to restore the balance of roots and shoots. The resulting watershoots are unfruitful and the tree will take longer to come back into cropping. Also a mass of vertical shoots crowd the crown and require further thinning.

Aftercare: Mulch renovated trees in the spring following pruning, and feed with a general balanced fertiliser such as Growmore (at 70g per sq m/2oz per 10 sq yd) to encourage good regrowth. Ideally create a ‘tree circle’ free of vegetation around the base of the tree prior to mulching and applying fertiliser. The circle should be at least 60cm (2ft), but ideally 90cm (3ft) or more in radius.

Simple pruning steps for both overgrown trees and old stunted trees;

Overgrown, large trees

  1. First, remove all dead, diseased and broken branches.
  2. Lower branches that receive little light and obstruct passage should be removed entirely or pruned to a more upright shoot.
  3. Remove branches growing into the centre of the crown and also any crossing branches.
  4. Reduce overlong and unfruitful growth to a well-placed upward and also outward-growing side branch. To avoid dieback or excessive watershoots the side branch should be at least one third of the diameter of the branch you are removing. If however the canopy appears to be crowded remove the entire branch to its point of origin. Unless necessary try to avoid removing limbs over 20cm (8in) in diameter.
  5. Where the main branch framework is crowded, thin out surplus branches. Aim for a canopy with 50-60cm (20in-2ft) gaps between branches (measured from with half way up or along the branch). Remove surplus branches completely or prune to a well-placed the side branch that is one third of the diameter of the branch you are removing.
  6. If more than 25 percent of the canopy needs to be removed, spread the pruning over two to three years.
  7. Once growth is under control, consider employing winter regulated pruning in future years. This method controls the size of the tree without the need for further renovation pruning.

Stunted, starved trees

These trees have little new growth, but often have overcrowded, dense spur systems (stubby branches producing flowers and fruit). Because there is little new growth moss and lichen readily colonise the branches (link), but these are a sign of poor growth not a cause.

  1. Remove branches growing into the centre of the tree to avoid congested growth. Low growing branches that receive little light are also best removed.
  2. Thin out some of the spur systems, removing those that are unproductive or that are overshadowing others, aiming for spacing spurs 10-15cm (9-6ins) apart. This will give the remaining spurs more space, and allow light to reach them, resulting in better fruit size and more even ripening and allowing better air movement. This will also encourage tree vigour, and new branches should grow. These will eventually replace the older, worn-out branches.
  3. To increase tree vigour remove vegetation around the base of the tree creating a ‘tree circle’ of at least 60-90cm (2-3ft) radius. Mulch the circle with 5-8cm (2-3ins) of bulky organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotted manure, but don’t allow the mulch to touch the bark at the base of the tree.
  4. Apply fertiliser in spring.

Problems

Over-pruning (removing more than 25 percent of the canopy in any one year) may result in the production of watershoots (epicormic growth), which are vigorous, tall, upright and leafy branches, producing no flowers or fruit.

How to manage watershoots:

  • In the first year after pruning, remove any watershoots growing directly from the trunk or from the lower parts of main branches and cut out half of the remaining upright watershoots from their base to leave evenly spaced shoots. Aim to keep the centre of the crown open
  • Tip-prune the remaining watershoots, simply cutting off the top 10cm (4in) or so, to encourage branching
  • In the second year, remove, at the base, half the watershoots retained in the previous year. Prune the remaining shoots to an outward-facing bud or branch, to encourage an open-centred branch structure
  • In the third year, continue to prune to outward-facing buds or branches. Fruit buds should have started to form on the new shoots. Where this has occurred, revert to routine winter pruning or consider adopting regulated pruning that gives good height control while retaining fruiting wood
  • Start removing the older, weaker spurs on the original branch framework in favour of new growth that is maturing, beginning to fruit and can replace the older spurs
  • Once the growth is under control continue with winter pruning or consider employing winter regulated pruning method that allows to control the size of the without the need for further renovation pruning

Look out for common problems of old or neglected trees, such as canker, biennial bearing, scab, powdery mildew, rosy apple aphid and woolly aphid.

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  • Emma L avatar

    By Emma L on 08/02/2016

    Could you please clarify the advice give relating to when to remove water shoots in the first year. The advice says to remove water shoots in the first year. My old pear tree has been pruned this winter. When you say 'in the first year' do you mean a year after the prune i.e. next winter? Thank you


  • FionaJane avatar

    By FionaJane on 13/10/2015

    I have a pear tree in a communal garden over 100 years old. Still productive and blossoms beautifully. Someone has taken it upon themselves without permission to lop back the whole arbour right to the trunk. Will this venerable old tree ever grow back? I am devastated as it had a TPO.


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  • ArunM avatar

    By ArunM on 25/08/2015

    Hi I have (had?) two old, but not huge, pear trees at the front of our house (South facing). One is mainly dead with good growth at one branch which Im guessing is a graft. I have cut off the main part of the tree and have left the graft which leafed well this summer but no blossom. So have a good thick trunk with one good branch coming out the side! Will this survive? Now the second one was in better shape, but I pruned it hard (almost pollarded it!) last winter and this spring there were several water shoots, but these leafed very briefly before turning black! is there any hope for this tree? Thanks for any help!


  • anonymous avatar

    By anonymous on 15/01/2015

    An Bramley Apple Tree which has been in the garden for 40 years is starting to look some of its bark. What can I do?


  • SteveM avatar

    By SteveM on 01/01/2015

    For reasons I won't go into I was obliged to over-severely prune a very old Apple tree last year. As might be predicted I now have a lot of very vigorous upward growths. Do I just thin these out and cut the remainder back to, say, 12 inches or should I be doing something more? Many thanks


  • Raelene avatar

    By Raelene on 11/10/2014

    I have two young pear trees, and young peach and apricot trees approximately 2 years old from maidens, which I had planned to espalier and fan train. But due to a broken leg and a couple of other dramas in my life, I have neglected to train them as planned. They are starting to bush out into little trees. Can I retrain them into espalier and fans? Is it best to do this in one fell swoop this winter, or should I do it over a few years? None have fruited yet. Can anyone advise? Very many thanks


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  • Briony avatar

    By Briony on 02/10/2014

    Can anyone fix this site so that replies are shown with the question? A shame as it would be even better then!


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  • Briony avatar

    By Briony on 02/10/2014

    To Alix - A 2 or 3 year job to renovate the first tree. As long as you don't cut off the grafts you need to prune but no more than a quarter of the crown each year; otherwise you'll get too much re-growth. Also reduce the length of lower branches. Start this winter. Your second tree may be yellow due to lacking some nutrient. By all means prune but not severely as it may respond by throwing out excessive new growth. Early Spring apply a manure mulch, or feed, that may redress the nutrient balance. Water tree in dry periods, especially Spring.


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  • Briony avatar

    By Briony on 02/10/2014

    To bluerose - Pear midge larvae overwinter in soil under the tree. Cultivate/disturb this soil. In spring apply insecticidal dust to soil and spray tree but not when in blossom. Destroy any affected fruits. Persevere!


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  • Alix avatar

    By Alix on 01/10/2014

    Total beginner to gardening and have never pruned before, but have two apple trees that are seriously overgrown and need lots of attention. Both trees are about 50 years old. The main tree is about 10 ft high and has three varieties on it. The main tree is a red eating apple, no idea what the varieties are, and fruits along long branches at the top. There are two grafts, one small cooking apple, which fruits in clumps on very low branches and the third varitey, another red eating one, along high and low branches. The problem I have is that its a very productive tree, but very out of shape in every direction and very low to the ground, which makes it difficult to mow the lawn. The second tree is a poor looking russet that fruits ok, but is very yellow alot of the time. I'm tempted to cut it all right back to a nice shape , but don't want to damage the tree. Don't mind if its not so productive as have too many apples anyway, but help please!! Many thanks 😊


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  • Collgirl avatar

    By Collgirl on 19/09/2014

    I have a very small apple tree right under the shade of a large cooker. It is very unproductive and I wonder if I could transplant it. It must be about twenty years old. I love it for the enormous amount of blossom it produces.


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  • Guy Barter (RHS Staff) avatar

    By Guy Barter (RHS Staff) on 12/09/2014

    Yes, a three year old tree should shift easily enough - after leaf fall of course - from November in most regions.


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  • Fuchsia dear avatar

    By Fuchsia dear on 15/07/2014

    I've got an 3yr old apple tree that's being over taken where it is planted by the other shrubs and a rather vigorous clematis. Can I replant else where in the garden? And when can I do this? Thx .


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  • bluerose avatar

    By bluerose on 12/07/2014

    pear midge has devastated crop this year, i have cut off all buds and infected areas. what and when should i spray tree with next year to avoid this happening again?


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