You’re not alone. I am amazed how many gardens share this dilemma. Year after year, gardeners press on, hoping for some sort of magical fruit tree transformation.
Why do some fruit trees grow strong and healthy, but not fruit?
Reason #1: It’s the Wrong Variety for the Climate
By a long margin, I have found this to be the most common reason for big, healthy, green trees, but with no fruit. Fruit trees are very regional and particular about their climate. An ‘Elberta’ peach is a great choice for Fresno, but will produce almost no fruit in a Newport Beach garden. A ‘Flordaprince’ peach, intended for Miami, may doo poorly here due to the wrong rootstock for our soils. There are tangerine varieties for inland gardens and others for coastal gardens; likewise with figs, apples, nectarines, grapefruits and just about anything else you might want to bite into. Get some good advice. Regardless of the fruit, it is critical that you start with a variety well suited to your garden’s unique climate and soil.
Reason #2: It’s Seed Grown
This is incredibly common with avocados, since pits of particularly tasty avocados are easily planted. Twenty years later the tree is enormous and beautiful, but has never produced a single fruit. Avocadoes, stonefruits, citrus and almost all other fruit trees are hybrid plants. They don’t replicate the characteristics of their fruit through their seed. Not only is planting the seed a roll-of-the-dice, but there is no rootstock underplanting on a seed grown tree. It’s always best to buy a grafted, vegetatively produced tree from a reputable source.
Reason #3: It’s Too Young
Many fruit trees may not produce fruit when young. The time between planting and bearing will vary with the tree type, variety and rootstock. This issue is especially true of trees like avocados, macadamias, and several tropical fruits. Also, trees grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks generally will begin bearing a year or two earlier than their full size cousins. Citrus usually bear fruit right away. Peaches and nectarines, which bear fruit directly on their branches, usually fruit within one to three years from planting. Apples, pears, apricots and plums, which set their fruit on little perennial stubs called spurs, may take 3 to 4 years to bear fruit. Avocados may take five to eight years.
Reason #4: It’s Unhealthy or Too Old
Unhealthy trees may bear poorly, if at all. Root rots, boring insects, crown galls, oak root fungus and other maladies are almost invisible to the untrained eye, but can put so much pressure on the tree that its fruit is almost completely sacrificed. Tree health begins early, with proper placement in the garden, well-drained soil, full sun and compatible plants nearby. Shade, often caused by overcrowding, reduces flowering and fruiting considerably. Old trees often fruit poorly, due to their lack of vigor and the onset of internal diseases and pests.
Reason #5: Poor Culture
Cultural practices for good tree health include cultivating or mulching to reduce weed competition for nutrients and water. Fertilize early each spring and summer with an organic fertilizer and mulch as needed. Water deeply and infrequently, soaking the entire root system but keeping the trunk primarily dry, instead of brief frequent bursts from overhead sprinklers.
Reason #6: It was Poorly Pollinated or Needs a Pollinator
Without good pollination, fruit trees will have lots of flowers, but fail to produce fruit. To have fruit, trees need bees and other pollinators during their brief bloom period. Insecticides applied at the wrong time will discourage or even kill many of these pollinators. Furthermore, if the tree happens to be blooming at the same time we experience a prolonged rainy or cold period, the pollinators won’t have a chance to do their job.
Many varieties, including most plums, pluots, plumcots, almonds, apples, pears and a few citrus require cross pollination from a variety that blooms at the same time, with compatible pollen. These "self-unfruitful" varieties cannot produce fruit themselves – they need a mate.
Reason #7: It Produces Fruit in Alternate Years
Some fruit trees, especially avocados, apples and apricots, are alternate bearing - they bear heavily one year and little the next. This tendency can be negated somewhat with early and judicious fruit thinning during the heavy years.
Reason #8: It was Pruned Incorrectly
This is especially common with stonefruits like plums, pluots and apricots, but also with apples and pears. Fruiting trees require different pruning strategies than ornamental trees. Apples and apricots, for instance, bear fruit on the same spurs year-after-year. Pruning all the little dead looking stubs off the tree in winter is a sure way to guarantee no fruit the following year. Peaches, lemons, pomegranates, avocados, oranges, figs, persimmons, etc. – they’re all pruned differently.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar and his profile can be seen at www.themulch.com/mulch-community/609-ron-vanderhoff/profile.
Questions from Readers July 3
I need some suggestions for plant in rather deep shade. I’ve tried camellias, impatiens, azaleas and a few others, but they haven’t done very well.
Lauren, Huntington Beach
If you have deep shade you will need to be very selective. A few plants to consider are fatsia, aucuba, mahonia, osmanthus, clivia, ligularia, pachysandra and several ferns, such as giant chain fern, sword fern and holly fern. A woodland effect with some of these blended to contrast their foliage patterns and growth habits can be quite soothing and beautiful. If the area is warm enough in the winter you can add some indoor plants for a splash of color, such as spathiphyllum (peace lily), variegated pothos and various brightly colored crotons.