How to prune an old neglected cherry tree?
We have an old cherry tree in our backyard that is in serious need of pruning. It has some really old growth and some unmaintained newer growth that is very tall. It's odd looking and for such a mature tree we only saw a few cherries last year. I've looked over the document pnw543.pdf (cherry training systems) but since this tree is in such a bad state I'm not sure where to start. I'll attach an image.
I'm wondering about the history of this tree. It appears to me that the top of the tree (the section with the horizontal branches and weeping growth habit) is a flowering cherry. In other words an ornamental cherry with a weeping or pendant growth form. I'm guessing that this was grafted onto a regular sweet cherry tree. Damage to the tree has caused the sweet cherry to send out suckers that are putting on several feet of growth per year and ruining the overall form of your tree. There may be two reasons why you are not getting much fruit from this. 1) is because the branches are so vigorous that all the energy of the tree is going into vegetative growth, rather than fruiting. 2) it is possible that there are no pollinizer cherry trees in the area that can pollinize the sweet cherry.
You can prune this tree by cutting back the suckers to their base every winter. The problem, however, is that now that the suckers have started to grow, they will continue to regrow vigorously every year. There is no way of stopping this. If you want a tree that behaves itself you will need to remove this tree and plant either an ornamental flowering tree (does not produce fruit) or a self-fruitful sweet cherry tree. A variety such as Lapins does not need a second tree to pollinate it. If you want it to be smaller, more fruitful and earlier bearing than a full size tree I would suggest that you plant a Lapins tree growing on Krymsk 6 rootstock. If you can't find that than my second choice would be Gisela 5 rootstock. Gisela 6 would also be okay, but the growth will be somewhat more vigorous.
Thank you so much Lynn! We are bummed that the tree is in a state of disrepair but it makes so much sense now that we know we are looking at two different tree species. I will probably saw off the suckers this year and start formulating a long term plan to replace the tree entirely.
I don't know if this will satisfy your curiosity about the tree's history, but our neighbors tell us the original owners from the late 50's were Japanese and put a lot of effort into their landscaping.