Have you ever had a broken branch in your fruit tree?

It happens all the time, and usually the offending branch is just removed when the tree is pruned. It pretty much fits into the ‘remove dead and diseased wood’ mantra that is part of our foolproof pruning method.

Or does it?

What if it was possible to repair your fruit tree, instead of removing the offending branches?

In many cases this is possible, and it can help to retain valuable fruit growing parts of the tree. More importantly, it can help to preserve the structure of your tree.

When is a broken branch a candidate for repair?

A broken branch can often be put back together as long as both pieces are still joined to the tree. There must be some undamaged wood and bark in place. This is necessary to have maintained the flow of water and nutrient from the roots to the broken piece to keep it alive.

It’s usually not worth repairing small branches (laterals) like the ones in the photo above. It’s much easier for the tree to replace these than large structural branches. By far the better strategy is to prevent them breaking in the first place by doing enough thinning!

Branches that have broken due to disease (like the photo below) are also not candidates for repair. This is definitely a case of ‘remove dead and damaged wood’.

Broken branches that have been caused by disease are not candidates for repair
Broken branches that have been caused by disease are not candidates for repair

The other pre-requisite is whether the two broken pieces will fit neatly back together.

Broken branches heal in much the same way as wood heals when you do a graft. The two pieces must be held firmly together, and bound firmly in place.

If the fit isn’t perfect you may be able to prune away some jagged pieces first to get a neat fit. However, this is not too crucial. As long as there are healthy parts of wood on either side of the wound touching when you bind them together, there’s a very good chance it will heal.

In this example (above) you can see in the photo on the left that both surfaces of the split are still quite intact. They made good contact with each other when they were pulled firmly together, and bound firmly with grafting tape. So even though the wound still looks messy (in the photo on the right), the actual split healed beautifully, and after a year or two it became almost invisible.

Can you repair old breaks?

If you don’t discover the break immediately, it may have already started to heal in the broken position. In this case it can be a bit harder to get a really tight seal.

As long as both pieces are still alive and healthy, it’s still worth trying a repair. It’s a step-by-step process:

  1. Pull the two pieces towards each other and bind them as close together as you can get them
  2. Don’t pull them so tight that you’ll create more damage by putting too much tension on a branch and causing it to split somewhere else
  3. If you can get the two sides of the split to be in contact with each other, great! If necessary, carefully trim away a little of the bark to create contact between the wood of each side, with no bark in the way
  4. Support the two sides with rope or baling twine if necessary to help them stay close together
  5. Come back in a month or so, remove the bandage and see if you can get the two pieces to fit together more tightly, and re-bandage
  6. Repeat until you’ve got a nice fit, and the wound is healed.
Supporting a branch in place with baling twine while a split repairs
Supporting a branch in place with baling twine while a split repairs

Repairing large splits in your fruit tree

Here’s another example of a similar technique used to repair a trunk that has split in half. In this case, we’ve used cable ties (also called zip ties) to get a really tight seal between the two broken pieces.

Tree repair using cable ties
Tree trunk repair using cable ties

As long as there’s some exposed wood (i.e. the wound has not healed and created new bark on the broken surfaces) this technique can work well. On a big break like this, the two sides might need to be held firmly in place for a year or two.

However, as with grafting, it’s important to make sure the bandage doesn’t provide a strangulation point. The diameter of the branch (or in this case trunk) naturally expands as it grows, even while the split is healing. Check it every six months or so to see if it needs replacing.

Repairing fruit trees can save years of waiting for the tree to replace the damaged wood. It’s well worth your effort!