Fruit tree care involves a combination of knowledge, work, and patience, but it’s worth the effort.
Planting fruit trees can revamp your backyard and keep a supply of fresh, healthy fruit at hand. After all, there is no better feeling than picking fresh fruit directly from your garden.
In this post, Tim – an ISA-certified arborist – is sharing the best practices and tips for fruit care, including planting, pruning, mulching, watering, pest management, harvesting, and weather protection.
Keep reading to find out how to care for your fruit trees, so they look their best, yielding bountiful and delicious harvests.
1. Find out Your Climate Hardiness Zone
One of the first questions to ask: What type of climate is your garden exposed to? Can you grow fruit trees where you live?
By selecting fruit trees that are compatible with your USDA hardiness zone, they’ll be more likely to thrive in your local climate.
A hardiness zone is a geographically defined area where specific plants can grow, depending on their ability to withstand the minimum temperatures of the zone.
In other words, the USDA divides North America into these zones based on the average annual minimum winter temperature.
Also, consider the bloom time to avoid late spring frosts damaging the blossoms.
Wherever you live, you should find out what has been grown successfully in your area—recently, as well as historically or simply look around in your local area.
|USDA Hardiness Zones
|Pears, Quince, Peaches, Nectarines, Apricots, and Apriums
|Asian Plums and Pluots
|Zones 7–10 easily, Zones 5–6 possibly
2. Choose Location with Ample Sunshine
It’s no secret that plants need plenty of sun exposure in order to flourish and this applies especially to care of fruit trees. No light means no photosynthesis.
Therefore, when planting a fruit tree, aim for a location that receives full sun, with a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day.
Sunnier spots lead to healthier trees and more fruit.
Although heat and sun are generally desirable, too much can be harmful. An extended series of days with temperatures higher than 92°F–95°F (32°C–35°C) can be problematic.
Particularly in mid to late summer, a heat wave can cause trees to need more water and heat stress, which makes them more susceptible to pests.
3. Plant your Fruit Trees in Late Autumn or Early Spring
The best time to plant fruit trees is late autumn or early spring when temperatures are cooler.
Planting fruit trees during the cooler months is beneficial because it allows the trees to establish roots before the stress of the hot summer months or the active growing season begins.
During the dormant winter months, trees focus their energy underground on root development rather than foliage or fruit production.
The cooler weather also means less watering is needed, conserving resources and reducing the likelihood of root rot from overwatering.
To find the best time range to plant in your neighborhood, you can check with the local nurseries and garden centers.
PRO TIP: This article has step-by-step guidelines on how to plant a tree, including how big a planting hole should be for a new tree, the adequate spacing from the house, etc.
4. Assess the Quality of Your Soil
Most plants and trees thrive at a soil pH between 6.5 and 7.5. Testing the pH at a site can be as easy as obtaining a portable kit.
Fruit trees grow best in nutrient-rich, well-drained soil with a sandy, loamy texture. A well-draining soil lets water penetrate without pooling on the surface or running off.
If poor drainage is a serious problem, you can grow fruit trees in raised beds.
PRO TIP: Conduct a basic soil drainage test prior to choosing the planting site. Dig a hole in your garden, fill it with water, let it drain, and fill it immediately again with water. Soils with good drainage will be empty within twelve hours of the second filling.
5. Provide Your Fruit Trees with Adequate Water
Water is another essential element of fruit tree care and the life of plants in general.
In some regions, rain is plentiful, which means only minimal watering is necessary. The best practice is to check soil moisture regularly and adjust watering accordingly.
Balanced watering is crucial. Too much or too little can harm your trees.
Keep in mind that newly planted fruit trees require more water. When trees develop a more widespread root system, you can water less frequently.
A general rule of thumb to determine the right soil moisture is to take a small amount of soil into your hand and squeeze it. Does it hold together, or does it fall apart? If it falls apart, it means there isn’t enough water.
For more information about determining soil moisture, check this USDA guide.
PRO TIP: Drip irrigation is recommended for its efficiency in providing deep water penetration. An irrigation sprinkler can also be a good solution.
6. Determine if Your Fruit Tree Requires Cross-Pollination
Self-pollinating plants have both male and female flowers. These fruit trees are adequate to yield fruits if you sow a solitary tree. However, some fruit trees require cross-pollination to bear fruit.
Ensure you have two different varieties of the same type of fruit tree if necessary, or check if your neighbors have one that can serve the purpose.
While pollinating bees have the ability to travel large distances, it’s generally advised that trees intended for cross-pollination should ideally be at least within a proximity of 50 feet (15m) or less, depending on the fruit tree variety.
Growing a diversity of plants in your garden is a good idea. It helps create a habitat that shelters and nourishes beneficial insects and pollinators.
The more diverse your garden is, the fewer crop pests there are.
PRO TIP: Check this pollination checker to determine what varieties of cross-pollinating trees are most compatible with each other.
7. Keep Your Soil Nutrient-Rich
As a fruit tree home grower, prioritize soil health through mulching and composting over applying fertilizers.
One of the easiest ways to enrich your soil is by applying about an inch of compost and 3-4 inches layer of mulch around the tree, which has many benefits.
Mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and gradually enriches the soil as it decomposes.
Ideally, mix different organic matter for mulching – f.e. wood chips, grass clippings, shredded leaves, pine needles, wood nuggets.
Don’t put your mulch too close to the base of the tree to prevent rot.
You can conduct a soil test if you’re unsure about your soil’s nutrient levels.
If you decide to go the fertilizing route after a soil test, just make sure not to fertilize during the first year of the newly planted tree.
Essential Nutrients for Healthy Fruit Trees
8. Prune Your Fruit Trees Regularly
Proper care includes pruning, which has many benefits.
It improves air circulation, allows sunlight to reach all parts of the tree, and removes dead or diseased branches.
Young trees require more attention during their first year. The goal is to create one central leader and establish a strong tree structure.
After they’re established, you should prune your mature trees annually for size control and health.
In summer, you prune to limit growth. Winter pruning is for structure and to stimulate growth.
Proper pruning involves removing dead branches, suckers/water sprouts and broken, crossing-over branches.
It’s also important to note that pear and apple trees need to be pruned differently than peach and other stone fruits.
PRO TIP: You should cut branches just beyond the branch collar — the slightly swollen area that forms around the base of a branch. This type of pruning cut is referred to as heading cut.
The branch collar contains cells that will heal the wound left after the branch is removed, allowing the tree to recover more effectively.
Avoid cutting the branch too close to the trunk or leaving too long a stub, as both mistakes can hinder the healing process and lead to complications for the tree.
9. Consider Thinning for Better Quality Fruit
One reason for thinning (reducing the number of fruits) is to liberate nutrients for the other physiological needs of the tree. In that sense, fruit thinning is a tool to improve the tree’s health and fruit quality.
A good time for thinning is when your fruit is about ¾ inch in diameter (about 2cm) to ensure the remaining fruits grow larger and sweeter.
Thinning too early makes it difficult to spot all the fruit while delaying thinning will diminish the impact of thinning. Try to find that sweet spot for optimal fruit yield.
Thinning also reduces the risk of branches breaking under the weight of the fruit and increases sunlight exposure to all portions of a fruit.
To put it simply, thinned or unthinned, a tree will produce about the same weight of fruit.
The question is, do you want 120 apples or peaches that are bigger or, let’s say, 400 fruits that are smaller and have large pits and minimal flesh?
Although it might initially seem counterintuitive, more is not always better.
As a general rule, thin early and aggressively in heavy fruit years, moderately in average years, and minimally in light years.
A good practice is to leave the biggest fruit, thin the smallest.
10. Prevent Harm from Pests and Diseases
Despite your best efforts, you’ll likely experience both pest and disease problems.
So the first step is to identify and manage pests and diseases specific to your area and fruit tree types.
Generally speaking, areas with wetter, warmer, and more humid weather during the growing season tend to have greater pest and disease pressure.
Use different methods for disease and pest control and consider both conventional and organic options.
For example, protective netting or bags can prevent pests from reaching the fruit.
You can foster biodiversity to encourage beneficial insects and birds, plant disease-resistant varieties such as Pristine apples and Frost, Avalon Pride, and Mary Jane peaches, and apply organic or non-organic sprays.
Examples of Disease & Pest Resistant Fruit Tree Varieties
Apples: Freedom, Frost, Avalon Pride and Liberty.
Cherries: All sour cherry trees are greatly disease- and pest-resistant.
Pears: Harrow Delight, Delicious and Moon glow
Plums: European types, such as Damson, are the most disease- and pest-resistant.
Peaches: Avalon Pride and Mary Jane
By following these ten best practices, you can enjoy the rewards of a beautiful, healthy and productive home orchard in your garden.
The key to success lies in understanding the specific needs of your fruit trees and adjusting your fruit tree care accordingly.
If you wish to have healthy and productive fruit trees with a lush and abundant harvest year after year, ensure you take the time to plant your new trees properly and care for them diligently.0