I’ve encountered many unmaintained, moss-covered ancient fruit trees that have ceased to bear much or started cropping biennially. When I see them on older lots or in public spaces, I always think it is a shame because with a little (or a lot) of pruning, even the most well-worn trees can be brought back to a productive life.
In the garden that I currently work, there were two old, overgrown apples: Tall, with thick canopies, they were covered in lichen and bearing fruit sporadically and the fruits were of middling quality. I wanted to both reduce the height and bulk of the trees and change out the fruit cultivars they were bearing, so against the advice of an arborist who thought I would surely kill them, I opted for a drastic pruning strategy called pollarding that I had seen used in orchards.
Pollarding has historically used living trees to harvest timber and livestock forage for browsers. A given tree is essentially topped at the “browsing line” (above where animals can reach the leaves) and allowed to grow new water sprouts.
It has evolved into an aesthetic of tree maintenance, which many call “spiral thinning,” that is popular where I live in urban areas of Denmark.
In an orchard context, this style of canopy reduction (or even topping) provides a wealth of new shoots for grafting. Trees that have been pollarded send up an abundance of tender new vertical growth, which can easily be grafted with a new cultivar the following year. Thus the stump quickly becomes a vigorous rootstock for new scions.
Most fruit trees in the temperate zone will tolerate a hard winter pruning of this sort: There is always the risk of giving the tree too much of a shock, but if a tree is too large and unproductive, odds are pollarding is worth a try before removing it. Although it might be ugly in the dormant season, it’s a method that can breathe new life into an overgrown tree in any landscape.
About the Author: Lynsey Grosfield is the founder of BiodiverSeed, a global seed swap network devoted to the exchange of self-harvested, organic and heirloom seeds with the goal of preserving maximum genetic diversity. Follow BiodiverSeed on Twitter.