Excerpt from Cass Turnball’s article published in Plant Amnesty‘s Winter 2013 newsletter.
I’ve spent a life-time trying to convince people not to top their fruit trees. Such treatment does not increase the amount of fruit down low–there just won’t be that wasted fruit up high where it can’t be reached. Instead, Plant Amnesty classes demonstrate restoration pruning for the victims of previous top jobs. Those trees were an incredible mess. Their watersprouts shot for the moon and only arch over and make fruit after they had re-attained their previous two-story size. The apple and pear trees survive, mostly, with their hollow trunks, but the cherries just die. Dr. Alex Shigo once said, “Some of the most abused trees in the world are fruit trees.” I have used the word ‘abuse’ as sort of joke when applied to trees. Shigo didn’t. He helped me see small trees, including fruit trees, as deserving respect, another favorite word of that great man,
That said, topping an old apple or pear tree under certain circumstances can be the rational thing to do (just not the ones you see everywhere, all the time). I do believe that the old trees at Pipers Creek Orchard were radically renovated (topped, or severely crown reduced) many years ago. This included a lot of dedicated follow up heading and thinning of the resulting explosion of watersprouts. The fruit is, I suspect, bigger and better as it receives more of the tree’s energy and sunlight. And they look great. I have an illustration of topping an old apple tree in an OSU extension bulletin as well. What the bulletin failed to mention is: 1) the tree might die, and 2) if it doesn’t, a lot if follow-up pruning would be needed. Otherwise, your tree turns into a giant mess. The truth is that most people keep their apple trees for sentimental purposes, not maximum fruit production, so dramatic measures don’t make much sense. Then again, with the resurgence in organic, urban, and home food production, this sort of radical renovation is a valid point of discussion.