Do you have gnarly old fruit trees on your property? Do they produce edible fruit? We often see established old trees that have been neglected and taken for granted, so the fruit they offer isn’t good for much except feeding deer and yellowjackets. This is a shame, since a healthy mature fruit tree can produce many bushels of edible fruit if it’s taken care of.
It’s really challenging to start a home orchard from scratch, and you have to invest years of care and coddling before fruit trees are really productive, so it’s well worth the trouble to rejuvenate older, existing fruit trees. It’s not easy, however, and the results take a few years to really pay off.
Older, poorly maintained trees will often bear fruit, but unless the trees are regularly sprayed and fed the fruit can be lumpy, worm-eaten, ugly and mealy-tasting. Newer fruit tree hybrids are bred for virus and disease resistance, but older trees may not be. Regular spraying, starting when the flower buds open in spring, is necessary to control viruses, pests and diseases. Otherwise these parasites get established in the tree and are hard to get rid of.
Let’s assume that your old tree is an edible variety to begin with. Most edible fruit trees are grafts, meaning that they were created by splicing a softwood cutting from a desirable variety onto a compatible rootstock. It’s not unusual for fruit trees to “return to the stock”, meaning that the rootstock takes over the tree. The resulting fruit isn’t fit for human consumption.
The first step in restoring an old fruit tree is drastic “tough love” pruning during the dormant season (when there are no leaves on it). Professional orchards cut their trees way back in winter, usually in a “funnel” shape (open in the center) so that sun can reach the inner branches. Unlike ornamental trees, fruit trees should be drastically pruned so that only stubs are left. The resulting sucker growth will be healthier and produce more fruit than the dried-up, tangled mess your remove.
Next, remove all the grass and weeds from under the tree, all the way to the tips of the branches. This reduces competition for food and water, allowing the tree to grow twice as fast and encouraging larger, more plentiful fruit. Orchards often use Roundup to control grass and weeds; if you object to weed killers you can mulch heavily instead.
Once the grass and weeds under the tree are gone, and before mulching, fertilize the tree with a good organic multi-vitamin multi-mineral fertilizer that contains soil microbes. We use Espoma Tree Tone for most trees, including fruit trees. Follow the directions on the bag. They will tell you how much fertilizer to use depending on the trunk caliper (thickness at the base of the tree).
All fruit trees should be sprayed once each winter with “dormant oil” spray. This is non-toxic paraffin oil mixed with water. It smothers the eggs that insects have laid in the tree bark, breaking the life cycle of the most common insect parasites.
All-purpose fruit tree spray is the next step. Once the tree shows signs of life in spring, you should start a regular spray program, every two weeks until summer. All-purpose orchard sprays kill emerging insects and control fungus diseases. Professional orchards spray regularly until harvest, but the early spring applications do the most good. You can back off the spray routine in the summer months unless you’re determined to have fruit with absolutely no blemishes.
Old established fruit trees are a great asset, well worth investing a day or two of hard work to restore. There’s nothing more satisfying than having fresh fruit from trees on your own property to eat and to share.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.