How to determine why your fruit tree isn’t producing fruit

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Vayda and peaches
Vayda stretches her arm out to touch the small peaches on her peach tree. (Sara Welch photo)

My daughter, Vayda, and I spent Saturday evening walking through our backyard inspecting our potatoes, blueberry bushes and fruit trees. We were pleasantly surprised to find small peaches on our peach tree. They’re not ready yet, but we’ll be enjoying them in no time.

It took a couple of years for our peach tree to become established enough to start producing decent-sized fruits, but that’s pretty typical. With regular pruning, fertilization, pollination and typical weather conditions, it should continue to be productive for years to come.

Many gardeners struggle with the fruit production of their fruit trees and there are a number of factors that contribute to inconsistent or a total lack of fruit production. Learn how to determine why your fruit trees may not be producing fruit and correct the issue or issues.

Over-vigorous fruit trees

When trees are using too much energy on vegetative growth and fail to produce flower buds. Overfertilization and over-pruning are the two major causes of excessive woody growth.

Overfertilization creates an excess of nitrogen in the soil that stimulates more vegetative growth. For fruit-bearing trees, excess vegetative growth is more than 12-18 inches of shoot growth annually. For younger trees that are not mature enough to bear fruit, it is more than 18-30 inches of shoot growth per year. 

Overfertilization typically occurs in backyard orchards because homeowners fertilize their lawns annually. Rain causes fertilizer meant to stimulate grass growth to leach into the soil where tree roots absorb it.If you want to continue treating your lawn annually without impacting the growth of your fruit trees, don’t apply fertilizer to the lawn within 5 feet of the reach of the fruit tree’s canopy. 

You can also conduct periodic soil tests to ensure that nutrient levels are ideal for fruit production. If they are not, the results of a soil test will give you a more precise idea of how to correct the soil around your fruit trees to improve fruit production without sacrificing too much vegetative growth.

If you’re certain over-fertilizing is not the problem, but you still notice excess vegetative growth, the issue is likely over-pruning. Heavy pruning in the fall or winter can stimulate excessive woody growth in the spring.

Fruit trees should be pruned annually; however, improper pruning can affect the flowering and fruiting of your fruit trees. Before pruning your trees make sure you understand how to prune different varieties of fruit trees to encourage flower production. Generally, thinning out cuts — those that remove an entire branch back to its point of origin — stimulate less vegetative growth and encourage more flower production. And heading cuts — the removal of a portion of a branch — stimulate more vegetative growth and delay flowering. Continual heading cuts are the main culprit of delayed flowering and fruiting. In apple and pear trees, continual heading cuts can prevent flowering totally. Peach trees rely on a combination of heading and thinning cuts because they produce flowers on 1-year-old wood.

Poor Pollination

Poor pollination is another common reason fruit trees fail to bear fruit consistently. Pollination is dependent on two factors — bee activity and the presence of compatible varieties for fruit trees that rely on cross-pollination.

All flowers must be pollinated in order for fruit to form consistently and bees are the main method of transferring pollen between flowers. Their activity can be affected for a number of reasons including insecticides, cold weather, rain and wind. Although the weather cannot be controlled, you can facilitate pollination by avoiding the use of insecticides during bloom to prevent killing visiting honeybees. If you don’t see three to four honeybees per tree visiting the flowers of your fruit trees, your fruit production may be less than desired.

If bee activity is not a problem, ineffective cross-pollination may be to blame. Perhaps you bought just one pear or apple tree and cross-pollination is not occurring because pollen from a compatible variety is unavailable. Or you bought two varieties and they’re not as compatible as you thought.

In order for cross-pollination to be effective, you must plant two different varieties of the same fruit tree and the bloom periods of both varieties must overlap. In some cases, you may have to plant three trees of the same fruit when a variety that produces sterile pollen is chosen. The best way to select fruit tree varieties that are compatible for cross-pollination is to ask your local nursery or garden center.

An over-productive crop the year before

Fruit trees form their flowers during the previous growing season, so heavy crops a year prior can reduce flower production for the following year by reducing growth or preventing flower formation.

You can prevent a weak crop next year by thinning fruit 2-4 weeks after bloom. Apples and pears should be thinned down to one per cluster with fruit-bearing clusters spaced every 6-10 inches. Peaches and nectarines should be thinned to one fruit every 8 to 12 inches along the branch.

Frost damage

Another major cause of poor fruit production in fruit trees is frost damage. Once flower buds begin to develop and swell on fruit trees there is a risk of frost damage. The flowers may still open normally, but be unable to set fruit. Damage is evident when you can see dark brown to black center in flowers following a frost in late spring.

You can minimize frost damage by planting trees in the most frost-free areas of your yard and choosing varieties that are more adapted to your planting zone. Areas that are slightly elevated or closer to your home will offer better protection from frost damage. Fruit trees that bloom later are better suited to areas with consistent late spring frosts.

Additionally, climates with winter temperatures that are consistently below -15F will not support consistent fruit production. These extreme temperatures can damage flowers. This is also the case for periods of warm winter temperatures followed by sudden temperature drops. The only way to attempt to remedy this situation is to choose more winter hardy varieties in areas with expected low temperatures throughout the winter and hope for the best.

Resources

Penn State Extension

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, Ohio, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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