Since I got my new Fuji apple tree, I’ve been doing research about how to best care for it. I was curious when it would fruit, and if there might be any issues that could delay its fruiting. So, I did more digging. Here’s what I found about apple trees that won’t produce fruit (and how to fix it).
Apple trees commonly won’t produce fruit the trees haven’t aged enough or if they have a lack of pollination. Other reasons include improper watering, poor nutrients, or biennial fruiting. To get the best fruit production, let apple trees mature for 1-3 years and cross-pollinate them with other apple trees.
So, while a lack of fruit on apple trees can be tied to several issues, how can we tell which issue is causing it, and how can we fix it?
1. Let it Mature
A lack of maturity is the most common reason why apple trees won’t fruit. Generally, apple trees grown from seed can take 3-10 years to flower and fruit, while grafted apple trees can take as little as 1-3 years. This is because grafted trees use the genetics from a mature tree, which speeds up the fruiting process.
Do not expect to produce very much fruit on apples and pears until the third to fifth year after planting depending on the rootstock. In fact, it is a good practice to remove any fruit that may form before the tree has gone through three full growing seasons. This will allow the tree to develop the proper number of branches to support future crops.Robert Crassweller, Professor of Horticulture, Pennsylvania State University
Other than having a quicker time to fruit, grafted apple trees have some other benefits compared to those grown from seed. They are:
- Increased pest and disease resistance
- Improved hardiness
- Fruits that are “true to seed” (having fruit identical to the parent tree)
So, if your apple tree was grown from seed, it could take a few more years for it to mature and increase its flower and fruit production. If your apple tree is grafted, then it shouldn’t be long before it provides fruit (assuming you meet the other growing requirements below).
2. Check the Fruiting Season
The exact time of harvest depends on the variety of apple trees. Generally, apple trees start developing flowers and fruit in the spring and continue growing until August to October (source), when they’re ready to be harvested. Some apple tree varieties are also biennial, or produce fruit every other year.
It’s a good idea to check when your specific variety of apple tree blooms and fruits. For example, Fuji apple trees bloom in April and are harvested in Mid-October.
Some apple trees can be biennial and produce a heavier set of fruit every other year. This is because some apple trees become overburdened with fruit and use too many resources such as nutrients and water—leading to them skipping a growing year. The likelihood of this depends on the tree’s growing conditions and cultural practices such as pruning.
For example, over-pruning can harm the apple tree’s fruit production, preventing them from fruiting on time and promoting vertical, non-fruit-bearing branches.
Over-pruning (removing more than 25 percent of the canopy in any one year) may result in the production of watershoots (epicormic growth), which are vigorous, tall, upright and leafy branches, producing no flowers or fruit.The Royal Horticultural Society
So, if your apple tree is mature, and it’s not flowering or fruiting when it’s supposed to, make sure it’s in season and not getting over-pruned.
3. Increase Pollination
For the best pollination, apple trees should be planted within 50-100 feet of other apple trees as well as any other flowering plants.
All apple trees, including self-pollinating apple trees, benefit by cross-pollinating with another apple variety. This generally results in larger and more fruits.
All varieties of apple trees require some cross-pollination for fruit set. Even though some varieties are listed as self-fruitful, they will set fruit more heavily and more regularly if they are cross-pollinated.Washington State University
Flowers from other plants also provide a boost in apple tree pollination as they attract more pollinators.
Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and the wind transfer pollen from flower to flower, leading to the apple tree’s flowers getting fertilized and developing into fruit. Generally, the more flowers that are visited by pollinators, the more fruit your apple tree will get.
Naturally, you can boost the pollination of your apple trees by planting pollinator-friendly plants. These flowers are great companion plants for apple trees. Make sure to also keep these plants fairly close to your apple tree (again, within 50-100 feet).
Not only does this distance allow pollinators to visit and cross-pollinate more of the flowers, but it’s also a good spacing for the apple tree’s roots (as each apple tree can grow roots that are 25 feet long).
Alternatively, if your apple trees don’t have the best pollination (such as if they’re potted and indoors), you can always pollinate them by hand. To do so, use a clean toothbrush, paintbrush, or q-tip and simply brush lightly from flower to flower. The pollen should successfully fertilize more of the flowers, leading to more fruit.
4. Water Properly
Without sufficient water, apple trees will develop small and shriveled fruit. So, what’s the best way to water apple trees for the best fruit yields?
Apple trees should be watered only when the soil is dry. An easy way to tell if the soil is dry is by pushing a finger into the soil, up to the second knuckle. Additionally, use 2 inches of compost and 4-12 inches of mulch to improve water retention and reduce evaporation. Keep the soil well-draining to prevent root rot.
While there are a few ways you can tell how dry the tree’s soil is, the easiest method is to simply push a finger into the soil. If it’s sopping wet, hold off on watering. If it’s dry, water generously.
However, there are times when the soil has too much or too little drainage. So, what do we do in these cases?
If your soil is drying too fast, amend it with 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months. Compost improves the richness of the soil, which greatly improves water retention. For example, each 1% increase in a soil’s organic matter can help hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre (source).
Additionally, adding mulch on top of the compost greatly reduces evaporation and protects the soil from baking in the sun. Some good mulches for apple trees are leaves, bark, straw, and pine needles.
On the other hand, if your soil is drying too slowly, its drainage will need to be improved. This is especially true with soils that are high in clay.
An easy way to create more drainage is to amend the soil with sand or perlite. Also, planting your apple tree on an elevated surface, such as a mound or raised bed will help. For potted apple trees, you can try drilling more holes into the pot or repot it with fresh potting soil as a worst-case scenario.
However, if you’ve tried all of the above, and your apple tree still isn’t fruiting properly, there’s a good chance it needs more nutrients.
5. Provide Balanced Nutrients
Apple trees generally prefer a fertilizer with a balanced NPK, such as a 5-5-5. Use an NPK fertilizer as directed in the growing seasons. For a more natural fertilizer, apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months.
While mature apple trees like fertilizer with a more balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), younger apple trees can benefit from a fertilizer with higher nitrogen. This is because they’re focused more on growing foliage, and nitrogen is the primary nutrient used in branch and leaf development.
However, avoid using high nitrogen fertilizers if your apple tree isn’t bearing many fruits. Since nitrogen encourages foliage growth, fruiting is usually discouraged. Instead, use balanced fertilizers or those higher in phosphorus and potassium.
Also, avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen if your apple tree has a disease—such as the bacterial disease fire blight. If used, the fertilizer feeds the bacteria, causing the disease to spread faster.
Whichever fertilizer you choose, make sure to keep it at least 3 inches away from the apple tree’s trunk. Any closer and chemical fertilizers can burn the trunk, while fresh compost can introduce mold.
If you’d like a recommendation on a good apple tree fertilizer, I use Down to Earth’s Fruit Mix from Amazon.
Alternatively, you can make your own apple tree fertilizer at home!
Provide a Balanced Soil pH
For best results, keep your apple tree’s soil pH between 5.8-7.0.
Even though providing your apple tree with nutrients is important for fruit production, soil pH is equally important.
If an apple tree’s soil is either too acidic or too alkaline, it won’t be able to properly absorb nutrients from the soil. Typically, sandy soils are more acidic, while clay soils are more alkaline.
You can measure your soil’s pH with pH strips or a pH meter. I prefer to use a meter since they’re easy to use and affordable. To see which pH meter I use and recommend, you can check out my recommended tools page.
If your apple tree is having trouble producing fruit check its age, if it was grafted, what season it fruits, and if it has sufficient pollination, water, and nutrients. If any of these are off, then it’s likely explaining why it’s growing little to no fruits.
Here are some other tips to improve fruit production on your apple trees:
- Sunlight is also important with sufficient fruiting on apple trees, but as long as you’re giving the tree full sun (6+ hours of direct sunlight), it will have enough.
- Generally, horizontal branches on apple trees are more likely to grow fruit. Avoid feeding your apple tree high nitrogen fertilizer since it promotes non-fruit-bearing vertical branches and shoots.
- Extreme weather is another reason why apple trees might not bear fruit. While dormant apple trees benefit from chill hours, if the apple tree is blooming and experiences a late or early frost, the flowers will likely die and result in less fruit development (see the quote below).
- Additionally, cold weather can limit pollinator activity. Bees become sluggish when temperatures drop below 55ºF and die in temperatures of 45ºF or less (source). Fewer pollinators mean fewer flowers that get fertilized (and fewer fruits produced).
A temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit (when the trees are in full bloom) will destroy 10 percent of the flowers. Ninety percent of the flowers will be destroyed when the temperature drops to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.Richard Jauron, Iowa State University
Keep in mind that even if you’ve tried everything on this list, some apple trees just won’t bear many fruits. In this case, it’s most likely genetics. This is more typical for apple trees that are grown from seed.
Because of this, it’s best to buy grafted apple trees and choose varieties that are known to produce high volumes of fruit.
If you’d like more tips on growing apple trees, check out the video below by MI Gardener. You can also contact your local cooperative extension service for specific information on apple trees in your region.