Thursday, 20 August 2020

Old Apple tree: disaster recovery

Here is the story of a poor old "James Grieve" apple tree, which is well past its best:


It has had an adventurous life: the garden in which it grows was split in half, about twenty years ago, when the owner built themself a new house in what must have been a lovely large garden. They chose to slap the new fence right up against the existing apple tree, so half the roots are in one garden, half in the other. Not necessarily a bad thing - after all, if you plant a tree right next to an existing fence, you'd get pretty much the same effect.

Then it started to lean over, and it's gradually gone further and further until now, it looks almost as though it was meant to be a cordon. 

For the past couple of years, it has produced less and less fruit, and the bark is split very badly:

Here's one of the splits, low down on the trunk: as you can see, not a pretty sight!

Then, above the grease band - right - there is this enormous split as well.


Don't worry about the blackness above - that's the remains of previous years' grease gunk, which we paint on to prevent codling moths and other pests from ruining the crop. 

And yes, we use both black grease, AND a grease band - I've been trying to save this tree for a couple of years, and we've tried everything to protect it, which includes watering, feeding, and copious amounts of physical protection.

But the crop has been decreasing, as I mentioned: and this year in particular, the leaves were looking paler and paler, despite regular feeding.

The good news is that there is a strong young sprout at the very base of the tree:

... so I suggested to the Client that we try to save it, by cutting off all the damaged and non-productive wood, keeping just this little bit.

We will tie it in to the fence as an espalier-type form, and if it doesn't grow, well, we will then buy a whole new tree. But the owners are very fond of this old man, and were keen to keep it, if at all possible.

I warned them that drastic pruning might send the tree into shock, and it might well die: but we all agreed that it was worth a try, as it was pretty much dead anyway.

So, first job, remove the upper limbs of the tree.

This is simple to do, if rather brutal: with pruning saw for the bigger bits, and ratchet loppers for the lesser bits, there it was, reduced to a skeleton in no time.

The reason for doing it this way is to get rid of the bulk of the tree before tackling the trunk: partly so that you don't get bashed, poked in the eye, and prodded by branches while trying to saw through the trunk, and partly to reduce the weight, otherwise there is a real risk that the trunk will fall before you have sawn completely through it, which might result in damage to the stump. 

And which might result in damage to surrounding plants, not to mention the gardener! So for these reasons, I always reduce the top of the tree before tackling the main trunk.

Second job, chop off the bulk of the main trunk: again, to get rid of the weight of it.

This was very simple to do, I just took the pruning saw and started sawing!

Now we move to the delicate bit: can we cut off the majority of the damaged trunk, without hurting the new sprout?

This one is particularly awkward, as it is right slap bang up against the fence, as you can see.

Traditionally, when cutting any branch larger than about 2" across, or when felling a main trunk, we do an undercut first: this is exactly what it sounds like, a small cut on the underside of the branch, or on the "wrong" side of the trunk. The purpose of the undercut is to cleanly break through the bark, so that if the limb starts to fall before you have completed the cutting, it won't rip a huge strip of bark off the trunk on the way down.

It also directs the stump or branch to fall in a chosen direction, rather than falling at random.

In this case, it was a really difficult place to get to: I needed to cut as far below the damaged bark as I could, but I needed to end the cut above the new sprout, obviously. Plus, the fence was in the way!

So I started my undercut, choosing an angle which would hopefully end up just above the sprout. 

Usually, the undercut is very small, less than a quarter of the diameter of the branch or trunk, but in this case I kept on sawing until I couldn't go any further from underneath.

Now, normally, if you try to do this - cut from underneath -  the weight of the branch will make the cut close up, thus trapping your blade. The technical term for this is pinching, and it's a maddening phenomenon, because you don't know in advance how far you can undercut before the blade gets pinched, and there is always the temptation to cut just a bit further... the deeper you go on the undercut, the less you have to cut on the top, so you can see why it's tempting to keep going, 

I did once lose a bowsaw blade when trying to cut down a largeish tree: I went a bit too far, the tree leaned over and pinched the blade so solidly that I couldn't get it out. True story! I had to unclip the blade and leave it there, stuck in the tree, until the following week when I returned with a new blade in the bowsaw, made a new undercut (smaller, this time!) and then cut the tree down from the other side. 

I was then able to pick up the released pinched blade. This taught me a valuable lesson about reducing the weight of a tree before you attempt to chop it down - and the importance of carrying a spare bowsaw blade!

But in this case I was able to undercut a long way upwards, because I could support the short length of trunk in one hand, taking the weight off the cut, so it wouldn't pinch.

It took a while, but having gone as far as I could from underneath - ie until the pruning saw blade was hitting the fence and I couldn't get any further round - I went to the top of the trunk, and carefully sawed down to match my lower cut.

This was slow work, with the fence in the way, but I got there.

Now, as you can see, the two cuts don't quite line up, so once the main trunk was out of the way, I could lay the pruning saw on the cut, and gently trim off that ledge.

Here we go, that's better.  A nice clean cut, without any ragged edges, and without a strange step in it.

Having done the job, we now have to finish off: and that means disposing of the corpse.

Here's the pile of material which I removed before cutting the trunk: now I have to spend some time reducing it down into manageable pieces.

If this garden had a bonfire pile, I'd toss the lot on there! 

But as it doesn't, and for the benefit of all of you who don't have the luxury of a bonfire, all you have to do is snip off all the smaller bits, and pop them in your green waste wheelie bin.

You will be amazed how a gigantic pile of waste can be reduced, in very little time, to a much more manageable volume, if you just cut it up into little pieces. Most garden tree waste is like this - it's bulky, but not heavy. Usually.  And all those angles make a big pile, but it's a matrix of holes, so if you can snip off the sticky-out bits, the matrix collapses and instead of a skip-full of waste, you end up with just this:

Here's what I was left with: five tub-fulls of small leafy pieces which went into the wheelie bin: and a pile of lesser branches, which I cut up into short lengths with my Big Orange loppers, plus the main trunk pieces.

These can be dried for firewood, they can be stacked in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden, to become a wildlife habitat, or they can be cut into smaller pieces and put into the green waste bin gradually.


Having cleared up all the mess, my final job was to give the remainder a good watering and a good feed.

As I said at the start, it might well die anyway, from the shock of such drastic pruning, but for the sake of half an hour's work, well worth trying!

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