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Down the Garden Path

Why our fruit trees fail to bear

Extension offices routinely get phone calls after a two or three year old fruit trees, "why don't I get any fruit?" Often times what is happening is natural, sometimes we contribute to the delay of fruit production by the care we have given the fruit tree. It is pretty common that we will get some fruit that first year. This is due to the growing conditions and management the wholesale fruit tree grower used to produce the fruit tree we are buying at the garden center or retail outlet.

Once in our yard, the first thing the plant is going to do is focus on generating a good healthy root system by using the energy produced by the leaves to establish itself in the home orchard or landscape rather than producing flower buds that give us the fruit. Developing healthy roots can take 3-5 years, depending on how we then manage the care of the fruit tree.

Training the fruit tree starting the first year will establish scaffolding branches that will support the future fruit is important. Waiting till "the tree grows some" will delay flower production and you end up with a fruit tree that is larger than you wanted. This does not mean all is lost, it will still flower and fruit, just later than we hoped.

Our soils will support the growth of a fruit tree without the addition of fertilizers. If you are planting your fruit tree in the lawn area that you manage at a high level, this will also potentially delay fruit bud formation as the fruit tree is receiving some of that fertilizer you are applying to the lawn. Watering the tree during establishment and then during dry periods in the summer is also important, especially as it comes into bearing as the fruit tree requires lots of water to properly fulfill the fruits.

Another reason your fruit tree may not be bearing fruits even though there are lots of flowers and the tree is well established is the fruit tree needs to be cross-pollinated. This is especially true for nearly all apple trees. You need two different varieties of apples blooming at the same time with bees present in order to have cross pollination. If you have flowering ornamental crabapples in the neighborhood, these will function as the cross-pollinator if they bloom at the same time. Even if you have planted what is called a partially self-fruitful apple variety, you will get a better crop of apples if the fruit tree is pollinated by another variety. If you are just planning your home orchard, be sure to read the catalogs or ask enough questions to know that you do or do not need to have cross pollination for any of the fruit trees you intend to grow.

For more information on apple trees check out U of I Extension's website: Apples and More.