JoAnne Skelly: The aging apple tree

Today I talked with Cory, The Greenhouse Project manager about aging apple trees at his house that an arborist suggested he cut down and replace with dwarf varieties. Although the apples have always been fruitful, the arborist thinks these trees are almost at the end of their productive years. Cutting down these old, yet healthy, trees may be acceptable from the standpoint of apple production, but since they also serve as shade trees, they would be a great loss in the overall landscape.

Have you ever wondered when a tree is too old? I have seen old neglected apple trees on long gone home sites that still bear apples, even without any water beyond what nature provides. There are olive trees in Crete and Portugal that are 2,000 to 5,000 years old. A bristlecone pine in the forest outside Big Pine, Calif., is almost 5,000 years old and still has viable seeds. A Bramley apple tree in England is more than 200 years old, a youngster compared to the bristlecone, and it still bears fruit.

The average life expectancy for a well-cared for apple tree growing in good conditions is 100 years. Since Nevada has far from perfect conditions, particularly with our dry winters, 50 years is definitely realistic.

Apple trees have been cultivated “from time immemorial” (L.H. Bailey, Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture). Apples are the most widely grown fruits in the world. According to the World Apple and Pear Association, in 2013 China produced the most apples, almost 32 million tons; followed by the USA with 3.3 million tons. In 2014, Poland was the largest apple exporter, followed by Italy, China and the USA. The greatest apple importers were Germany, then the United Kingdom and Belarus.

Apples do well with good drainage and air circulation. They thrive in a variety of soils. Given the right amount of water and nutrients, they often start bearing well at about 10 years of age and can easily bear fruit for 30 years.

Cory’s trees, which are watered, fertilized and pruned appropriately could last a long time and keep producing apples. Over the years, they might produce less fruit, but their value as shade trees needn’t diminish if they are pruned properly. My response to Cory was to go ahead and put in dwarf trees to assure fruit production down the road, but to keep and maintain his old trees too.

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment