Question: I’m trying to help my new neighbor with his apricot tree. There have been a few different homeowners over the years who didn’t really take care of the tree. The tree is large and old. I’m not sure it could even be a good fruit tree anymore. Could this tree be rehabilitated this spring and become a productive tree again?
Answer: There are some obvious problems with the tree in the photos you supplied.
This tree has been limbed up very high, probably so that it was easy to walk under. Because of that pruning it has basically become a shade tree. We commonly have frost while apricot trees are in bloom, so apricot trees don’t set fruit every year, but in a good year, the fruit on this tree would be so high that it would be difficult to harvest.
If you were to try to reduce the height of this tree’s canopy, you would be making pruning cuts on large, mature branches, which would be very stressful for the tree.
It also looks like the tree has been topped at least once, which is a serious problem for the tree. Topping causes a slow decline in tree health and also causes trees to develop lots of vigorous sprouts that become very poorly attached branches over time. These branches are prone to branch failure as they get larger.
If your neighbor’s goal is to have a productive fruit tree, it would be better to replace the tree with another fruit tree that can be maintained properly. This old tree is too tall to maintain as a fruiting tree.
If the goal is to have a shade tree, the apricot tree should be removed and replaced with a shade tree. Otherwise, the tree will be dropping fruit and making a mess any year when apricots are in full gear.
Q: I want to make my fruit trees shorter so that it’s easier to reach the fruit this year. How far back can I cut each branch and still get some fruit?
A: To keep your tree from being too tall, you can cut back the tallest branches. Cut them back completely to the branch they are growing from, or back to where another, shorter branch is growing from them. Don’t just cut everything back part way, as you’ll end up with lots more shoots coming from where you make your cut and also shorten the life of your trees.
You can safely remove about one-third of the canopy each year. Select up to one-third of the tallest branches this year and shorten them as described. Repeat this every year and you’ll be able to keep your tree a little shorter.
There are two things to keep in mind when trying to reduce the canopy of a tree. First, trees are genetically programmed for a certain growth habit. A tree that is supposed to be tall will keep trying to be tall.
Second, if your trees are mature and you would have to make cuts to large branches, leaving large pruning wounds, that would be stressful and unhealthy for the tree and could shorten the life of the tree. You might be better off to simply replace some of your trees if they are too large and mature for you to handle. Or you can invest in a good orchard ladder and invite a friend to help you and share the harvest.