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By: Kristi Waterworth
If fruit trees came with owner’s manuals, home gardeners inheriting fruit trees planted by previous occupants wouldn’t have so much trouble. Fruit tree problems are common in trees that have been planted with good intentions, but then left to their own devices. Many new fruit tree owners discover that there’s more to fruit tree care than just not killing them when immature fruit drop starts in the late spring or summer.
Immature Fruit Drop
If fruit tree blossoms aren’t thinned prior to opening, up to 90 percent of the small, hard fruit that develops right after pollination will eventually be shed from the tree. This can be a natural part of tree fruit development, since few fruit trees can divert enough energy from growing to support all these new fruits. Naturally, they shed the fruits if they can so that other fruits in the cluster or on that branch can grow larger.
However, not every fruit tree is an efficient fruit shedder and even though they may drop small hard fruit, the remaining fruit stays small because of too much competition for resources. These fruits continue to develop and may remain on the tree throughout the growing season, eventually ripening into seriously small fruits. Without a healthy, immature fruit drop, the tree doesn’t have the resources to produce lovely, large fruits.
What to Do if Fruit Stays Small
If all fruit tree problems were as simple to cure as fruits that stay small, fruit tree growers would have an easy time. Often, training the tree into an open form with only a few main branches is all it takes to correct problems with small fruit, though fruit tree thinning on a very overgrown tree is more of an art than a science. The ideal number of bearing branches will depend heavily on the type of fruit tree you have, such as with peaches.
Picking blossoms from your fruit tree and providing it with proper fertilization is still recommended, even after you’ve pruned it into shape for fruiting. Remember that your tree can only produce fruit based on the support it gets from the outside world, so if the soil isn’t fertile enough to build big fruits, you’ll still need to help the tree along.
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Read more about General Fruit Care
Solving Fruit Tree Blooming & Bearing Problems
Have a fruit tree that won't bloom or bear fruit? Discover common issues and how to solve them, plus basic tree requirements for fruit production.
Two commonly frustrating questions any grower might ask:
- "Why won't my fruit tree bloom?"
- "Why doesn't my tree have fruit?"
You've planted your fruit tree. It's growing. It's living. But it's not blooming or bearing fruit. While this can be discouraging to the point of wanting to chop the tree down, go for the facts – not the axe. If your fruit tree doesn't bloom or bear, it can happen for a number of reasons. In this article, we focus on the 6 basic requirements of fruit trees and address the most common issues and solutions related to fruit production.
6 Basic Needs for Fruit Production
1. Tree Development
If your fruit tree is still too young/immature, it won't go into fruit-production mode. When you receive your tree from Stark Bro's, it will be around 2 years old and will still need a few years before reaching its fruiting maturity. Read our article about how many years until you should expect fruit for more information about how long it takes for different trees to bear before deciding your tree has an issue.
Fruit trees require pollination to be able to set fruit. If your tree is not self-pollinating, it needs a compatible pollinator tree planted nearby. Also, pollination-helping beneficials like bees, birds, and wind need to be adequately present. If your tree is missing these important elements, it may bloom, but it will not likely set fruit. Read more about the importance of fruit tree pollination.
3. Hardiness Zones
Individual tree varieties have recommended hardiness zones for planting. You can find out how to determine your USDA hardiness zone here, and learn more by reading Fruit Tree Care: Planting in the Zone. Once you know what your zone is, you will be able to select fruit trees that are recommended to grow in your area.
Things to Consider When Planting in Your Zone:
- Trees should be hardy to your zone for a chance to survive winters and summers.
- Trees should receive adequate chill hours to produce fruit. Chill hours are based on temperatures that stay between 32ºF and 45ºF for hours consecutively during the tree’s dormant period. If the tree is hardy to your zone but does not meet its chill-hour requirement, its fruit production will decrease. As a general rule, most peaches have a low chill-hour requirement, most apples are in the middle, and most pears have a high chill-hour requirement.
- Weather can greatly affect fruit production. If a late frost zaps your tree’s blossoms or young fruit, then it will not be able to produce a crop for you to harvest that year. If a drought or intense heat/cold damages your trees and their buds, you simply have to care for your trees this year (as usual) and wait for more favorable weather next year.
Regularly pruned trees are much more apt to producing quality fruit. Fruiting buds tend to form on limbs that have adequate air circulation and light infiltration, which is your goal when pruning. Learn about pruning tips and more in our article, Successful Tree Pruning.
You also have to make sure that you find the right balance for pruning. Heavy over-pruning can cause a tree to produce too much vegetative growth in response, and under-pruning can contribute to the development of too much fruiting wood, which is the culprit for overbearing and fruit drop.
Fruit trees that are planted too close to one another will compete for nutrients and light. If planting trees close together is part of your design (espalier and high-density plantings are two prime examples), then you will need to prune accordingly to keep them open to light and ensure the trees are getting enough nutrients from the soil.
If trees are planted too close to buildings and other structures, they will have similar conflicts with the added risk of interfering with those structures. Make sure you give your trees enough room to grow and flourish. For an easy-to-follow reference for tree-spacing, learn more about the different fruit tree sizes here.
6. Soil Conditions
It is very important that your trees have the right balance of reserve food and soil elements. This is the best thing you can do to ensure your tree fruits and has energy to support its fruit. As you can see in the graphic, if this balance is off, it can have a negative impact on how your tree blooms or bears.
If a tree has plenty of reserve food but a shortage of soil elements, you may see a stunted crop of undersized, poor-quality fruit. You might even see no fruit at all. This can happen if your tree has tried to overbear, which may cause a tree to drop its fruit prematurely. It may also happen if your tree has experienced foliage-depletion, which can be caused by stress, weather, or other weakening factors (animals, pests, or disease). Identifying the stress factor and treating it will help to remedy the problem. You can have your soil tested to find nutrient deficiencies. You should implement routine control of pests and disease.
A tree can also have an excess of soil elements but not enough reserve food. The tree will appear to be healthy and lush during the growing season, but it will not bear fruit (regardless of maturity) since, in many cases, the tree doesn't even bloom. This happens as a result of “over-feeding”. If the soil provides plenty of nutrients, like nitrogen (either naturally or by adding fertilizer), the tree develops an excess of vegetative growth that will delay the growth of fruiting buds. You can remedy this problem by holding off on fertilizing and waiting until the next growing season for results.
Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
There are some extreme solutions that should only be attempted if all else fails: root-pruning or scoring your trees.
Root pruning: Bring a spade or shovel out to the drip line of your trees. The drip line is where the tips of the branches are, but straight down on the ground. Take the spade or shovel and push it straight into the ground and pull it straight back out. Do not dig out any dirt. Move over a foot or two and repeat the process. You are essentially creating a dotted-line circle around your tree's root system, which will clip the feeder roots and "shock" the tree into blooming during the next growing season.
Scoring: This has the same result as root pruning, but scoring should not be your first step to getting your tree to fruit. Consider it a last resort. When scoring your trees, bring a small knife (like a pocket-knife) out to your tree. Locate a spot low on the trunk and cut a single horizontal line into the bark, only halfway around the tree. Move up several inches and repeat this, but halfway around the other direction. Do not let these lines connect to one another or you will destroy the phloem tissue and completely disrupt the vascular system of the tree, which will lead to its demise. See the animated image as a reference for examples of properly scoring the bark halfway around a tree.
If you keep these instances in mind, then you will have a better understanding of why a fruit tree does not bear. Nip a potential problem in the bud and exercise your patience (not your lumberjack-swing). Your trees will thank you!
The purpose of a fruit is to carry seeds. Fruits are designed to be carried away from the tree and eaten, spreading the seeds to new places where they can grow into trees. If there are no seeds in the fruit, the tree sometimes “knows” and will get rid of the fruit.
“The reason persimmons fall from the tree before they ripen is the result of parthenocarpy, which a fascinating botanical phenomenon.
Parthenocarpy (a word that combines “parthenos,” meaning virgin, and “karpos” meaning fruit) is the production of fruit without fertilization. In certain persimmon varieties, parthenocarpically produced fruit is highly susceptible to dropping from the tree before it matures.
In general, what we call a fruit is actually a fully developed plant ovary. The ovary is a female flower part that grows in response to pollination and fertilization of the ovum or egg. Fertilization occurs after pollination — that is, after a male pollen grain from one flower is transferred to the female stigma of another flower — occurs.
A tube grows out from the male pollen grain into the female stigma and then continues to grow down through a filament called a style. At the base of the style, male genetic material from the pollen grain unites with female genetic material that is located there in the ovule (egg).
This mixing of male and female genetic material is known as fertilization, from which a seed is produced.
In most plants, hormone exuded by a developing seed stimulates growth of the ovary into a fruit. But in a few select plants — such as bananas, persimmons, figs, navel oranges, and Satsuma plums — fruits may grow without the benefit of seed formation. In the case of persimmons, although fruit can develop without seeds, larger crops will result and fruit will stay on the tree until ripe when pollination/fertilization and seed development occurs.
The most popular persimmon variety is ‘Fuyu,’ whose fruit often drops when it develops parthenocarpically. To ensure a crop, plant a pollinator variety such as ‘Gailey’ next to your ‘Fuyu.’”
Japanese persimmons do indeed produce fruit – often fine – without pollination… but not always! This could be another cause of these persimmons dropping fruit.
Several types of fungi may attack the fruit of the plum tree and either damage or ruin the plums, causing an early fruit drop. Regular applications of fungicide control brown rot and other common fungal diseases. Regular cleanup of fallen fruit and a thorough pruning of diseased branches during the winter also reduce the impact on the crop. The European viral disease called Sharka first entered the U.S. in the late 1990s and causes plums and other stone fruit to shrivel and fall. The only effective control of sharka or plum pox virus (PPV) involves quarantine of infected orchards and destruction of diseased trees.
Five Mistakes Gardeners Make with Fruit Trees (and how to avoid them)
Fruit trees are our favorite plants to grow (which is a good thing, since that’s what we do for a living at Legg Creek Farm. Tree fresh fruit, whether from lemon trees, apple trees, or peach trees, are far tastier than anything available at most supermarkets. But fruit trees aren’t always easy. And we’ve failed growing them almost as much as we’ve succeeded. We’ve had the privilege of working with gardeners across the country for the past decade or so. Many of these gardeners were skilled and they had been wildly successful in many of their endeavors. But we receive plenty of stories of failure as well. Below is a list of the top five mistakes gardeners make with fruit trees, along with how to avoid them.
Choosing the wrong variety
Fruit tree hybridization has yielded thousands of different fruit tree varieties, from donut-shaped peaches to heirloom apples from the 1700’s. Many of these varieties were developed for geographically specific areas. In the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture divides the nation into hardiness zones, a metric that takes into account how cold it gets in a particular area. This is a helpful measure for most plants, but it doesn’t take into account an important aspect of fruit tree production: chill hours.
Fruit trees will often not produce for gardeners because they selected fruit trees based on the USDA hardiness zone and not the chill hours the tree requires. Chill hours are the number of hours a fruit tree needs to experience below 45° F. (7 C.) during dormancy in order to trigger fruit production. As an example, we grow trees in eastern Texas. We can grow apples here, but only varieties that require 600 or so chill hours, because that is what our overall average is.
Some years we will have 1,200 chill hours, meaning we could grow some nice Honeycrisp apples, but other years we will only have 400 chill hours during a mild winter. So select your varieties based not only on the USDA zone, but also and primarily based on the chill hours you receive on average in the area where you are gardening.
Forgetting to spray
While not true of every fruit tree variety, the vast majority of fruit trees grown in the U.S. by gardeners need some sort of regular spraying. Speaking from personal experience, and from hearing from many customers, fruit trees that fail to yield a crop sometimes do so because the gardener isn’t spraying pests and diseases. Most commercial orchards have a regular spraying schedule that involves plenty of fungicides and insecticides, often sprayed weekly during the peak growing season. There are plenty of organic solutions out there for the home gardener. The import thing is to spray some type of horticultural oil on the tree when it’s dormant (I like NEEM oil for this), and then to spray the fruit with a fungicide as soon as any problems appear, along with an insecticide (bee safe organic products are available).
Not all fruit trees are created equal when it comes to needing to be sprayed. From my experience, peaches and nectarines are the most vulnerable to diseases, while pears and apples sometimes need less spraying. In the proper environment, figs, pomegranates, and many native fruit trees won’t require spraying. Your local agricultural extension agent (in the U.S.) can help you with a locally-tailored spray schedule for fruit trees.
Not pruning properly (or at all)
For best production, fruit trees need to be pruned. Depending on where you live, you should prune your fruit trees either in winter (in the southern half of the U.S.) or in early spring before the buds sprout on the tree. Apples and pears require one type of pruning, while plums, peaches, cherries, and nectarines require another type pruning. The pruning styles are illustrated below:
- peach, nectarine, cherry pruning
- apple pruning
Pruning is essential for tree health and fruit production – and you can get started on a dormant tree even if it’s overgrown and hasn’t been pruned in 20 years.
Ignoring soil health
The health of your soil is important, especially when growing a perennial crop like fruit trees. Fertilizing a least twice a year with organic fertilizer that includes micronutrients is a great way to maintain soil health. Soil microbes – the bacteria, fungi, and other living creators that make up the soil’s living portion – all benefit from a slow release of organic nutrients. They also benefit from native plants as cover. In my personal orchard, I let wildflowers and native grasses flourish between fruit trees. This benefits pollinators and soil microbes, which in turn benefit my fruit trees – the pollinators help with fruit production and the soil microbes help with nutrient availability to the trees. They also help prevent some soil-borne diseases.
Planting in soil that isn’t well-drained
Poorly drained soil is probably the number one reason our customers’ fruit trees fail to thrive. Sandy and loam soils that drain well are usually the best for fruit trees. This type of soil allows water to irrigate the roots while not drowning them. Tree roots are living tissue and they will drown if given the chance. Clay soil, provided it’s on a slope, will also work, as long as water drains off of it within a day or two after rainfall. Any soil that stays wet, even for a few weeks, will cause fungal diseases in fruit tree roots. Flooded soils will drown the trees.
So that’s it! That’s the most common mistakes we see with growing fruit trees. If you want more information or want to order some fruit trees for yourself, check out www.leggcreekfarm.com.
Besides being the owner of Legg Creek Farm, Trey Watson is also the author of gardening books, including his latest book The Lazy Gardener’s Guide to Growing Citrus in Containers, available on Amazon.