Down the Garden Path
Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator
Young fruit trees in the home orchard should begin to fruit once the tree has become established. Several conditions will need to be met before that happens. The four big factors are tree health, weather, typical age for the tree to bear and proper pollination.
Fruit trees that are moderate growers will often begin to bloom ahead of faster or slower growing trees. Apples can start to flower in as little as two years, while plums take 3-5 years for example. Sour Cherries are in the two to three year range. Fruit trees purchased from a garden center or retail nursery are most often at least two years old. Fruit trees ordered from a fruit tree supplier catalog may only be one year old and sold as a whip.
Tree health will also influence how soon blooms start to show up. We want a healthy tree, but not one that is overly vigorous, which will delay the formation of fruit buds. For example, if you allow leaf diseases to establish before fruiting, that can reduce your potential yield by about 20%. Letting insects feed at will make that percentage drop even further. Some insects can hurt the tree as well as the fruit. A regular spray program, either organic or inorganic, starting while the trees are young will get you off to a good start.
While we cannot control the weather and climate, siting your fruit trees in the best locations in the landscape can help. Hardy fruit trees actually need a dormant period and later, a chilling period to flower each year. Avoiding low-lying spots in the yard help protect the more sensitive flower buds from those late frosts. Soil that drains well avoids root rots too. The most sensitive fruit trees are apricots and sweet cherries. Next in the list are peaches and nectarines. Plums, pears, and sour cherries are second to the top and apples are hardiest. The best trees to start with around here are likely apples. Once you master those, venture into the less hardy fruit trees. Peaches, for example, may only provide a crop every few years.
The last condition that has to be met and one we do have control over is that of proper pollination. Apples will require cross-pollination. You will need two trees of different varieties blooming at the same time. If you chose a variety that is listed in the fruit catalogs as being male sterile then you will need yet another variety to ensure all three trees can produce apples. Other self un-fruitful trees include pear, American plums and sweet cherries. In the urban communities, a flowering ornamental crabapple blooming at the same time as your fruit trees, can serve as a pollinator for fruiting apples since they are very closely related. Since fruit trees are pollinated by flying insects, that could be the crabapple several doors down.
About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.