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:
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.