Monday, January 23, 2023

New life for old trees

When we first moved to our new (to us) home in late 2020, we were delighted to discover the property came with fruit trees, notably apples. Some of the trees were young, but we have four mature trees, evidently the remnants of an old orchard. You can see two of them below.

These stately trees were wildly overgrown. As a result, they produced scads of little bitty apples, most of which were way too high for us to reach. The wildlife like them, though.

Then last year, our older neighbor hired some arborists to work on her (young and healthy) fruit trees, something she does on a regular basis (which is no doubt why they're so healthy). Before the arborists left for the day, Don asked them to come look over our overgrown apples and give us an estimate as to what it would cost to bring them back into shape.

After viewing the neglected trees, they said it would be a multi-year project (no surprise), and quoted us a reasonable price for the amount of work involved.

Last week they came out and got to work. This is what they started with: a chaos of overgrown, tangled branches.

This is the upper tree. You can see why it only produced itty bitty apples.

The middle tree is to the left, and the lower tree is to the right. Kinda hard to distinguish everything with winter's leafless landscape, but these are the three main trees the arborists hoped to tackle.

They got right to work setting up ladders and donning safety equipment. You can gauge the size of the trees with the arborists standing below them.

Much of their efforts were directed at pruning away deadwood and exposing the strongest branches. They warned us the trees would "sucker like crazy" in the spring. Next year's treatment would involve removing "three out of four" of the new suckers, selecting which ones would bear the best fruit.

The arborists focused on the two upper trees first. A pile of branches started accumulating.

Soon a shape emerged from beneath all the shagginess. It was starting to look like a tree again, rather than an overgrown bush.

While the head arborist focused his attention on the first tree, the other two worked on hacking back the second tree.

This is definitely a line of work requiring a good head for heights.

Though the day was freezing cold, they were soon shedding coats.

Look at the size of these trees dwarfing the two people in their branches!

At one point, we asked the head arborist, in his professional estimation, how old the trees might be. Based on location and rainfall, he guesstimated around 75 years.

Three-quarters of a century. We were glad to be able to start bringing these beautiful mature trees back into productivity.

By the end of the day, two of the trees were as "done" as they could be for the first go-round, and the arborists got a start on the third tree as well (it was getting dark or they'd have done more). Look at this pile of branches they removed!

They had brought a chipper with them, but (a) it would have been impossible to get it down the steep slope where the trees were located; and (b) we preferred they focus on doing as much work as possible on the trees themselves rather than spend time chipping the branches. Don and I will burn the branches later on.

The two upper apples looked like new trees by the time the day was done.

This is the upper tree, before and after (different angles).

This is the middle tree, before (on the left) and after:

Now I can't wait until summer to see how these trees look in all their renewed glory!


  1. Will be some of the best money investment in your property for food production yet.

  2. As they are about 75 years old, will they be some forgotten or heirloom apple?

  3. As these are estimated to be 75 years old, do you think they may be forgotten or heirloom varieties?

    1. Very likely, though I doubt we'll ever know exactly what varieties. Once we're able to harvest something decent (as opposed to itty bitty marbles) we might be able to narrow it down, but there are hundreds of heirloom varieties and I can't imagine being able to pick the correct one.

      - Patrice

    2. You may be interested in getting in touch with the Lost Apple Project, which is a nonprofit dedicated at hunting down old apple varieties in the PNW.

  4. 75 years ago was 1948. I wonder if a World War II veteran planted those trees? Just a thought from an active imagination . . .

    1. Impossible to say, of course, but it's likely. Our house is a manufactured home and was installed in 1995 or so. Long-time neighbors (going back to the early 90s) mentioned a rumor that a previous landowner (generations ago) attempted to start a commercial orchard on our property. If that's the case, these trees are the remnants of that attempt.

      - Patrice

  5. Hiring a good arborist is a good investment in healthy, productive trees.

  6. That is an idea for a story. Two stories at once. The older one and what happened on the property and the new one trying to bring back what the old story had planted.

  7. I will be excited to see the trees in Summer.

  8. Sometimes you can root cuttings and get a new plant. I'm wondering if maybe some suckers would be worth a try. I know blueberry cuttings can be rooted from new, non woody growth.

    I have some old neighbors who grew an orchard from the seeds in various kinds of fruits they bought to eat. I'm going to try to grow some that, though I'm not young like they were when they did that. Also, there are a lot of new varieties of fruits and I wonder if they will reproduce. Regardless, I think it will be fun to try. Fun gifts to give if it works.
    Congratulations on having arborist help with your orchard. They might not exist near here.

  9. Nooooooo...please dont burn that valuable resource! Organic material is far too valuable to burn (unless in log form for firewood). Especially with recent fertilizer shortages/inavailability/price hikes!
    Think Applewood Smoked Bacon, or just as good - applewood smoked steelhead trout! Neighbor just smoked a batch of steelhead with applewood and it is stunningly good! Check out the prices on the small store-bought pkgs of wood chips for smoking will see what I mean.
    And the ramial wood (branch tips) is great to add back to soil around your trees - See Michael Phillips' "The Holistic Orchard". Its where all the growth hormones the trees produce are. And even smaller branches are in big demand by wood carvers and those doing inlays in wood. Fruitwoods have always been in demand for furniture makers.
    Think resource/revenue stream rather than won't regret it! Whoever designed this amazing system we live in, designed all organic material to return to the soil to renew/refresh the system and carry it forward.
    We are up to around 50 fruit trees now, mostly apples. The wood pruned off is just as valuable as the fruit they produce.

  10. Though I am not an arborist I did take a couple of classes back in the day. Because of that I love to check out what people do with their trees. I have to admit that most people do a horrid job (in the city). These arborists that you hired really know their stuff, they did a magnificent job and you will not regret it. You will have so many apples you won't know what to do with them.

  11. I don't know if you like to grill, but apple wood is the best wood for chicken and pork. Gives it a great flavor. And the ashes, well, take 'em out of the grill and spread them around.