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Schmidt: Rejuvenate old apple trees

By Staff | Feb 14, 2014

There are lots of backyard apple trees in North Dakota. Most of these trees are tall, rarely pruned, and never sprayed. These trees provide some nice flowers in spring, some shade in summer, and a few nice fruits in the fall. According to Tom Kalb, NDSU Extension Horticulturalist, this is nice but we can do better.

Tom recommends pruning the tree every winter which will get more sunlight into the canopy leading to brighter red apples. Pruning the tree every winter will increase air movement in the canopy helping to prevent diseases such as apple scab, which thrive on humidity.

Pruning the tree every winter will also keep it at a more manageable size. This will make it easier for you to spray the tree (if needed), and harvest the fruit.

Young apple trees should be trained into “Christmas tree” shapes to maximize sunlight in the canopy. In the case of an overgrown tree, it’s too late for that type of shaping. In most cases, we will go for an umbrella shape now, with branches arching in all directions from the main trunk, not allowing the major scaffold branches to exceed 12 feet tall.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for rejuvenating old apple trees. Old trees that have been neglected for years will take years to get back into decent shape. The best time to prune is in March since the tree is dormant and the wounds will not be exposed to the worst of winter. However, anytime the tree is dormant (including today) it is okay to prune.

During the first year of rejuvenating an old apple tree, the focus will be on reducing the height of the tree. The ultimate goal is to bring the tree down to 12 feet tall.

We want to establish a network of sturdy branches, preferably at 60-degree angles from the trunk (Fig 5). Using the face of a clock as our guide, the strongest, most productive branches should be at angles of 2 and 10 o’clock.

Search for sturdy branches about four inches thick within the old canopy. We want young, strong branches; these branches have glossy bark (old branches are scaly). When we identify a strong scaffold branch, we will trim above it. The overall effect will be to bring the tree down to size (Fig. 5).

To avoid sunscald damage and shocking the tree, try not to remove more than 25 percent of the tree’s wood at any one time. It’s best to give yourself at least two years to reshape the tree.

Remove the clutter within the tree. Remove suckers at the base branches that cross over one another vertical branches in the canopy (called water sprouts), broken branches, and inward facing branches. Remember, we want to open the canopy to maximize sunlight and air movement.

An old tree has an extensive root system and it will keep pumping a lot of nutrients and water to the branches. Expect many new shoots to appear during this year. You will need to aggressively trim out the vertical shoots next winter since they will not be fruitful. After a few years, you will see a big difference in the health of the tree and the quality of the fruit. Nevertheless, you still have an old tree and the best days of the tree are long gone. The best long-term solution may be the single-cut “chainsaw” method and removing the old tree. In the place of the overgrown tree, you could plant two apple trees (or perhaps add a cherry or plum), which will be properly trained.

After five years, you will be harvesting buckets of superior fruit. The best days of your fruit trees will be ahead of them, not behind them. The trees will be an attractive feature in your yard.

Seed catalogs: Adventure books for gardeners

It’s the middle of winter and mailboxes are already being filled with seed catalogs! It seems like they come earlier and earlier every year. That’s fine with me. I love seed catalogs. Seed catalogs are full of wonder and possibilities. I always look forward to scanning their pages in search of new varieties to try.

If you haven’t already, now is the time to order your seed catalogs for 2014. Tom Kalb, NDSU Extension Horticulturalist, recommends Johnny’s Selected Seeds seed catalog. Not necessarily for their seeds (which are fine by the way), but for the valuable information in the catalog. For each crop they give you accurate insights on planting dates, spacing, and soil requirements. They alert you to major diseases and insect pests, and give advice on how to control these threats. Harvesting and storage information is also included. Tom says “It’s much more than a seed catalog; rather it’s more like a grower’s guide for the north.

The following is a sample of free catalogs that can be ordered online.

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,


  • Cook’s Garden,


  • Fedco Seeds,


  • Gurney’s Seed & Nursery,


  • Harris Seeds,


  • Henry Fields Seed & Nursery,


  • Horticultural Products & Services,


  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds,


  • Jordan Seeds,


  • Kitazawa Seed,


  • Mountain Valley Seed,


  • Osbourne Seed,


  • Pinetree Garden Seeds,


  • Seed Savers Exchange,


  • Stokes Seeds,


  • Territorial Seed.

Top Vegetable Varieties for North Dakota

A team of over 500 gardeners across our state have evaluated hundreds of vegetable varieties over the past five years. The team rated the varieties for germination, vigor, earliness, yield and taste.

North Dakota State University is looking for families to test promising vegetable, herb and flower varieties in their gardens. The goal is to identify the best varieties for gardeners in North Dakota.

The program for 2014 is expected to be announced later this month.

Everyone is welcome to join the team. You will be introduced to new varieties, sharpen your skills in science, and grow healthy vegetables. You will be doing a valuable service to families in our state and it is a fun project for the entire family.

For more information on becoming involved in the North Dakota vegetable varieties evaluation project, contact , Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University by phone: (701) 221-6865.

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