Fruit trees serve several purposes in the home landscape. They can provide screens and shade, be pruned into hedges, and some small trees can even work as foundation plantings. Most gardeners grow fruit trees for the edibles they produce. Trees that bear the most commonly grown backyard fruits do require maintenance and some specialized care. When you plant a fruit tree, it is always best to begin as you plan to continue. In other words, a good start is the best insurance for a timely and bountiful harvest.
Many people get frustrated when the fruit trees they plant in their gardens seem to take forever to bear fruit. Unlike vegetables, it can take years for a fruit tree to become established enough to produce flowers, let alone set fruit, and it can take even longer for the tree to support the heavy crop we dream of. Before you give up on your home orchard, run through these checkpoints.
Location and Variety
Many varieties of fruit-bearing trees native to temperate climates require a certain number of hours of cold temperatures in order to blossom and produce. Citrus trees compose the largest group that do not require a cold period. It is critical to know and understand your USDA growing zone when choosing a tree. Some varieties of peaches, for instance, do well in USDA zones 5 and 6, while others refuse to produce fruit unless grown in more southern climates.
It will pay off in the end to do the research and learn which trees and varieties grow best in your zone. Whenever possible, purchase your tree from a reputable local orchardist or nursery. These trees are more likely to have been started as seedlings or grafts in your area which increases your chances of success.
Different fruits have different pollination needs. Your tree may need nothing more than pollinating insects, like honeybees, to visit the blossoms in the spring. Other varieties, including many heirlooms, may require a second tree of the same or a different variety in order for pollination to occur. Check with your local agricultural extension office if you are unsure or have questions about pollination.
Size and Age
Peaches and apricots are some of the earliest bearers. A standard size peach or apricot can start producing fruit when it is 2-4 years old. Standard size apple, pear, cherry, and plum trees take a little longer, from 3-6 years.
Dwarf varieties of fruit trees should start producing earlier, many within the 2nd or 3rd growing season after transplanting. Keep in mind that all of these numbers are averages; there are other factors that affect when your tree starts to bear.
The amount of sun needed will depend on the species of fruit tree, but most perform the best in full sun.
Fruit trees, like all plants, require some soil nutrients to survive. Excessively rich soil or heavy fertilization may encourage lots of leafy growth, at the expense of fruit production, but once again, this depends on the tree species. Tropical fruit trees tend to prefer minimal fertilization.
All fruit trees benefit from annual pruning if done in moderation. Pruning rejuvenates fruit trees and encourages the growth of fruiting spurs. Lack of regular, moderate pruning is one of the most common causes of no fruit production. Trees left to grow out of control will also become weak and can lose entire branches with a heavy fruit load.
Removing more than a third of the tree could have just the opposite effect you were going for and stimulate the growth of more branches, as the tree repairs itself, rather than bearing fruit.
In addition to pruning, branches may need to be gently forced into a more open canopy to allow for light and air circulation. This can be accomplished by bending them to as close to horizontal as you can get and securing them with soft rope or twine, staked to the ground.
There are also manufactured "spreaders" that are flexible bars with a 'V' on either end. You can simply position the spreader between two branches to push them apart from each other. Ideally, branches should be at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions rather than growing straight up. The old adage is that a bird should be able to fly through your fruit tree without touching a branch.
Frosts & Cold Spells
If buds have been forming and not opening, it is probably the weather that's at fault. A particularly cold, windy winter can damage susceptible flower buds. More likely, it would be the result of a late spring frost, especially if the buds have already begun to swell. Your tree might even make it through the flowering stage only to have a late frost damage the young fruits beginning to form. Dwarf trees can be covered to protect them from late frosts. If you have chosen a full size tree, sometimes spraying the tree down with water before the sun comes up can save the tender buds and, with a little luck, produce a harvest.
Too Much Fruit Set
Too much fruit doesn't seem like it should be a problem, but there are two drawbacks to overabundance. First, a large fruit set may mean that the tree's resources are stressed. You usually have to choose between a large harvest of small fruits or a small harvest of good-sized fruits.
Secondly, some fruit tree varieties deal with the stress of a large crop by taking a rest the year after a heavy harvest. They seem to become biennial in fruiting, producing a large crop one year and little to nothing the next.
You may be able to correct both problems by thinning the crop while the fruits are still tiny, about three weeks after bloom time. Remove all but one fruit from each of the spurs or small branch offshoots where the fruit is produced. Leave the largest, hardiest looking fruit to survive. Some fruits will do this on their own. It can be alarming to see fruits falling on the ground, but it is a common phenomenon called June Drop.
Pests & Disease
If it's been at least five years and you've provided your fruit tree with good care and growing conditions, it would be worth calling your local Cooperative Extension office to ask about possible pest or disease problems. There may be a fungus affecting your area or it may be something as large as a deer problem.
Take the necessary steps to find the right tree for your growing conditions. Check your tree often for signs of stress like leaf drop, yellowing leaves, or leaf curl, which can be a sign of insect infestation. Give it plenty of water, sunlight and necessary pruning in the early years as the tree grows into maturity. Once it becomes established, with good maintenance and good orchard practices, you should enjoy a harvest for many years.