It may lean over its neighbours or have overgrown its spot, but you cannot treat a neglected apple or pear – one that has not regularly been pruned – with a short back and sides. Radical pruning of apples is always disastrous, because it results in more vigorous growth. It may look like you’ve solved your problem, but next spring, the tree will sprout a mass of watershoots. These are vigorous non-fruiting, vertical shoots produced to restore the balance of roots to shoots. Instead, in any one year, aim to take off no more than 25% of the canopy.

Standard apple and pear trees are pruned into a goblet shape with an open middle for air circulation and light, and equally placed framework of limbs, usually four to five main branches roughly 50-60cm apart. If it has not been pruned for a while, start by removing branches in the centre of the tree to open it up. You may need to take them right the way back to the main framework or point of origin. However, resist the temptation to prune off large limbs – avoid cutting off anything bigger than 20cm in diameter. If, by thinning out the middle, you have already taken off your 25%, then stop. No more pruning until next year.

Next take out anything diseased, dead, dying or damaged, as well as those that are crossing and rubbing. This usually decongests the tree and restores a sense of balance.

You may still need to reduce the height and spread of branches that have grown too large. But don’t just trim off the top of the tree, because that will result in a thicket of new growth where you’ve cut with little of this growth fruiting – particularly if you have a tip- or partial tip-bearing tree such as a bramley or discovery (fruit produced at the tip of the previous year’s fruit) – and you’ll have removed the majority of the fruiting wood.

To reduce the size of a branch, cut back to an outward- and upward-facing, vigorous lower side branch. There’s a rule about ratio: you shouldn’t cut a big fat branch back to a wimpy twig of a side branch; and the lower branch has to be at least one-third the diameter of the branch being removed. Next, remove any lower branches that receive little light and get in the way of moving around the tree.

Finally, in spur bearers (trees that produce fruit on short branched shoots), remove or thin out any spur systems that have become congested: spurs need to be 10-15cm apart along the branch. Remove the spurs on the underside of the branches, because these will produce fruit that won’t receive enough light and will be inferior.

Many gardeners envision a perfectly manicured home orchard with fresh peaches, apples, pears and other assorted fruits available throughout the season for the picking. Some folks run out and purchase various fruit trees, stick them in the ground, and expect an abundant crop to instantly manifest itself. The truth of the matter is, a lot of these misguided gardeners fail to realize the amount of work that is involved in order to accomplish the harvest they envision.

Most fruit trees are purchased as young container-grown or bare-root stock, and they must be trained from day one by proper pruning in order to reach their full potential. The first few years of a young fruit tree’s growth are critical. Most young fruit trees should be pruned back to a single whip and then encouraged to branch in subsequent years. The pruning style depends on the type of fruit tree growth. Typically, stone fruits such as peaches and plums are pruned in such a way as to create a bowl shaped plant leaving the center open. Other fruit trees such as apples, pears and persimmons, should be trained early on to form a central leader with evenly spaced lateral branches. Most fruit trees require annual pruning and some light maintenance pruning throughout most of the season. Heavy pruning should be done during the dormant season in the months of January through early March. Regular pruning not only encourages healthy growth, but actually helps the plant to produce more fruit. Unfortunately, many folks fail to either prune properly or completely neglect their fruit trees after planting as they discover the somewhat intensive labor requirements. Over several years, these neglected plants can grow into wooly mammoths, and it can take considerable effort in order to bring them back into production.

In my travels, I have seen several fruit trees that were so overgrown, they were almost unrecognizable. Many of these trees have declined so severely that to rejuvenate them would not be worth the effort. As the song says, “You need to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” If your fruit tree is full of dead branches and covered in moss or lichen, it is probably better to just get out the chain saw and remove the tree. It would be a much cheaper and simpler solution just to purchase some new, healthy, young trees and start over. If, however, you feel your fruit trees are still healthy, but perhaps just suffering from missing a few years of haircuts, then all hope is not lost. By following a few simple tips, you should be able to get your overgrown fruit tree back to size and producing better than ever.

Most neglected fruit trees are going to need fairly severe pruning, so plan to do this during the dormant months we mentioned earlier. It really helps if you’ve got some quality tools on hand to do the job properly. When it comes to pruning equipment, I never skimp and always try to purchase the best I can. You will need, at a minimum, a good pair of hand shears, some strong lopping shears, a handsaw, possibly a pole pruner, and potentially a chain saw. The hand shears will handle branches up to about half an inch in diameter. The lopping shears can tackle branches up to about 2 inches. The handsaw and possibly the chainsaw will remove anything above 2 or 3 inches in size. The pole pruner can be used to remove branches that are far out of reach from the ground or that cannot safely be reached from a ladder.

When fruit trees become overgrown, a common problem that occurs is the root stock sends up shoots from the root system, and they begin to grow into the grafted upper part of the tree. When this occurs, folks often complain about having a tree that produces a multitude of tiny fruit that are nothing like the variety they may have enjoyed in earlier seasons. What is actually happening is the root stock, which is an entirely different plant than the grafted top of the tree, has begun to exhibit dominance and often produces a less-than-desirable crop. Carefully inspect your neglected fruit tree at the base to determine what is truly the grafted portion and what is the root stock gone wild. Sometimes it’s very easy to tell, and other times the root stock grows so closely to the grafted portion, that they tend to blend together. Begin your revitalization of your neglected fruit tree by removing all advantageous root shoots at the ground level. Carefully fish these root stock shoots out and away from the existing tree. Wear gloves and eye protection, as apples and pears have very sharp, thorn-like branches.

After removing all of the imposter root stock growth, it is time to tackle the main branches of the tree. It’s best to stand back and visualize what the tree should look like, and then make a mental picture of which major branches should be removed. Remember that if it’s a peach or plum, you’ll probably have to remove a significant amount of inner, upright branches in order to achieve the bowl shape we mentioned earlier. As you are pruning your peach or plum, try to remove all branches that are growing upright, and prune off all but about one half of the branches that are growing horizontally. The key is to encourage primarily horizontal or lateral growth and to discourage upright shoots. Make clean cuts close to a main branch or just above a bud so that you leave no small stubs anywhere on the tree. Stubs that are left can easily decay and become avenues for disease and insects to penetrate. When pruning, look out for any problem branches that cross or touch each other, and remove one or the other. Any damaged or diseased branches should also be removed at this time. Central leader type trees, such as pears and apples, may need to be topped a little bit in order to bring them down to a manageable height. When doing this, however, you want to make sure you still have a central leader that remains for future growth. In order to see which lateral branches to remove, it’s often best to get under the tree and look straight up at the top. What you would like to see eventually is four evenly spaced scaffold branches per tier of limbs. Remove all other vigorous growth and tip back all lateral branches about a third of their length. Ideally, what you’d like to see is a tree that has evenly spaced branches with several open pockets between them.

Having a home orchard of your own can be a very rewarding experience, providing fresh fruit and the ingredients for making a variety of fresh jams and jellies. Taking the time each year to provide maintenance and pruning will help ensure the success of your home fruit trees.

Posted July 2010 Bob Westerfield is the Extension Consumer Horticulturist for the University of Georgia. Caley Anderson is a Horticultural Assistant working at the University of Georgia.

Pruning Peach Trees – Can Peach Tree Limbs Survive Heavy Pruning Cuts?

Pruning fruit trees throughout San Diego County sent me “down the hill” to Carlsbad where a client had a few trees that her deceased husband had planted, trained and religiously pruned each year. One of her old peach trees in particular had been well trained, but all its new growth and fruit were beyond my client’s reach. I attempted to retrain the old peach by making severe cuts closer to the main trunk knowing that trees will produce new growth after pruning cuts or after the limb breaks. I assumed that the new growth would invigorate the aging tree. Imagine my shock and disappointment when I returned the following pruning season to see a lifeless tree whose skeleton trunk and limbs lacked any new growth at all.

Perplexed, I called my advisor at the Pomology Department at UC Davis.

“Dr. Ryugo, I made some heavy pruning cuts on a very old peach tree and no new growth emerged. What could have happened?”

He immediately replied, “Oh, we must have neglected to tell your class that peach and nectarine trees rarely have any latent buds!”

He didn’t have to explain that latent buds were growing points below the bark of older branches. They develop like all other leaf buds on new growth but do not grow into shoots until years later if damage occurs to the limb they are on. They don’t grow any sooner because plant hormones sent from growing points down the shoot, or limb, inhibit buds from growing into new shoots. A bud is considered a latent bud because it cannot grow until inhibiting plant hormones stop affecting them, which occurs after a heavy pruning cut or when a limb breaks. Uniquely, peach trees typically grow new shoots from last season’s growth on which leaf buds are clearly visible and rarely, if ever, grow new shoots from latent buds beneath the bark of older wood, a common occurrence in other species of trees.

This lack of latent buds, and the inability to grow new shoots from older wood, accounts for the often unattractive branching patterns in peach trees. For this reason, I never recommend peach trees as accent trees in the landscape. Plum trees, however, can readily be trained or retrained to have branches grow upward and outward evenly in all directions. Peach trees, on the other hand, often look poorly trained and are impossible to retrain. Since no new growth from latent buds near the base of limbs and trunk are available, retraining is not feasible. New suckers, or new growth, do not exist to be selected as future limbs to replace excessively long, broken limbs or to even encourage shoots to grow in spaces devoid of branches.

While considering that latent buds might not exist under the bark of mature peach branches, I remembered the peach tree outside the window of my boyhood home in Lemon Grove and the drastic pruning cuts made by a family friend. He assumed, like I had, that new growth would emerge from older wood. My mother and I were stunned that he left the tree lifeless. He was a great guy and we did not have the heart to complain. None of us even guessed that the peach tree did not have the capacity to regenerate limbs like other trees.

The general rule is to prune 60% of last year’s growth. Peaches need to be pruned each year leaving many shoots with leaf buds readily visible and ready to bud out the following spring season. The remaining buds will be the only points of new growth. Pruning cuts that leave no buds in view spell death to that particular limb. So avoid heavy pruning cuts on peach and nectarine trees but religiously prune back last year’s growth.

The best trained peach tree I’ve seen is grown by my friend, Usha, here in Ramona. She prunes by tipping all new growth, leaving loads of buds showing producing lush growth in the spring. She uses layers of composted horse manure and has a stream of water running near this peach during the spring. I was impressed with the profuse and balanced growth of this productive peach tree.

In the avocado groves near my home I did spot a lone peach tree which demonstrated the most growth from latent buds that I’ve witnessed on peach trees.

New Growth from Latent Buds

The above link takes you to a photo of a limb from this peach tree which surprised me by responding to a large pruning cut with vigorous growth. I suspect that lush growing conditions can override the tendency for peach and nectarine trees to suppress new growth after heavy pruning cuts.

Mason Locke Weems’ biography, The Life of Washington, was first published in 1800 and was an instant bestseller. However the cherry tree myth did not appear until the book’s fifth edition, published in 1806.

Learn more about Parson Weems

Excerpt from The Life of Washington, by Mason Locke Weems (1809)

Never did the wise Ulysses take more pains with his beloved Telemachus, than did Mr. Washington with George, to inspire him with an early love of truth. “Truth, George”‘ (said he) “is the loveliest quality of youth. I would ride fifty miles, my son, to see the little boy whose heart is so honest, and his lips so pure, that we may depend on every word he says. O how lovely does such a child appear in the eyes of every body! His parents doat on him; his relations glory in him; they are constantly praising him to their children, whom they beg to imitate him. They are often sending for him, to visit them; and receive him, when he comes, with as much joy as if he were a little angel, come to set pretty examples to their children.”

“But, Oh! how different, George, is the case with the boy who is so given to lying, that nobody can believe a word he says! He is looked at with aversion wherever he goes, and parents dread to see him come among their children. Oh, George! my son! rather than see you come to this pass, dear as you are to my heart, gladly would I assist to nail you up in your little coffin, and follow you to your grave. Hard, indeed, would it be to me to give up my son, whose little feet are always so ready to run about with me, and whose fondly looking eyes and sweet prattle make so large a part of my happiness: but still I would give him up, rather than see him a common liar.

“Pa, (said George very seriously) do I ever tell lies?”

“No, George, I thank God you do not, my son; and I rejoice in the hope you never will. At least, you shall never, from me, have cause to be guilty of so shameful a thing. Many parents, indeed, even compel their children to this vile practice, by barbarously beating them for every little fault; hence, on the next offence, the little terrified creature slips out a lie! just to escape the rod. But as to yourself, George, you know I have always told you, and now tell you again, that, whenever by accident you do any thing wrong, which must often be the case, as you are but a poor little boy yet, without experience or knowledge, never tell a falsehood to conceal it; but come bravely up, my son, like a little man, and tell me of it: and instead of beating you, George, I will but the more honour and love you for it, my dear.”

This, you’ll say, was sowing good seed!–Yes, it was: and the crop, thank God, was, as I believe it ever will be, where a man acts the true parent, that is, the Guardian Angel, by his child.

The following anecdote is a case in point. It is too valuable to be lost, and too true to be doubted; for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last.

“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house, and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. George, said his father, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry-tree yonder in the garden? This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”–Run to my arms, you dearest boy, cried his father in transports, run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son, is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold.

Myth: George Washington once chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree.

The story goes that a young George Washington was about six years old when he was given a hatchet that he enthusiastically used to chop at just about anything in sight. One morning, he even chopped at a cherry tree, eventually cutting it down. When confronted about it by his father, George hesitated but told his father, “I cannot tell a lie.” He admitted to the crime. Rather than punishing George for chopping down the tree, his father said that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees. It’s meant to be a story that’s a lesson in integrity, and shows one of Washington’s many supposed virtues. But is there any truth to the tale?

First published by the biographer Parson Weems in 1809, ten years after Washington’s death, the story reportedly came from an old, unnamed neighbor who’d supposedly known Washington as a boy. However, it is the only historical source of the story, and as a legitimate source, it isn’t very credible.

Very little was known about George Washington’s childhood, especially his relationship with his father, who died when Washington was just eleven years old. Given that Weems is known to have copied and adapted several of his “George Washington” stories in that “biography” from English folklore to illustrate various traits George Washington supposedly exhibited in spades when he was an adult, and that Weems provides no firm evidence to back this particular tale, historians today consider the cherry tree story complete fiction.

Beyond the cherry tree story, there have been other myths about George Washington that are occasionally perpetuated. For instance, George Washington never had wooden teeth. It’s true that Washington had notoriously bad teeth, despite having a pretty meticulous dental hygiene routine for his time, including brushing his teeth daily and using mouthwash and a tongue scraper. However, Washington also suffered from constant toothaches and frequently took calomel (mercurous chloride) which can lead to destruction of the teeth. He also used substances that were extremely abrasive to clean his mouth, which probably contributed to the decay of his tooth enamel.

By a combination of that and probably having naturally bad teeth, this led to him losing his teeth steadily from the age of 22. Indeed, by his inauguration in 1789, he had only one natural tooth remaining, which I like to imagine he called “Old Chomper”.

To make up for the missing teeth, his dentist provided him with several sets of false teeth over the years, none of which were made from wood- wood being a very poor choice for this sort of thing. So what did they make them out of? Mainly things like cow teeth, hippopotamus ivory, and even human teeth that he acquired by various means. The practice of selling teeth for a bit of extra money had been around since at least the Middle Ages—and Washington’s dentist was none other than Jean Pierre Le Moyer, who in 1783 placed an ad in New York papers asking for “persons disposed to sell their front teeth, or any of them.” The next year, Washington is known to have paid 122 shillings to “Negroes” for nine teeth on Le Moyer’s behalf.

Another myth surrounding the memory of Washington is that he once threw a U.S. silver dollar across the Potomac River. Setting aside the fact that these particular silver dollars didn’t actually exist when Washington was young, the Potomac River is over a mile wide—it would be impossible to accomplish such a feat without the aid of some serious, hurricane-like wind. It’s likely that this myth sprung into being as another one of those stories meant to show Washington’s touted virtues- in this case, superhero-like strength.

That being said, his step-grandson recorded a story that Washington once threw a piece of slate roughly the size of a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, which was only about 250 feet wide near the Washington homestead; this is obviously significantly more doable, though whether true or not isn’t really known.

One George Washington “virtue” story that is true is that he did free his slaves upon his death. As he aged, he began to abhor the institution of slavery stating, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.” I’d argue that there were probably many slaves who were men that wished for the abolition of slavery more than Washington… but the sentiment at least was a good one.

That being said, in this “virtue”, he shows a fault- that he wished ardently for the abolition of slavery and hated the institution, yet never chose to do anything about it despite his prominent position and that the people of the fledgling nation loved him. Yet the only small thing he did do about slavery, he didn’t bother with until his death, freeing his slaves and having his estate help provide for them, getting them started with their new lives as free individuals. (He did make an attempt to free his slaves sooner, in 1794, by selling off and leasing much of his estate, in order to raise funds to make it feasible to emancipate his slaves, but the scheme ultimately fell through. Historians generally think he didn’t take a strong public stance against slavery as he felt that it would split the nation he had so recently fought to create.)

Freeing his slaves didn’t mean that his home—Mount Vernon—didn’t have any slaves at all after his death. At the time of his death, there were a full 316 slaves at his estate, 40 of which were leased from others, and 123 of which were owned by George Washington. Martha Washington owned her own slaves (153 of them) called “dower slaves” which belonged to Martha’s first husband and came with her upon her marriage to Washington. She didn’t share her husband’s view on freeing slaves and, as Washington had no rights to her slaves, he was unable to free them. Martha kept them until her death in 1802 when they were inherited by her children. Those of George’s slaves that were intermarried with his wife’s slaves were allowed to stay on with the estate as free individuals, if they so chose.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

  • John Wilkes Booth’s Brother Saved Abraham Lincoln’s Son’s Life Shortly Before Lincoln Was Assassinated
  • How Did George Washington Die?
  • Did Newton Really Have an Apple Fall on His Head, Inspiring Him to Come Up with His Theory on Gravity?
  • Abraham Lincoln Established the Secret Service on the Day He was Assassinated
  • The First African American Invited to Dinner at the White House

Bonus Facts:

  • George Washington was the only president in United States history to be elected unanimously. At the time, there was no popular vote, which meant only the Electoral College had any say in deciding who the president would be. He received just sixty-nine votes, but that was the number of representatives in the Electoral College at the time, meaning every single one of them voted for him.
  • Washington was also the only president who didn’t live in the White House. During his two terms as president, the capital of the United States was in New York, then Philadelphia. He did, however, have a strong hand in creating the new city that would be partially named after him. He also oversaw the designs for the Capitol Building and the White House, though neither was finished until after his death.
  • The only formal education Washington received was what his father could teach him—and since his father died when he was eleven, that’s when his formal education ended. Without his father around, his family couldn’t afford to send him to England to receive the education someone of his status usually received. He never attended university, but upon his death, he did give gifts to some higher education institutions.
  • Washington never had any of his own children, though he did help to raise two of his wife Martha’s children from a previous marriage. Later, they also raised two of Martha’s grandchildren, one of whom was named George Washington Parke Custis. It’s likely that Washington himself was incapable of having children after contracting small pox when he was younger, rendered him sterile.
  • There is a vault under the Capitol Building built to house George Washington’s remains after he died. However, Washington stipulated in his will that he wished to be buried at Mount Vernon. In 1832, 33 years after his death, the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth and the question of where he should be buried popped up again. Congress sent a proposal to his closest living relative, great-nephew John A. Washington, who refused to move his great-uncle’s body, citing Washington’s specific wishes in his will.

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Fruit corner: apple trees can be part of a beautiful garden. Photograph: basky_obed/Flickr/Some rights reserved

A few weeks ago I was looking out of my upstairs back window at the little copse of straggly wild damson trees that form a circle in the bottom corner of my garden and three other neighbouring gardens. They were covered in creamy blossom and when I leaned out further I could see other islands of identical blossom further down the street. But I could identify every one: that garden belongs to the man whose house is so full of boxes that he works in his car; that one is the old man who collects fridges (and related white goods) in his front garden; that belongs to the lady who gets picked up and taken to a day centre each morning.

And it struck me that sooner or later these houses will get sold, and someone will come in and cut down these relics of a damson orchard (or whatever it once was) and plant something more cultivated and civilised, and there will no longer be this early April blossoming in the back gardens of my street that must have gone on for years. Perhaps eventually even my neighbours will cut down their portions of our group of trees, and there will just be a little slice-of-pie-shape left, in my garden.

I had been thinking about this anyway, but got a taste of this inevitable fate on Sunday when a neighbour over the back from us (thankfully the other direction from damson corner) cut down every one of several mature trees in his garden, in one go. The chainsaw rang out all day long. When I went down and tried to persuade him to leave the mature apple tree that backed onto our garden he said, “I’m having the garden landscaped, so it’s got to go.”

But can’t a landscape include a tree? I said. “Sorry, it’s in the way.”

It has left me fantasising about neglected gardens, full of languorous, overgrown shrubs, and tall, wet grass studded with golden dandelions, where spider’s webs snap across your face. Those are my favourite kind. But no, we must have paving, and water features and – god help us – landscaping.

Do the best gardens come from doing less, not more? Neglect or tidiness, where do you stand?

Mature Apple Trees



Wonderfully voluptuous large green apples used for cooking . Their white flesh has a sharp juicy flavour and are used for all types of baking and cooking with perfect results, a mouth wateringly tangy apple flavour and perfect texture.
They have a beautiful blossom and the fruit is ready to be picked in early October and can be stored very well often lasting into the following spring. A very vigorous tree with heavy cropping it is best grown as a freestanding tree.
Fully hardy liking sun and fertile well drained soil. Prune in November/December after leaves have fallen.
Apples trees are a wonderful source of food and shelter for birds, bees and other wildlife.
It makes a heavenly apple juice mixed with sweeter apple varieties and can also be used in cider. The raw fruit contains over twice the Vitamin C than most other apples.

Egremont Russet

Russet apples are a lovely brown shape. A small to medium-sized deciduous tree with showy flowers in spring often with good autumn foliage. The tree is very hardy with a vigorous growth and can be grown in colder, higher rainfall and even windy areas of Britain.
It produces good regular crops of apples flushed brownish-red and russet covered. Creamy yellow flesh, sweet and firm with a distinctive nutty flavor from October to December. Although self fertile it will produce more fruit if it has a chance to cross-pollinate.
They keep well over the winter in a cool dry place.
Egremont Russet holds an RHS award of Garden Merit.

James Grieve

This is a savoury, juicy apple with strong acidity at first, which then mellows as the fruit matures during September, but the flesh softens soon thereafter. When picked early, it makes a sweet and delicate stewed apple, but then can be used as a dessert apple. James Grieve is considered a good apple because it is exceptionally tasty, it produces fruit every year, it is disease-resistant, and it is a good pollenizer for other apples.

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