Apple butter, applesauce, and apple pie are all fantastic reasons to have an apple tree in your yard. But what happens when your apple tree isn’t doing as well as expected? When is it time to cut it down and start over again?
It’s time to cut down your apple tree if it’s damaged, attracting pests, or the tree is dying. Homegrown mature apple trees can produce around 600 apples per year under proper conditions. These apples can attract a variety of wildlife including deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons.
Interested in learning more about when it’s time to say goodbye to your apple trees? Read on below for our suggestions on the best way to cut down your apple tree and our recommendations to help you get the job done quickly.
Here’s Why You Should Cut Down Your Apple Tree
Contrary to popular belief, trimming or cutting down your apple tree may be the best thing for it! Regular trimming of branches can help encourage healthy growth, ensuring your tree has a long and happy life ahead of it.
As you’ll read in the next section, even cutting the tree down entirely doesn’t mean your apple-picking days are done forever.
Trimming or cutting your tree may be a good option if your tree is damaged, dying, or if it’s grown too tall to harvest from easily. You also may want to consider cutting down the tree if it’s past the point of rescue, if it’s dangerous, or if it is causing other damage to your property.
Here are the reasons you specifically should consider cutting down your apple tree:
1. To Remove Dying Branches
In their article “Rejuvenating Old Apple Trees,” The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection states that if a trunk is split into two or it lacks more than a few branches that look healthy and growing, it may be time to cut down the tree entirely.
However, if most of the tree is still healthy, it’s likely the afflicted parts simply need to be removed, so it has a chance to truly thrive. Therefore, it’s essential to inspect your tree regularly, so you can catch any signs of browning branches or affected fruit early and treat them appropriately before they spread.
Once you cut down any affected branches, you’ll want to discard any trimmed limbs by burning or transporting them elsewhere.
2. To Remove Tree Damage
If something has physically damaged your tree, it’s better to remove any damaged portions early before issues or pests cause issues.
If there is significant damage, at best, damaged limbs won’t produce fruit. At worst, they may fall off without warning, acting as a future danger to anyone who may pass beneath them.
Trees may become damaged from storms, long-term problems, or even from animals. Deer, in particular, love to make a snack of the fruit and bark or to chew on tender young saplings.
If you find deer are making quick work of your orchard, you might want to use a product like the Voglund Nursery Mesh Tree Bark Protector to prevent any damage from occurring to the trunk, especially when the tree is young.
If your tree is damaged, it’s worth your time and energy to remove any limbs (or the whole tree, if necessary), to prevent any future dangers and to help encourage healthy growth.
An apple tree that doesn’t need to waste its resources on damaged sections can better concentrate on growing strong new branches.
3. To Reduce Excessive Growth
An apple tree canopy that grows unchecked makes life harder for both the tree and you. For example, a tree with limbs too close together can be hard to prune.
It also may be difficult to reach areas to spray for pesticides, and you might have a tough time picking and harvesting fruit.
Consider using the Tabor Tools Bypass Lopper for your pruning needs. Meant for heavier branches, this tool will make quick work of overcrowded areas, allowing you to safely and easily remove excessive growth without a fuss.
4. To Encourage More Apples To Grow
A tree packed full of branches and apples may be a beautiful sight, but it’s not always in the tree’s best interest to allow new growth to go wild.
Interior areas of the trees that see little light see higher rates of problems, more pests, and fewer happy, healthy apples overall. That’s why it’s best to trim any tall vertical branches, drooping limbs, or new growth causing significant amounts of shade.
One study by the Institute of Horticulture even showed that reducing the amount of fruit in an area can lead to larger apples being grown, meaning that by cutting back your apple tree, you’ll soon be on your way to swimming in pies and cider!
In addition, older trees produce less plentiful and lower quality fruit, so cutting down a portion of your older trees can help extend its growing years by allowing the tree to concentrate its energy and resources.
Usually, these older trees are used for pie fruit / filler anyways rather than snacking apples.
5. To Create New And Strong Limbs
While removing limbs from your apple tree may seem counter-productive, you’re doing your leafed friend a favor!
Thinning out a tree allows additional sunlight to reach the interior of the plant, and removing smaller limbs can help your tree devote resources toward growing and producing additional fruit.
If you’re worried about your tree looking too bare, don’t be too concerned. Oregon State University reports that cutting down a portion of an apple tree can help encourage entirely new limbs to grow.
Just a tip: After trimming and pruning away excess limbs, expect any new branches that appear to take two years to produce fruit.
6. Your Apple Tree Is Too Tall
Apple trees will happily grow upwards as long as they have the food and the sunlight to do so. And while a tall apple tree may look great, it can be a real pain for someone who wants to harvest apples on the upper branches.
If an apple tree grows too tall, the fruit may quickly get out of reach of even the tallest ladder. That’s why it’s crucial to cut down part of the vertical growth of your apple tree so that you can fully harvest it each year.
Although one study by the Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station suggests trimming a tree may initially affect how many apples are produced during the sapling’s early years, by 10-12 years old, the tree will not show any effects of the pruning, and it will be much more accessible to whoever is doing the picking.
In general, 12 feet of height is a good amount to aim for. If you need to trim up high, consider using a product like the Fiskars Extendable Tree Pruning Stick to reach those out-of-the-way branches easily.
7. The Apple Tree Is Too Old
North Dakota State University states that although an apple tree’s greatest fruit production peaks around 25 years, a tree can continue to produce and live up to 100 years!
Don’t expect buckets full of apples as the tree reaches the end of its life, however. Instead, as the tree grows older and the apple productivity drops, you may be better off cutting down the tree as a whole and replacing it with a younger sapling.
8. The Tree’s Root System is Too Shallow
If an apple tree grows in a less-than-ideal area (such as in a dark, forested place), it may develop a root system that lies just below the surface. Shallow roots mean the tree will be very susceptible to strong winds, making it a potential problem in the event of a particularly heavy nor’easter or hurricane.
Trees with shallow root systems because of poor growing conditions will need to be cut down and removed. They can easily fall over onto sheds, cars, or even your house and should be cut down before they cause damage or hurt someone.
9. The Root System Is Causing Damage
Just like a tree in a dark forest can cause a root system that stays at the surface level, a thick carpet of grass growing right up to an apple tree trunk can cause a root system that is unnecessarily deep.
So, although it may look pretty in your front yard, this type of tree can cause problems in your home that may go unnoticed until it’s too late.
Tree roots that travel deep into the ground affect pipes and wiring that run underground into your home. They can puncture sewer lines, causing plumbing backups and slow draining pipes.
These can all be costly issues to fix, so if your tree is in the same areas as your water, sewage, or gas pipes, it may be time to cut it down.
10. The Tree Is No Longer Producing Fruit
If your apple tree is no longer alive, the structure of the tree itself is at risk of falling down or being knocked over in the first big storm of the season.
It also may be at risk of losing limbs, causing excessive debris in your yard and even falling.
If your apple tree isn’t producing fruit and shows no signs of new growth, it may be dead, and you should consider cutting it down.
Important Considerations For Trimming Your Apple Tree
If you decide to cut down your tree, there are a few important things to know before you start.
The way you trim the tree (and when you do it) is essential to the future health of your tree.
Whether it’s an older or it’s a new sapling, it is important. Trimming can also affect future fruit productivity, so it’s good to be aware of the following points before you begin:
Your Apple Tree May (Or May Not) Grow Back After Being Cut Down
The good news is, even if you need to cut down the apple tree to the roots, your apple tree can grow back!
If enough of the root system is left over, an apple tree can come back and produce again (although it may take a lot of time to reach its former height).
It May Take Some Time To Produce Apple Again
Be aware that if an apple tree is cut down to the main stump, it must first grow its limbs back. Therefore, it may be five or more years until you see the first harvest, depending on how much was cut down.
Even if you’ve only trimmed and pruned, don’t expect apples to appear like magic overnight on recently grown limbs. New branches must grow for about two years before they produce any fruit.
That’s why it’s best to keep the tree regularly pruned, so you consistently have a mix of old and new growth in your tree and your fruit production isn’t severely affected.
The Tree’s Shape Is Up To You!
Although most apple trees naturally adopt an umbrella-like appearance, the ultimate shape is entirely in your hands!
For example, you may choose to thin the top of the tree as it grows, encouraging the tree to grow horizontally and spread out. This can make it easier to pick fruit, prune limbs, and spray the apples if you choose to do so.
Just make sure to properly prune and thin apples if you do go this route!
When (And How) Should I Take Down My Apple Tree?
So what’s the key to helping your apple tree thrive in the future? Trimming at the right time and cutting down the right amount!
Read on below for our recommendations on how to keep your apple tree producing long into the future:
Trim When The Tree Isn’t Growing
If you’re going to trim or cut back your apple tree, it’s best to target the dormant period during the late winter or early spring. This will help reduce the stress on the tree during the growing season and also help you stress the tree when insects and apple tree long-term issues are less of a risk.
The exception to this? If you’re looking to cut back limbs that aren’t producing well, do so in the summer, when you can see how much fruit is on each branch.
Only Take Down One-Third (Or Less) Of The Tree
You can safely cut down one-third of your apple tree each year, and the tree will continue to grow and produce each spring with no issues.
That’s one-third of the healthy tree and doesn’t take into consideration any dying or damage branches. These should all be trimmed and pruned as well.
If you’re looking for tips on general pruning for the health of the tree, you’ll want to encourage as much sunlight to reach each tree branch as possible. To do this, trim upper branches and branches near the center, and make sure limbs aren’t blocking one another from getting a healthy dose of sunlight!
That’s A Wrap!
There are plenty of reasons to cut down your apple trees. You may choose to remove or heavily prune them because they are on their way out, browning, or damage or because your tree has simply gotten too big to handle. You also may be interested in pruning your tree to encourage better fruit production or a healthier tree overall.
Whatever your reason, by trimming and cutting it down at the appropriate times of the year and having a good pruning plan, you can ensure years of healthy growth and large harvests are ahead of you!
If you’re interested in keeping your apple tree, take a look at our guide on what plants you can plant under your apple tree to help its asthetic- it’s a doozy!
Robinson, Terence L., Alan N. Lakso, and Zhongbo Ren. “Modifying apple tree canopies for improved production efficiency.” HortScience 26.8 (1991): 1005-1012.
Talbert, Thomas Jesse. “Results of some young apple tree pruning experiments.” Research Bulletin. Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station 313 (1940).
Valiuškaitė, Alma, et al. “The effect of sustainable plant protection and apple tree management on fruit quality and yield.” Zemdirbyste-agriculture 104.4 (2017).
Download My Free E-Book!
If you’re new to planting or want a refresher, take a peek at my guide on choosing and planting your very first tree. It specifically details planting trees in your yard and goes over the wide variety of options you have to start your #treejourney!