When I first started growing fruit trees, I had no idea to start. I kept hearing terms like NPK, temperate, and mycorrhizal fungi. Now, several years later, I’m putting together this guide to help you care for your fruit trees.
In this article:
If you don’t have time to read the entire article, here’s a cheat sheet of the do’s and dont’s:
|6+ Hours Daily, Direct
|Expose to temperatures over 90ºF
|Pack the soil down
|Only water when the soil is dry
|Provide 4-12 inches
|Organic, slow-release, in springtime
|Grow with other fruit trees and companions
|Prune dead and overlapping branches in late winter
|Prune excessively or in the growing months
|Protect tropical trees
|Leave tropical trees to fend for themselves
|Look for holes or signs on leaves
|Use chemical sprays as they kill pollinators
|Manage using organic sprays, pruning, and biodiversity
|Use chemical sprays as the fruit isn’t edible
Now, let’s take a look at these steps in more detail.
Fruit trees prefer at least 6 hours of daily, direct sunlight.
These plants use their leaves similar to solar panels, turning sunlight into energy and sugars (photosynthesis). This energy is then used to grow their canopy and nutrient-demanding fruit.
Since fruit trees are high-producing plants, providing them with sufficient sunlight (as well as water and fertilizer) goes a long way.
However, there is such thing as too much sunlight, or more accurately—heat.
Tropical fruit trees such as citrus, avocado, mango, and banana plants are used to the strong tropical sun and generally do well in hot and humid climates. However, if the plants are exposed to temperatures above 90ºF for extended periods, they can begin to develop brown and dropping leaves. This is made worse in dry weather.
Eventually, the fruit tree can die.
On the other hand, temperate fruit trees such as apples, cherries, and peaches can tolerate even less heat, as they’re used to cooler climates. This is why it’s challenging to grow them in warmer climates such as Florida, Texas, and parts of California.
The Takeaway: Grow your fruit trees in a place that has at least 6 hours of daily, direct sunlight and provide them with partial shade during the hot afternoon. Especially if it’s getting 90ºF and above. Even just 2 hours of shade will work. You can do this by using a large umbrella, other trees, or a shade sail.
The Best Soil for Fruit Trees
Fruit trees prefer a loose, loamy soil, which means 40-50% sand, 30-40% silt, and 20-30% clay. This allows the fruit trees to have sufficient drainage, while still retaining enough water.
If the soil is draining too fast, water and nutrients won’t be held and seep further down into the ground, out of reach of the tree’s roots. This is common in sandy soils.
On the other hand, if the soil is draining too slowly, water and nutrients are held in excess. Too much water drowns the tree’s roots, while too much fertilizer chemically burns the tree’s roots. Poor drainage is common in clay soil.
A good example is when you’re washing your hands. When you cup your hands and fingers together you hold water (clay) vs when you open your fingers and let water through (sand).
Generally, the larger particles have quicker drainage as it lets more water through.
Here’s a graphic and table to help illustrate the size of these particles and if they cause fast or poor drainage.
|Poor at holding nutrients
|Decent at holding nutrients
|Holds too many nutrients
You can tell if your soil is draining well by doing a percolation test. Here’s how to do one:
Here’s how to do it:
- Dig a 1-foot by 1-foot hole
- Place a yardstick in it and fill the hole with water
- After 1 hour, mark the level that the water drained
Ideally, the soil should have a drainage of 2 inches per hour. However, soil rarely drains exactly at this rate, so don’t worry if yours is way off. This just serves as a good way to identify if you have quick or slow soil drainage.
For example, we have areas in our backyard that drain up to 5 inches an hour.
The best way to amend soil is with compost.
Adding organic matter not only improves the water retention of the soil, but it breaks up the larger clumps of soil (such as clay).
As a result, compost is used to amend both poor and fast soil drainage.
“Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.”NRDC
Apply 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months on top of your fruit tree’s soil (under the drip line of the plant). Avoid touching the compost to the trunk as it can introduce mold.
When your fruit tree’s soil has proper drainage, apply 4-12 inches of mulch to further improve the soil’s water retention and nutrients (more on mulch later).
When to Water
The best way to water fruit trees is to only water when the top 2-4 inches of soil gets dry. This prevents both under and over-watering. You can check this by pushing a finger into the soil.
This is called the “Finger Test” and I’ve found it to be the best way to check if your plants need water. And that’s exactly what we should be doing—check if your plants even need water in the first place.
After I talk to my readers, I find that water is one of the most simple practices, but still one of the most confusing.
I believe this has to do with the idea that more water is better (I did this in the beginning too).
But both under and over-watering bring their issues.
|Leaves drying, curling, browning, and dropping
|Leaves turning yellow and dropping
|Kills the beneficial soil life
|Kills the beneficial soil life
|Encourages short roots
|Drowns the tree’s roots
How Much to Water
Because 90% of fruit tree roots are found within the first 1-2 feet of soil, aim to water to this depth. This means for a full-size fruit tree, running a hose on a medium drip for about 5-10 minutes. For potted fruit trees, water them until you see water come out of the drainage holes.
If it helps, think of rain.
Rain commonly falls for at least several minutes to an hour or more and soaks well into the soil.
Essentially, shallow watering means shallow roots while deep watering means deeper roots.
Deeper roots not only better anchor the tree, but allows it to find deeper nutrients and water—making it more self-sufficient and requiring less care from you.
While it might seem nice to baby your tree a bit and water it a little every day, it’s likely doing harm in the long run.
Truth or Myth? “Watering your fruit tree’s leaves is bad because it causes disease to spread.” Myth. Watering your fruit tree’s leaves is totally okay (isn’t that what rain does?). The best way to prevent disease is to prune any leaves close to the ground and remove diseased leaves.
Provide fruit trees with 4-12 inches of mulch every 3-6 months. Some good mulches to use are leaves, bark, pine needles, and straw. Keep the mulch at least 3 inches from the tree’s trunk to prevent mold buildup.
Here are the many benefits of mulch:
- Increases water retention
- Regulates soil temperature
- Protects beneficial soil life
- Prevents weeds
- Provides nutrients
- Looks visually appealing
While it’s sometimes disregarded, mulching is extremely helpful to grow fruit trees.
I’ve grown fruit trees in hot and dry climates where the water you provide is evaporated from the bare soil within hours.
It helps to think of forests. Forests have plenty of debris in the form of leaves, branches, and animal manure.
No one is raking leaves in the forest.
In forests, the leaves and branches pile up, protecting the soil while slowly breaking down into organic matter and nutrients.
And since fruit trees evolved as understory plants in forests, they prefer tons of mulch.
Also, fruit trees aren’t the only beneficiaries. Earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi, and other beneficial soil life need mulch to protect them from the elements.
Mycorrhizal fungi promote many aspects of plant life, in particular improved nutrition, better growth, stress tolerance, and disease resistance.Department of Biology, University of Fribourg, Switzerland
The problem with exposing soil to the elements is fairly simple. The sun and wind dry out the soil, and when it’s dry, rain and wind erode it. This results in little to no topsoil, and eventually exposes bedrock, which nothing can grow on (except lichen).
It takes millions of years for lichen to break the rock down into soil, so don’t lose your topsoil!
For best results, provide fruit trees with 2 inches of compost and organic fertilizer 1-2 times per year (in the spring and fall).
You can also use manure (just make sure it’s composted first as “hot” manure can chemically burn fruit trees).
Fertilizer provides fruit trees with the essential nutrients they need to grow, flower, and fruit. The primary nutrients plants require are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (abbreviated as NPK).
When shopping for fertilizer, the numbers that are shown are the percentage of the three primary plant nutrients. So, a “6-2-4” has 6% nitrogen, 2% phosphorus, and 4% potassium.
Fruit trees and plants also require secondary nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and copper. The majority of fertilizer contain sufficient amounts of these nutrients.
Tip: Citrus and Avocado trees require double the nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium. For example, a 6-3-3 NPK works well.
Aside from citrus and avocado trees, the majority of fruit trees prefer a fertilizer with a balanced NPK, such as a 10-10-10.
For example, the fruit tree fertilizer I use is a 6-2-4 (pictured below), but I also supplement it with bone meal (phosphorus), and kelp (potassium).
Each fertilizer is slightly different, so it’s best to follow the instructions listed on the back of the box for the quantity and application.
Generally, when shopping for fruit tree fertilizer, look for:
- Quality Ingredients
- Proper NPK
I also provide 2 inches of compost to mix in the fertilizer and add organic matter to the soil. Compost can replace fertilizer, especially if it’s fresh compost. However, it’s safer to start with both, and see how your plants perform while weaning off the fertilizer.
“Do you need two fruit trees?”
I get asked this question all the time.
The truth is that while many fruit trees are self-pollinating, they still benefit by pollinating with another tree.
“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
So, for the best pollination and fruit yields, get at least 2 trees of the same variety. You can also get different varieties, but just know that if they cross-pollinate you might end up with hybrid fruits (such as sour oranges).
Additionally, keep your fruit trees within 50 feet of other pollination plants such as flowers. The pollinators (bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, etc.) that visit the flowers will have a good chance of visiting your fruit trees.
Recommended: The Top 10 Companion Plants for Fruit Trees
If you don’t have access to other fruit trees or pollinators (such as if you have an indoor fruit tree), you can also manually pollinate the flowers.
To do this, take a clean Q-tip, paintbrush, or toothbrush and lightly brush the pollen from flower to flower. This encourages successful pollination and can lead to more and heavier fruit yields.
While pruning is optional, it’s definitely beneficial. Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when pruning fruit trees.
Young vs Mature Fruit Trees
It’s best to prune the flowers and fruits of young fruit trees to redirect their energy to growing their canopy and root system faster.
Once the tree reaches a mature size, switch to pruning the branches.
While it might seem scary, practice pruning on young fruit trees as they are more forgiving (you can see what happens if you wait too long to prune in the video I linked below).
Tip: A general rule is to prune no more than 20-30% of a tree in a given year. Pruning too much can stress the tree. A lack of leaves can also mean poor photosynthesis, leading to the tree growing a bunch of suckers (sprouts), instead of branches.
When to Prune
While it might seem odd, the best time to prune fruit trees depends on their native climate.
- Tropical Fruit Trees (citrus, avocado, mango, etc.) – prune in the fall. This allows the fruit trees enough time to heal the pruning wounds before winter. Pruning in fall also means pests and diseases are starting to wind down and are less likely to infect the exposed bark.
- Temperate Fruit Trees (apple, cherry, peach, etc.) – prune in the late winter. Pruning just after the last frost allows these fruit trees enough time to heal their wounds before the spring growth. It also means that pests and diseases are still dormant and have a reduced chance of infecting the tree.
Tip: If you live in a tropical or warm climate, pruning other trees in the fall is a good idea. This allows the canopies to open up before the winter, allowing the sun to keep everything just a bit warmer. The opposite is true: avoid pruning in spring as the understory plants benefit from the extra shade.
What to Prune
When pruning fruit trees, you generally want to prune:
- Any branches near the ground. This helps avoid soil fungus from infecting the tree. For mature trees, this is at least 1-2 feet off of the ground.
- Excess suckers or sprouts growing from the trunk or larger branches.
- Overlapping or clustered branches. Prune these branches to allow for proper sunlight and airflow. This allows the inner leaves to receive more sunlight and reduces the chance of pests and disease.
Tip: Make sure the branches are balanced. If your fruit tree has a north-facing branch, make sure it has an equal south-facing branch. This allows the tree to stay balanced and not break from excess fruiting or wind.
Explaining pruning in words can be a bit tricky, so to help with this, check out this amazing video by Anne of All Trades: