Apple Tree Recovery – Pruning & how to revive an old tree

When we moved here some years back we were presented with quite a wilderness. The house was just about to reach at least its second dereliction in as many decades and the garden was in need of some serious help to try and bring it back to some semblance of order. A previous owner had planted up some wonderful fruit trees included a variety of Shropshire prune, plus a number of apple, cherry and pear trees however these had been abandoned for a number of years and its taken sometime to gradually bring as many as we could back into productivity. Ok, some people would advocate starting over with new stock plants but I really hate cutting trees down unless there is a very good reason such as disease or safety, besides theres something wonderful about a knarled old Bramley bursting into life again.

By the end of February is essential you have most of your fruit tree pruning complete before the plant begins to grow so heres a step by step guide to recovering a neglected spur bearing apple tree.


This particular tree has been pruned over previous years as it was in a terrible state so if you have one that really is a congested mess then execute this process over a 3 year period in order to control the regrowth and achieve a level of productivity without stressing the tree and exposing it to potential infection or disease.

As a basic rule of thumb the first pruning activity should be the 3D’s, this is to prune out the diseased, dead or damaged branches, but by the same measure you should look to shape the tree into a bowl structure. This will let light and air through into the canopy which will not only mean healthy growth but quality productive growth. As my grandfather told me once ‘aim to create a bowl shape with enough space for a pigeon to fly through and it’ll see you right’. The old fella’s tips have never failed me yet!


What you will need


  • Pruning saw/Bow saw
  • Secateurs
  • Long handled loppers


Step 1

No action in this step, just observation. Take a good long look at the tree structure, try to visualise a bowl like shape. It’s always good to take step back and observe throughout the process also.


Step 2

Using a pruning saw remove all dead or diseased wood, cutting back to the main branch or trunk


Step 3

Look for any crossing branches, they will usually show rubbing on the bark as this one does. Remove them, they will cause a wound for disease in the long run.


Step 4

Prune out any whips growing on the main trunks, these will be unproductive and reduce the light and air in the tree if left to grow.


Step 5

Using a bow saw or pruning saw remove any central trunks that may sprout whips and interfere with the bowl structure you are looking for.


Step 6

Cut out two out of every three of the remaining new growth whips. Long handled loppers make this job quicker than ladders


Step 7

Prune the remaining new growth down to three buds from the main branch cutting about an inch beyond the terminal bud.


Step 8

Apply a good mulch of well rotted compost to keep the weeds down and give the tree a boost after its ‘surgery’


Step 9

Stand back, have a cup of tea, and survey the shape. Identify if there is any remaining pruning required in order to achieve that desired bowl shape


Fruits of your labours

9 Replies to “Apple Tree Recovery – Pruning & how to revive an old tree”

  1. you have done a lovely job if you were near me i get you to give me a hand but at least i got your guide to follow

  2. A mirror image of my own Bramley tree which gone to pot. Three years does seem a long time for recovery but, weather permitting, we will make a start next week. Thanks for the brilliant and concise instructions.

  3. Our apple trees are soooo ancient & badly neglected by the previous owners (probably for 15-20 years), though still produce a few buckets of apples each year. They really need a GOOD seeing to… is it ok to use a chainsaw rather than a bow saw? – the branches are very thick.

  4. I just moved to what I thought was neighborhood woods in my back yard, but the neighbors said it used to be an apple orchard. So if I can figure out which trees are apples, I’ll prune them, thank you for your easy to see and understand advice! Good Grandpa!!

  5. Hi Chickenstreet,

    Mine is in a similar state. Can I do as much as you have there in one hit or do I need to do over 3 years as you mentioned. If so what do I do in the first year just the 3 d’s? Mine need to lose height as well. Probably around 20ft as it stands. rgds Dave

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