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Renovating Overgrown Apple and Pear Trees

an apple tree next to a pear tree
A large pair of scissors

Pruning and Propagation Essentials

If your apple or pear tree hasn't been pruned for a while, then you may need to do renovating cuts.
Renovating will need to be done while the trees are dormant, for several years, ideally only removing 25% of the canopy at any one time.
The plant will use the energy that would have been gone to the removed limbs in spring to produce replacement branches.
Cutting a tree back hard will result in lots of tall, upright and vigorous growth (watershoots) that will not produce flowers or fruit.
This apple tree hasn't been touched for quite a few years and will need to be reduced and reshaped.
The aim is to have a tree whose branches are approximately 60cm apart in an upright, open goblet shape that allows you to harvest and maintain the tree without hardship.
However, if your tree is over three and a half metres (12ft) tall or has overly large branches that need to be removed, it's best to call in a professional. They will have the appropriate tools and the means to dispose of the waste, which will be more then you think.
You also need to consider if it's worth it. A new, young tree will only take a few years to start producing fruit, will be more comfortable to maintain and will take up less space.
I do advocate keeping an old tree (provided it's healthy) as they are an excellent habitat for wildlife and usually look stunning.
Always make an under-cut before you start your main cut, it will save a falling branch from tearing bark away from the remaining limb.
Tip Any branch larger than 8cm (3") will fall under its own weight before you cut all the way through, so cut these larger branches using the three cut method.
  • Make a shallow undercut, roughly 15cm above the location where the branch joins the main stem. This point is called a 'collar' and is usually a distinct bulge. Cut the main part of the branch away, taking care it doesn't fall on you or anyone else.
    • Having cut the weight away, you can now make a tidying cut just outside of the bulge. Make this cut at an angle so rainwater will run off and not cause rot. This growing point will now seal off the wound from the main trunk, and can occasionally seal diseases into the tree.
After two cuts it's beginning to look a little better, but will require further work.

What to cut

  • Similar to routine pruning, remove the 4D's dead, diseased, damaged or dying branches.
  • Remove any lower branches that prevent you from moving around the tree. These will also be in heavy shade and unlikely to be productive. They can be cut out entirely or cut back to an upright stem.
  • Remove branches that are crossing or rubbing or growing towards the centre of the tree.
  • Cut back overly long, spreading branches to an outward-facing lower branch. Make sure the lower branch is at least one third larger than the size of the branch you're removing. This will also help prevent die back as well as reducing water shoots.
Remember, take your time and try to limit cuts to only 25 per cent of the canopy a year. Hard to do when you're in the swing of it, so take a picture before you start and step back regularly to compare it.
This apple tree will recover faster if its trunk is cleared of competing life - in this instance a current bush.


To give you tree a helping hand, it's worth providing it with a 'tree circle' - an area around the trunk roughly 90cm (3ft) in radius free of any other vegetation.
Mulch the circle with well-rotted manure or garden compost to about 8cm (3ins) depth, making sure it doesn't touch the bark at the base of the tree. Apply a balanced fertiliser in spring.
You may need to make a note in your diary to do some light summer pruning to check any new, vigorous growth promoted by your winter prune and spread the stress of the reduction. Pruning will involve cutting any vigorous side shoots (laterals) over 30cm (1ft) back to 15cm (6in) to encourage the tree to produce fruit buds.
Moss and lichen on branches are a sign of healthy air, but can also indicate a lack of new growth.

Stunted trees

Trees covered in moss and lichen that have not produced much new growth may have become overcrowded and partially starved.
These can be revitalised by spending some time thinning the spur systems out. Cut away those that are unproductive or shaded out and thin the remaining to leave the healthy spurs about 15cm (6ins) apart.
Mulch and feed in spring to encourage new growth which, with time, will replace the older branches.

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