The Worthy Work of Fruit Trees

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Peach trees are delicate and somewhat persnickity, but the blossoms and fruit are heavenly.
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Apricot blossoms are a work of art
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A fruit grower carefully monitors her trees.

Few emotions are as predictable as pride from harvesting a bountiful crop from the garden. Something primal about the harvest is encoded in our DNA; a sense of worth that still affects all of us even though we may no longer rely on this harvest for day-to-day survival.

Unfortunately, some gardeners will be disappointed in this year’s harvest, and this fact may already be apparent this early in the season.

“Why won’t my fruit tree produce fruit?” is a question that will echo from the walls of garden centers, extension offices and local coffee shops, as it does every year. And, just as in years past, there will be no one correct answer.

Producing a good fruit crop from an apple, pear, cherry, peach or other favorite fruiting tree is not as easy as putting out that tomato plant, adding some water and fertilizer, and shazam the fruit starts coming.

Fruit trees tend to be a finicky bunch when it comes to bearing a good harvest. That is unless the home orchardist has a good understanding of the plants’ needs.

The most common cause for lack of fruiting is simply the age of the tree. These plants need to gain a maturity before they have the energy to produce fruit. This time frame varies with the type of fruit tree. Apples may begin to put on fruit in 3 to 5 years, peaches in 2 to 4, and cherries may take up to 7 before they are ready to produce a crop.

Fruit trees also do not like competition for food and water from neighboring plants. A fruit tree may look like it is growing well in a situation with grass growing right next to the trunk. But this grass is competing with the tree for energy sources needed for flower initiation and fruit production. If you look at commercial orchards, plant growth is kept clear well away from the trees. Grass nestled under the tree may be fine for other landscape trees that aren’t expected to produce fruit above and beyond their normal growth, but it can slow the productivity of your fruit trees.

Annual fertilization should be applied to aid fruit trees in meeting the high energy requirement of fruiting, along with irrigation during dry periods of the year. When we see plants blooming outside their characteristic time because of extreme stress, these fruiting areas will most likely not be regenerated in time for the next season’s bloom and fruiting.

Regular pruning of fruiting trees is a must. Pruning accomplishes several things important to fruit production. Opening trees up to allow sunlight penetration into the canopy helps create a better quality fruit because it is exposed to sunlight, and the sunlight that reaches all the branches will encourage new buds that are able to produce fruit.

Know what trees and varieties are best suited to your climate. In my climate zone, peach trees grow very well. But the bad part is these trees may only produce fruit every five years because blossoms and buds are often damaged by late spring freezes.

Fruit production is lowered on most fruit trees if frigid temperatures arrive after the buds begin to swell for spring. Flowers may seem like they are perfect when open, yet the female portion of the bloom has been injured.

Temperatures that are too cold can damage fruit production, but cold weather is also a necessity for these plants to bloom. Chilling is the term used to describe the number of hours a plant needs to be exposed to temperatures below 45°F during their dormancy, before the plant’s flowering mechanism can be triggered. This number varies between the different types of fruits as well as varieties within a species. For example, if your garden lies in a very mild winter climate, a Fuji apple tree with 350 chilling hours required may be a better selection than a Winesap, which needs 900 hours.

Understanding the pollination requirements of fruit trees may be the most important aspect for a successful home orchard. In a nut shell, depending on the cultivar, most apples, peaches, apricots, pears and plums will set fruit without another cultivar present. Sweet cherries need another pollinator while tart cherries do not.

Even plants that do not require another source for pollen to produce fruit will benefit from another cultivar for increased number and size of the fruit. Apples are an easy one to provide another pollinator, even in an urban area where space for several trees is limited; in the average landscaped areas of suburbia, there is a good chance that a flowering crabapple is planted near enough to perform the task of pollination.

As with the chilling requirements, it is wise to find varieties that are best adapted to each gardener’s location and then look at the pollination requirements for the cultivar desired. You may have your heart set on planting one J.H. Hale peach tree because it is a freestone variety that you like, but with space for only one tree, and this pick requiring a pollinator, a better selection may be Halehaven, which is also freestone but is not as reliant on pollination from another source for fruit production.

There are myriad factors that affect the quality of fruit once all the qualifications are met for setting fruit – insect, fungal, bacterial and viral. These can be as intimidating to gardeners as pollination requirements and chilling hours. All the work and planning needed for good fruit production in the home garden may not seem worth it to many, but when the basket overflows with homegrown fruit that first season, all the effort will seem trivial. /G

Mike Lang is a lifelong Kansan, and he is currently the landscape manager for a 1,000-acre university campus by day and caretaker of his own quarter-acre piece of the world the rest of the time.