Knowing how to use renovation pruning to tame monster fruit trees is a useful tool for many new homeowners.

Moving into a new property with existing fruit trees can be very exciting. They offer the promise of ready-made fruit harvests outside the back door without having to plant trees, or wait years for them to mature.

The reality is often quite different. It frequently turns out that you’re inheriting someone else’s problem.

You know the ones – the “monster” trees that have been abandoned, neglected or just unloved. They can get a little wild, like the big plum tree on the right in the photo above.

We should also acknowledge that sometimes you’re inheriting these trees from your former self. Back then, you didn’t know how—or have time—to prune them properly. We’ve all been there, give yourself a break…

The important thing is that you learn how to prune your trees using our foolproof 7-step method.

Can monster trees be brought back from the brink?

Getting monster trees under control is possible but it needs a bit of specialist care. We call it renovation pruning. As the name suggests, it’s all about bringing trees back into good repair and productivity.

How would you prune trees like these?

Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years
Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years

This example is actually a whole lot of monster trees in an organic orchard that was left unpruned for a few years. They were neglected for years and ended up crowded, tangled, and full of blackberries.

Here’s another typical example of a backyard fruit tree that got away:

A huge fruit tree that has been allowed to grow waaaay too big (but it's a great spot for the hammock)
A huge fruit tree that has been allowed to grow waaaay too big (but it’s a great spot for the hammock)

In both cases the trees are still healthy. So, the good news is that it’s completely possible to bring them back into production and make them manageable again. If you’ve inherited some fruit trees that haven’t been cared for for some time, don’t despair.

The renovation pruning approach

Here’s how we’d approach the first example (you can modify these instructions to suit your own situation of course):

  1. Firstly, remove all the blackberries. This can be a challenge because blackberries love to regrow. A combination of grubbing out as many canes as possible and cutting the rest very low will get you started. Following up by grazing with sheep or goats is an excellent idea if possible. If not, mowing regularly should gradually get rid of them. We wouldn’t use poison on them around fruit trees, because it’s not good for the soil.
  2. Start pruning by removing any dead wood from the trees. This allows you to see what you’re actually working with.
  3. Decide what shape of tree you’d ultimately like to achieve, e.g. ‘vase’ or ‘central leader’. Select the permanent limbs you’re going to keep in the tree to give you the best approximation of that shape.
  4. Remove limbs you don’t want. If you’re not sure at this stage leave them in. You can always remove them later, but you can’t put them back.
  5. Reduce the height of the tree by pruning each retained permanent limb down to a lateral that is at the right height to become the new ‘leader’ of that limb.
  6. Now do the regular maintenance pruning job on each limb. Start from the top and work down to the bottom of the limb. Make a decision about how to treat each lateral (or side branch) as you come to it. Your choices boil down to either leaving them alone, shortening them or removing them.

Does renovation pruning work?

In most cases, categorically yes!

Here are the same trees after the first year’s renovation pruning. The blackberries have started to be removed, suckers have been cut out, some limbs have been taken out of the tree, and some lateral growth shortened. They’re starting to look like fruit trees again!

Apple trees after the first year's renovation pruning
Apple trees after the first year’s renovation pruning

Take your time

Renovation pruning has many challenges. One of the main ones is the fact that when you remove a large amount of wood you’re likely to stimulate the tree to grow a whole lot of new wood to replace it. This is likely to occur at the expense of growing fruit.

As we explain in our Pruning by Numbers ebook the way to minimise the shock to the tree and help keep it calm and fruitful is to create a renovation pruning plan over a number of years.

Renovation pruning can take quite a few years to re-establish a calm tree, at the right height to be useful. The larger the tree, the longer it might take you to finally get it under control.

It can take patience and perseverance. But converting a useless and stressful monster into a useful and productive fruit tree is totally worth the effort.

The monster plum tree from the beginning of the blog after the first year's renovation pruning - what an amazing contrast!
The monster plum tree from the beginning of the blog after the first year’s renovation pruning – what an amazing contrast!


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