Gardening notes: On getting my fruit trees to bear fruit

Many people get frustrated when the fruit trees they plant in their gardens seem to take forever to bear fruit. It can take years for a fruit tree to become established enough to produce flowers, let alone fruit and it can take even longer for the tree to support a true crop. Before you give up on your orchard, run through these check points.
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 3-5 years old. Standard size apple, pear, cherry, apricot and plum trees take a little longer, from 3-5 years.

Dwarf varieties of fruit trees should start producing earlier, many within the 2nd or 3rd growing season after transplanting. But all of these numbers are averages. There are other factors that affect when your tree starts to bear.
Sun Exposure: A tree in full to partial shade is fighting an uphill battle. Fruit trees can survive in partial shade, but they will take longer to begin bearing fruit.
Soil Fertility: Fruit trees, like all plants, require some nutrients to survive. But excessively rich soil or heavy fertilization may encourage branch and leaf growth at the expense of fruit production.
Pruning: All fruit trees benefit from annual pruning, if done in moderation. Pruning rejuvenates fruit trees and encourages the growth of fruiting spurs. Removing more than a third of the tree could have just the opposite effect you were going for and stimulate more branches, as the tree repairs itself, and no fruit. Lack of regular, moderate pruning is one of the most common causes of no fruit production.

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, staking it 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 in 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.
Too Much Fruit Set: Too much fruit doesn’t seem like it should be a problem, but there are two drawbacks to over abundance. First, a large fruit set means that the trees 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 can 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.
Pests & Disease: If it’s been at least 5 years and you’ve provided your fruit tree with good care and growing conditions and still nothing, 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.
It’s hard to be patient when you only have one chance a year to set fruit on your trees. But once you get them going, you’ll have many, many years of reaping the rewards

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Controlled pruning

Several methods of pruning produce fruit trees of a more manageable size. These trees may be on regular root stock, but are more often on a dwarf rootstock chosen to grow to a particular size. Espaliers, where the trees are grown flat on a set of wires on a building or between posts, or cordons, where single straight branches are interwoven to create fence patterns are the two most common types of controlled pruning. Any variety can be espaliered or grown as a cordon which makes them useful for decorative fences or for growing flat against the protection of a wall. Cherry trees, often difficult to grow as dwarfs (a dwarf cherry may still be more than 20 feet tall) can be grown shorter if pruned against the wall as an espaliered cherry and are easier to protect from bird damage.

Controlled Growth in Pots

Pot grown fruit trees, with restricted soil and root growth, can be dwarfed similar to the way a bonsai tree is dwarfed, with careful pruning of the roots and branches at the correct time of year. Many dwarf pot grown varieties are grown on dwarfing rootstocks to further restrict their size.

To Control Fruit Tree Growth in Pots.

Fruit trees can be grown in large pots (10 to 15 inches), except for cherries which need larger pots, up to 18 inches across. Fruit in pots should be grown in fertile soil with 1/3 of the soil mix being perlite or vermiculite to keep the soil from getting waterlogged. Fruit trees will require good fertility. You can use slow release fertilizer pellets, or feed them every two weeks with a high potassium liquid feeding (tomato fertilizers or another high potassium liquid. Fruit trees in pots should be repotted every year or two after leaf fall. When your tree has reached it’s mature size, it should be root pruned every other year and replaced back in it’s pot with roughly 20% new soil. Root pruning for this purpose should remove at least the outer inch of roots. In years when the plant isn’t being root pruned, you should mulch the soil well with organic material or add new compost to the top of the pot.

Sources: Articles by Marie Iannotti and Lesley Shepherd at Gardening.about.com

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