When we moved in to this house thirteen years ago, there were three fruit trees already in the landscape: An apple, a peach, and a quince. There's no telling when these trees were planted, but it's safe to say that they are at least 20 years old, and probably older - this house was a rental property for decades before we bought it, and the owner was, by all accounts, very hands-off. So I'm guessing these trees are quite old. The quince has resisted all attempts to remove it, and just keeps coming back. Now it has earned its space by providing cover for the chickens in their run and I don't intend to remove it, no matter if it fruits or not. (I never know what to do with the fruits anyway.)
But the peach and the apple are dear to us. They've borne well in the time we've lived here, despite their age. They were pruned badly before we came, and I pruned them badly again before I knew what I was doing. They've withstood changes in the landscape (non-irrigated 'lawn' when we moved in, irrigated 'lawn' for a while after, and then sheet mulching and raised bed vegetable production), changes in maintenance (left alone for years, then highly fussed over), and my over-zealous clippers. But in the past six months, I've noticed some changes in these trees that aren't so great. They both have weeping wounds, some caused by humans but some just appearing for no apparent reason; they both aren't healing pruning cuts the way they have in the past; and they both have discolored cankerous growths that I can't seem to identify. Plus, the center of the large branches seem to have some internal rot.
Plus the peach has some irreparable structural problems that I cannot correct without taking off very major scaffolding branches, which would mean taking away most of the fruiting capability for a time.
Fruit trees in production in orchards seem to last about 15 years on average, before the owners replace them, as they decline and produce less fruit as they get older. Since fruit trees generally don't fruit until their 4th or 5th year, that means they have about 10 prime years of production before going into decline, though they can of course live much longer with proper pruning and maintenance (though 'living' and 'fruiting' are two different matters).
It's hard to know when it's time to replace them, and I'm struggling with answering this question for my own garden. We still get fruit from these two trees; however, production has declined and the quality of the fruit is less. I'm noticing that a significant portion of my time has to be spent correcting problems and enhancing the fruiting ability, rather than the very light pruning maintenance my newer trees require.
If we started fresh this year with two-year-old bare root trees, I could prune them properly right from the beginning of their lives which would help tremendously. I could also plant some resistant varieties so that I don't need to treat them chemically, which is a huge plus. I could choose heirloom varieties that do well in this climate, which is getting warmer and drier every year. I could choose more ideal planting spots for these trees, too, and get some good organic matter worked deeply into the soil while planting. And finally, it would be nice to actually know the variety we are growing, instead of guessing.
I've loved this apple, though it produces smaller and smaller fruit each year, and is on the tart side. It might be nice to choose a slightly sweeter, larger variety. The peach likewise has been great, but I dislike fuzzy skin and it would be nice to have a nectarine instead so that I wouldn't have to peel it. Might as well plant what you want, right?
This will bear some more discussion and thought, though if I'm going to order new trees, now is the time. I'd love opinions from those who have an orchard and have replaced trees. I'd also like to know what kind of fruit trees you are growing and if you like them. Finally, I'd love to know about tree companies in the area that might not be so well-known. I found a great nursery in Portland Oregon called "Trees of Antiquity." They have a nice selection and good growing notes, but I'd like to find out about others. Please share in the comments!