This is part 3 of a 7-part series of how to grow fruit trees easily.

I’ve been growing fruit trees for a long time, and the number 1 question I get is, “How much do I water my fruit tree?”. So, I took that question and came up with this detailed guide on how to water fruit trees.

Here’s the short version:

The best way to water fruit trees is to use the finger test, water in the morning, water down to 2 feet, create a basin, and provide compost and mulch. While there are a few other tips, these will give you the best results. Aim to keep soil moisture similar to a wrung-out sponge.

Let’s take a closer look at 10 key tips to water fruit trees.

watering our new planted fruit tree

1. Use the Finger Test

The best piece of advice I give for anyone watering fruit trees is to use the finger test. This simple test avoids both under and over-watering.

To do the finger test, push a finger 2-4 inches into the soil, under the fruit tree’s canopy. If the soil is wet, hold off on watering.

Previously, I used moisture meters, but I found this simple and most importantly—free test gave me the best read on when to water fruit trees.

The tricky thing is, there’s not a specific amount to water a fruit tree. What works for you might not work for your neighbor, even if you have the same type of fruit tree.

Many variables contribute to the amount of moisture in the soil, including:

  • Sunlight
  • Wind
  • Drainage
  • Tree Size & Age
  • Soil Life
  • Organic Matter
  • & More

Fortunately, the finger test takes all of these variables into account.

2. Water In The Morning

watering a young apple tree

While there are conflicting opinions about watering in the morning vs. night, I’d have to choose watering in the morning.

Watering at night allows the stagnant water on leaves and the branches to sit for several hours without drying, encouraging mold and disease. If you water in the morning, your fruit tree is exposed to sunlight, which naturally heats and dries any stagnant water.

Aim for the cooler hours of the morning to allow the water to seep into the soil. This is around 6 am to 10 am.

However, it’s a close call, and if it’s more convenient for you to water at night, you likely won’t notice a difference.

3. Water Down to 2 Feet

watering a newly planted banana plant

When watering, make sure to water down to 2 feet deep as 90% of the fruit tree’s roots are found at this depth. A low and slow drip is best. This is called deep watering and it promotes better anchorage and self-sufficiency for your fruit tree.

On the other hand, if you provide your fruit tree with frequent and shallow watering, your tree won’t have any incentive to grow deep roots. It becomes dependent on you to water it. And as you’re having to constantly provide it with light watering, some gardeners even call this “spoiling” your fruit trees.

The result is the tree’s roots have poor anchorage and difficulty accessing deeper water and nutrients. So, the moment a strong wind or drought arrives, your tree will be caught unprepared and you’ll be pressed to save it.

So, aim to deep water your fruit tree. Its deeper roots will make it far more water and nutrient-independent. In some cases, these mature fruit trees might not even need you to water or fertilizer at all.

4. Create a Basin

our basin and drip irrigation around our avocado tree
It’s difficult to see, but the ground is elevated in a ring around our avocado tree.

Forming a basin around your fruit tree’s drip line (canopy) helps retain water and direct it to the root zone. Basins are especially helpful in hot and dry climates as they capture more water than level soil.

Making a basin is fairly easy. For example, if you have clay soil, you can pack it to make a sturdy dirt basin. You can also use mulch.

Aim to build the basin at least 4 inches high. As you can see in the above photo, we need to rebuild our basin for this avocado tree.

5. Avoid Sprinklers

a sprinkler shooting water in all directions

While sprinklers are convenient for covering a large area, much of their water is evaporated before it seeps into the soil. As a result, sprinklers are even a worse idea in hot and dry climates.

You can save a lot on your water bill by switching to other watering methods such as using drip irrigation or soaker hoses (great when combined with basins).

6. Use Drip Irrigation In Times of Drought

a mature olive tree in a dry climate with drip irrigation
A mature olive tree with drip irrigation

Because of the excess evaporation from sprinklers, drip irrigation has become a popular way to water fruit trees. And if you’re like me and trying to imagine a natural case when fruit trees would be drip irrigated, imagine a creek, river, or spring flowing near fruit trees.

When setting up drip irrigation, place the tubing around the drip line of your fruit tree.

The only concern I have with drip irrigation is if it’s automated. Automated drip irrigation can spell trouble as you have no idea how wet or dry the ground is, especially after a change in weather.

If you are going to automate your irrigation, I recommend semi-automating it. This means that in addition to a scheduled drip irrigation, every now and then checking the soil moisture by doing the finger test. Over time, tune the frequency and amount watered. Ideally, you

7. Apply Compost & Mulch

applying compost and mulch around our fruit tree graphic

If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ve likely heard me talking about composting and mulching countless times. So, I’ll tell you a secret.

It’s because it works!

Surprisingly, there are a lot of gardeners who don’t utilize the power of compost and mulch.

My recommendation is to provide fruit trees with 2 inches of compost every 1-2 months and 4 inches of mulch every 3-6 months.

For starters, compost provides valuable nutrients, increases water retention, and promotes beneficial soil life. For example, every 1% increase in the soil’s organic matter holds an additional 20,000 gallons of water per acre.

Mulching is just as important as it dramatically reduces evaporation, regulates soil temperature, and prevents soil erosion. It also provides the soil with nutrients and prevents weed growth.

The only case when I wouldn’t recommend mulching is if you have poorly draining soil. As mulch reduces evaporation, soils with poor drainage become even wetter, leading to issues such as water-logging and root rot.

On the other hand, I suggest using compost at any point as it amends both poor and fast-draining soils.

8. Brown Leaves Usually Means Insufficient Watering

our avocado tree with brown leaves
our avocado tree with brown tips

Whenever your fruit tree is under-watered, you’ll begin to see the same symptoms each time. Typically, this starts with their leaves. You’ll likely find them:

  • Dried
  • Curled
  • Browned (or Brown Tips)
  • Dropped

When trees don’t have enough water, they shed their less vital parts. Usually, this means flowers, fruit, and leaves. This starts with the leaves drying and curling (conserving moisture). If still stressed, they’ll brown (die) and drop.

So, if you see any of these symptoms, the first thing to do is the finger test. If your fruit tree’s soil is dry, it’s likely the cause of it.

However, if its soil is moist and the leaves are getting worse, there’s another issue at play such as a nutrient deficiency or disease.

Recommended: 6 Reasons Fruit Tree Leaves Turn Brown (& How to Fix It)

9. Plant on a Mound of Soil (If Poor Drainage)

planting a tree in clay soil graphic

If your fruit tree’s soil has poor drainage, there’s a good chance you’re dealing with clay soil. Clay has smaller particles than sand, which allows it to pack together tighter, preventing water (or nutrients) from passing through.

In this case, avoid digging a hole in the clay and planting your fruit tree in it. A hole in clay soil likely serves as a bucket and holds water for days.

Instead, plant your fruit tree on a mound of soil. Due to the mound being higher than the ground, gravity will pull the excess water from the soil, providing the fruit tree with proper drainage.

You can also plant your fruit tree in a raised bed or container.

10. Use Soft Water If Possible

a rain barrel collecting water from a roof
Rainwater is one of the easiest soft waters to obtain

Some fruit trees, such as avocados, are more sensitive when it comes to water. Irrigation or tap water often contains different types of salts, which accumulate in the soil. For avocado trees, this is commonly shown as brown leaves.

Instead, use soft water if possible. This includes water from:

  • Rainwater
  • Certain Aquifers
  • Areas with Granite or Peaty Soil Bases
  • Treated Water from Softeners
  • Distilled Water
  • Reverse Osmosis Water
  • Demineralized Water

While many regions have hard water, some have naturally soft water. They include:

  • Parts of the Pacific Northwest (U.S.)
  • Western parts of the UK (Wales and Scotland)
  • Parts of New England (U.S.)
  • Certain regions in Norway and Sweden
  • Mountainous regions

Generally, soft water typically can be found in mountainous regions where their water hasn’t absorbed too many minerals from the ground—making it softer.

Of course, one of the easiest ways to irrigate with soft water is to capture rainwater from your roof or other surfaces and store it in rain barrels or cisterns.

To learn more about harvesting rainwater, check out this helpful video from Plant Abundance:

Bonus Tip: Avoid Watering Your Fruit Tree’s Leaves

watering a lime tree with a hose

When I first started growing fruit trees, this one made no sense to me. “What do you mean ‘don’t water the leaves’? Why don’t you tell that to the rain?“.

But now I understand what these gardeners meant.

Some fruit trees are incredibly vulnerable to fungal diseases (cough cough apple cough). These fungal diseases are sometimes highly contagious for fruit trees.

These diseases start by staying dormant on the fallen leaves and bark in the winter and then easily spread in wet springs and summers.

Since these fungal diseases are spread by water splashing upwards from the soil and then from leaf to leaf, minimizing the splashing makes sense.

So, if try not to water your fruit tree’s leaves if you can help it. The roots are what absorb the majority of water anyway.

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