Young Fruit Tree Care

Maroon plums on branches of tree
Fruit trees can be a particularly rewarding part of the landscape. With a little extra effort, you can maximize the health of your trees and the fruit grown at home. Here are some tips from our growers as we think about the coming season.
Water and Weed
They seem like no brainers but we all need a reminder. Water young fruit trees well through this coming season. Everyone's watering recommendations are different since our soils and sites are different. Check the soil with your fingers to see how moist it is. Think about soil moisture deeper down at the roots. We like gator bags or watering tubs that slowly drip for deep watering that reaches roos. Depending on the weather, you may need to water around 5 gallons per week.

Keep grass and weeds from the base of the tree but put down the weed whacker! Be sure to do this with care and don't damage the tree. Some mulch or compost is helpful too.
Illustration showing correct and incorrect pruning cuts
Pruning Tips

Pruning is helpful for fruit trees mainly for air flow, and fruit spacing and support. We also prune for the "three D's" - dead, diseased and dumb (crossing branches). Prune no more than about 20% of the tree at a time. A bad pruning cut won't hurt your tree. Prune to buds on the outside of the branch. If you prune to buds on the inside, the branch will tend to grow inwards and later cross.

Peaches - Prune later in spring.  Peaches flower and fruit heavily and branches often break.  You want to reduce the canopy so the tree isn't overloaded. Take out crossing, close and repetitive branches.

Apples - Prune in early spring to allow lateral branches that can support fruit. We like to aim for three branches spaced equally around the trunk. Move up, providing space and allowing for another whirl of branches.

If you prune diseased branches, sterilize your pruners between each cut and dispose of material (don't compost).

Illustration showing preferred pruning methods
Red apples on tree branches
Common Diseases and Pests
Fruit trees are not immune to plant diseases and pests. There are quite a few that can find their way to fruit trees, but the most common ones are are asked about include:
Cedar apple rust on apple leaves
Photo by Ronincmc, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Cedar apple rust gall on cedar juniper
Photo by Amy Manjon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cedar apple rust - caused by a fungus that requires both cedar trees and apple trees. You first notice circular lesions on apple leaves that turn into brown threads or tubes with spores. Likewise, on cedars, brown galls form on twigs that produce funky, bright orange "horns" in wet spring weather.

Peach leaf curl on peach tree
Giancarlo Dessì, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Peach leaf curl - this disease caused by a fungus is specifically found on peach and nectarine trees and is common in our area. It causes a characteristic curl on leaves. If you are going to try to prevent this disease, you should do so in fall or early spring as buds are popping.

Both of these diseases won't kill a tree immediately, but they can lead to defoliation which can reduce fruit productivity and overall growth over time. To prevent them, rake up and burn all leaf debris in the fall. There are also preventative, organic, fungicides that can deter them. With any home treatment method you use, always read labels and time application properly.

Borers - the Prunus family (plum, cherry, peach) can be subject to wood-boring insects. These are flying insects that lay eggs at the base of the tree. Larvae bore into the trunk and branches, causing damage to the tree. You can tell your tree has borers if you notice weeping sap mixed with frass (the bug's poop) that looks like goopy saw dust. We recommend keeping the tree healthy and well-watered so it's less vulnearable. Keep an eye on trees in early spring, especially at the tree base. Hand-remove or poke boring larva with something sharp (like a wire), taking care not to damage the tree.
Young apple fruits to be thinned
Thinning Fruit
Would you rather have 12 small peaches that didn't ripen fully, or 8 full, juicy peaches? Would you rather have a branch break from being overloaded, or sustain itself for seasons to come?

It's helpful to thin fruit so that the fruits you harvest are large and well-developed. How much to thin depends on the species and the overall fruit load on the branch. Orchards recommend small stone fruits like apricots and plums be thinned to every 2 to 4" apart on the branch. Peaches can be closer to 3 to 5".

Apples are different from stone fruit in that they produce a cluster of flowers and fruit from each bud. Thin to no more than on to two fruit per cluster.

Remember, fruit trees can be biennial, where they have larger masts of fruit one year, and much less the next.
Chipmunk in Garden Center
Protecting from Critters
You've waited all winter, spring and summer. The whole cherry tree is finally loaded with fruit. You've been eyeing it for weeks, waiting for the perfect timing to pick. You're not alone. The birds and chipmunks can't wait either and they've been patiently waiting too. We try to use netting as minimally as possible, but it can help protect fruit from critters.

Some people build a frame for the net, and others drape the net and tie it at the trunk. Be sure to net after the tree flowers so pollinators can still visit. Net while fruit is green and remove the net after harvesting. Eventually, it's hard to net large, mature trees so you may have to share some homegrown fruit with the critters.

As for tree protection during the winter, we always recommend tree collars. They prevent rodents from chewing bark and causing girdling.
Fruit trees really don't need a lot of fertilizer, especially in the first and second year. It's more important for the tree to be well-watered. Fertilizers may encourage more top growth an branch production versus fruit.