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Fruit Tree Care: Watering & Fertilizing

by Elmer on 05/04/2011
Mature Fruit-Bearing Tree

Life can often be paralleled to shooting an arrow into the air: it rises, climbs, peaks, and descends. Since trees are a part of life, they are part of that pattern. As everything in life grows older, deficiencies for various reasons begin to develop. I’m a firm believer that supplements can not only help and enhance the performance of people, but plants as well.

The Nature of Fruit-Bearing Trees

When a tree is old enough to bear fruit, it enters a different phase of its life — much like a new mother. No longer is it in self-serving mode; it’s taken on a new purpose. Did you know that it requires 40 leaves (on average) to adequately sustain one fruit? That takes quite some effort for the tree! Some trees are biennial-bearers because of this, which means they overbear one year and tend to rest the next year.

Fruit trees, like Golden Delicious apple trees, are prone to biennial bearing because they tend to be prolific bearers. You can thin the fruit crop each year to help avoid biennial bearing.

Watering Fruit Trees with Purpose

Through these changing years, it’s important to take care of the tree itself through adequate watering and replenishment of nutrients. Newly planted trees require a gallon of water every 7 days or so during a normal growing season. This water amount will naturally increase as the tree puts on new leaves into the summer. If you are experiencing rainfall in that time, you should not need to provide additional water, but use your best judgment since water availability and soil drainage may vary greatly from one location to the next.

As a tree grows older, its roots become established, and the need for watering moves away from “survival and growth” to “fruit size and quality”. Timely waterings, especially during droughts, will make a big difference.

Water-related stress occurs at both ends of the spectrum. Overwatering can cause yellowed leaves and defoliation. Underwatering can cause curled leaves and defoliation. Try to keep things at a happy medium: your trees will tell you what they need if they are unhappy!

Measuring Trunk Diameter

Fertilizing Fruit Trees with Purpose

Growing to maturity, a tree sends out feeder roots that match the circumference of the treetop. Often the premature decline of a fruit tree occurs because it has exhausted all the nutrients in its growing area – not to mention the depletion of its nutrient reserves, which get used up by sustaining crops of fruit. For this reason, and if your trees show signs of premature decline, I strongly recommend testing your soil. Often the solution is as simple as replenishing soil nutrients.

For trees that are fruit-bearing aged and have been planted for more than 2 years, I recommend using Stark® Orchard Fertilizer – a pellet-form fertilizer that is high in nitrogen; an element that encourages vegetative growth. Fruit trees tend to be great consumers of nitrogen, especially in their fruit-bearing/sustaining years.

Go to “How to Fertilize Mature Fruit Trees” here »

Go to “How to Fertilize New Fruit Trees” here »

When a tree becomes calcium-deficient, problems like “bitter pit” emerge. You may notice the tree bears small, sub-standard fruit as well. Nutri-Cal® is a good liquid calcium supplement — used as a foliar application — to improve the health of your tree and its fruit. It’s not uncommon for the Honeycrisp apple to have calcium deficiency issues, so, if you’re growing Honeycrisp apple trees, be sure to have a calcium supplement on hand!

Dear Gardening Friend,

Watering and fertilizing the right way can help fruit trees achieve their purpose: bearing delicious fruit. As caretakers of this aspect of life, we should embrace our role in how effective that purpose will be.

– Elmer

Shop All Fertilizers & Soil Additives »

48 Comments

  1. Vera permalink

    I ordered two apple trees from Stark Bros. last fall and planted them. I would like some info. on how to take care of them now, this spring. You sent me some info. when I got the trees but I misplaced it. Thank you.

    • Elmer permalink

      Vera, this article on watering and fertilizing is a good start for taking care of your trees this spring. I recommend using our Stark® Tre-Pep® fertilizer for trees as young as yours; next year you may benefit more from the Orchard Fertilizer mentioned in my post.

      About an inch of water a week (& more during extreme heat/drought) is needed from now until fall. Fertilize before mid-June for best results.

      When winter comes around again, be sure to prune your trees. We’ll have more information coming on the blog, soon. Good luck with your apple trees!

      Elmer

  2. Yvonne Graffam permalink

    This information has been invaluable to me. I love receiving your e-mails. I always learn something new. Plus your products have always been winners and are reasonably priced. Thank you

    • Meg permalink

      So glad to hear, Yvonne, & thanks for taking time to leave us a comment! :)

  3. Nancy permalink

    It would have been helpful if you would more explaination on ‘timely watering’.

    • Meg permalink

      I agree, Nancy. Ideally, you want your trees to receive about 1″ in water/week. During drought, the heat can quickly evaporate water, so you’d probably want to give each tree at least 2″ of water/week. This would probably equate to every-day waterings (but only with no rainfall). :) I’ll ask Elmer to see if he has anything more to add to this!

  4. thank you for the important information, it is a great help, enjoying your products. JOHN

  5. Gloria permalink

    Thanks for the information. It has affirmed everything we’ve done. We gave planted your trees in the yards of three homes over the 39 years of our marriage, and have never been sorry.

    New trees are all doing well!

    • Meg permalink

      Excellent, Gloria, thanks for stopping by & letting us know! :) How many trees do you think you’ve planted over those 39 years? (Congrats on such a long marriage, too, what an accomplishment!)

  6. Raymond permalink

    Really enjoy your information letter you are sending out. Perhaps you can answer this question. I have Plum tree and this was its first year to bear. It was really loaded with fruit. Sadly it has dropped most all of its 3/4 size fruit. What does this tree need to prevent this next year? The tree looks healthy in all other respects.

    • Brenda permalink

      Hi Raymond! Sorry to hear your plum dropped most of the fruit. :-( I would suggest thinning your fruit. The branches may have been too heavy with fruit to support it all. This is the most common reason for premature fruit drop. Let us know how this works! :-)

      • Chris permalink

        I’ve had issues in the past with fruit drop, but found that insects were the cause. Each fruit that dropped had a “guest” living in it, which I believe caused the stem to give way. Timely spraying has helped significantly.

  7. Veronica Wendt permalink

    Well, I did not yet fertilize but was planning to do so as soon as it stops raining here in Ohio. However, I see you said to do it two weeks before bud break. This has already happened here, and some of the trees already have tiny fruit on them. Should I wait until next year, or go ahead and do it as soon as the weather breaks? Thank you.

    • Meg permalink

      Veronica, I ran your question by Elmer… & he said you’d be just fine to fertilize now. It’s past the optimal time, but it’s not too warm yet. We don’t recommend fertilizing past mid-June.

      The midwest rain/storms have been such buggers this year! Wishing you sunshine soon. :)

  8. thanks for the tips.

  9. Lila Barnhouse permalink

    We recently bought a winter home in Florida. It has a orange tree, grapefruit tree and tangerine tree. How do I fertilize these properly and with what?

    • Meg permalink

      Congratulations on the new home, Lila. :) You’ve got a fruit salad in your backyard! I’d recommend using a fertilizer specifically for “citrus” trees. Your local garden center should carry something like this. We currently do not have a citrus-specific fertilizer, or I’d point you to starkbros.com! ;) Let me know what you find/use!

  10. Dear Sir,
    Thanks for the information on trees.
    This year, we planted Stark Bro’s 2 each Cherry Trees, one (1) Apricot and one (1) Pear.
    They are all doing well.
    Unfortunately, Texas is under a very severe drought plus many grass fires this year.
    We’ve taken your advice in fertilization and watering agenda.
    Now if we can only control the rabbit infestation the rest of the garden will do well and so will the water billing!!!!!!!

  11. Paul Allred permalink

    Thanks Elmer for the great article on watering and fertilizing fruit trees. I could use your assistance on the following matter. A few months ago I purchased a Methley Plum Tree from my local nursery. It was in a 15 Gal. pot and the tree was about 7-8 ft. tall with leafs on every limb. It stated to blossom while in the pot awaiting my preparing the correct hole to re-plant in my backyard. I tilled the selected area and then dug the correct hole (both width and depth). I then mixed an amount of dried ‘composted horse manure with my good garden soil’. Planted the tree and watered thorougly and slowly. That was about a month ago. It stated getting new growth on various limbs with tiny new leafs, etc. But as I write you many of the older leafs have started to turn a ‘yellowish’ color and I certainly don’t want to loose this magnificent tree. I do have a brand new box of your ‘Orchard Fertilizer’ (45-00-00)but I have not put any on at this time. As the tree lacking in iron or what would you suggest I do??? I estimate the age of this tree to be aprox. 5 years old. The poor thing was ‘Root-Bound’ when I took it out of its 15 Gal. container. I did loosen all the roots and removed much of the mulch that they were tied with. I gave it as much TLC as I knew how to do when I re-planted it. Would a ‘foiliar-spray’ of Orchard Fertilizer help? Any suggestions you can send my way is much appreciated.
    Sincerely,
    Paul Allred
    pra1943@verizon.net
    (long time customer of Stark Bros.)

    • Elmer permalink

      Hi Paul,

      Remember that even though your tree is large and advanced, it’s still a “fresh plant”, of sorts. When trees are root bound, I suggest make knife cuts a couple of places on the roots, opposite sides of the circling; that way they will re-root into the soil around them rather than strangling themselves.

      The foliar spray as directed could help and Stark® Tre-Pep® with water wouldn’t hurt when poured into the root zone. As to the yellow leaves, when trees have lived constrained by a pot, they exhaust its nutrients… that’s why it’s important for the root ball to stretch out its roots into fresh soil.

      Pick up the Stark® Orchard Fertilizer a year or two down the road. Best of luck!

      Elmer

  12. California Hal permalink

    Great information but lacking one item …

    AFTER APPLYING THE DRY FERTILIZER, one must water it in or you loose most of it to the atmosphere.

    I always give the tree a deep watering after applying the fertilizer.

    California Hal

  13. David permalink

    Yellow leaves could also be due to overwatering…..and if you soil surrounding the hole you dug is heavy clay soil, you tree is sitting in a soil bathtub….if you have heavy clay soil, plant the rootball with about 1/3 of the root ball above ground level and then mound good topsoil around it and mulch it well…this will allow your roots to breathe which is essential to good plant growth. Most plants do not like “wet feet.” This is a trick I learned while landscaping in the St. Louis area which has a lot of heavy clay-type soils.

  14. Peter permalink

    I’ve a Stark Saturn that’s bearing for the time this year, at first there was new fruit all over the tree, but now I find more of it on the ground than on the tree. I water deeply on a regular basis and fertilized when in bloom. This is my first shot at fruit trees so I’m hopeful.

    • Meg permalink

      Congrats on your new peaches! :) How long has your tree been planted? In the 1st/2nd year, we recommend plucking off any forming fruit – the tree is usually too young to efficiently bear full-size fruit at that age (which may be why your tree’s fruit is dropping already).

      Also – in case you ever come upon a time when your tree doesn’t seem to be forming blooms or fruit – know that most fertilizers are high in nitrogen, which is great for TREE growth (& you want tree growth the first few years your tree is planted!). But once your tree gets to bearing-age, nitrogen doesn’t help in bloom/fruiting. Should you ever see a lack of blooms on your tree, just lighten up on fertilizing for about a year.

      Hope that helps! Best of luck, & feel free to contact us anytime should you have questions. :)

  15. Rudy permalink

    How often should I water new fruit trees. What is the life Expectancy for dwarf fruit trees’say if life was good! Thanks Rudy

    • Hi Rudy! Your fruit trees, if they’re planted in a well-drained soil, need an inch of rainfall every 7-10 days to be happy. This translates to roughly one gallon of water per new tree every 7-10 days. If it rains in that time, you should not need to additionally water your trees.

      On average, a dwarf fruit tree should live/bear up to 25 years — but this will vary between the type of fruit tree it is, the environment it lives in, and the nature of the individual tree itself. :)

  16. Erik permalink

    Hi I plan on purchasing a few of you dwarf apple trees here soon and have been digging around your blog reading as much as a can find. I intend to purchase Golden Delicious & two other types. I chose Golden Delicious for it universal pollinating properties but just read here that its bi-annual. How will this affect the pollination of my other tree? Does a Bi-annual tree produce flower during its off year?

    • This is a truly excellent question, Erik! Since Goldens do tend to overbear one year, their reproductive systems become exhausted, which may cause them to rest the next year as a result. They may still produce a small amount of flowers during this off year, but they may not be adequate enough to properly pollinate your other variety apple tree. If you have room for a third variety, you may choose to plant one to allow for extra coverage of your pollination needs. If this isn’t possible, another thing you can do is be sure to thin the fruit crop of your Golden Delicious so that it isn’t allowed to overbear. Break up any clusters and leave about 4-6 inches (or so) between the developing fruit. This will help to avoid the tree needing to take a year off to restore its energy needed for fruit production.

      We recommend thinning anyway, on most fruit trees, to encourage a better quality fruit. It would simply be even more beneficial for a variety that tends to overbear. :)

      • Erik permalink

        Awesome! That’s good to hear. I really appreciate the response. Thank you Sarah.

  17. Carl permalink

    I purchased 3 gala and 2 granny smith apple trees from Stark Bros almost 2 years ago, they came just before that winter and I got them into the ground promptly. They struggled a bit last spring and summer and although we had a very harsh winter this year, 2 of the 3 gala are blossoming. I am somewhat surprised since they aren’t all that large yet. Should I pinch the blossoms off? Will the stress of bearing fruit (if pollinated) be too much? They seem small and young to be bearing fruit.

    • Your instinct is solid, Carl. Apple trees may begin to bloom and try to bear fruit as soon as 2 years after you’ve planted them, but the more time the tree has to become established and balance its root growth with a lush leafy top, the better the fruit quality is. As it says in the article, “it requires 40 leaves (on average) to adequately sustain one fruit”.

      Fruit-production is a stress on a tree, and often when a young tree bears early, it may end up with fruit lacking in size and quality, or it may end up prematurely dropping the fruit all together.

      What you might consider doing is allowing the trees to finish blooming — since it provides a food source for bees and other beneficials — but then pinch off most (if not all) of the spent flowers/young fruit before it can amount to much. Then, as long as your trees look healthy and lush, next year you might let them set a fuller fruit crop. :)

  18. Mindy Young permalink

    We planted two cherry trees last spring. Both did great last season and even put on about a foot of growth. They are both approximately 6.5 foot tall. This spring both trees buded, but only one leafed out. The buds on the tree that didn’t leaf out are crumblely, but the tree itself is still limber. could it be dead?

    • Try the “Scratch Test” (instructions are here). This will tell you if the cherry tree in question is living or not.

      This past harsh winter was hard on many fruit trees, especially if it was followed by a fluctuating spring — with more than its share of cold snaps. We’re seeing the same results on many prunus (‘stone fruit’ trees) including cherries, apricots, and peaches.

      The tender buds were likely zapped, which explains why the one tree has not leafed out*. You may even notice that the tree has dead limb tips, which will be a different color (usually darker brown, dead wood). This damage can be pruned off to help stimulate new growth from the remaining buds. Other than that, try giving the tree time to bounce back. You can also help by watering and fertilizing as needed, and keeping the planting site clear of debris that might attract pests and disease while the tree is recovering from its stress. :)

      *Try not to compare one cherry tree’s performance to the other cherry tree, since they are individual trees and there are many factors that can contribute to their different response to the environment.

  19. Will Hare permalink

    This spring, I planted three apple trees in my yard (golden delicious, Calville Blanc, Honeycrisp) and since the yard gets waterlogged after a rain, I made little raised beds for them. They all seem to be doing okay as they are sprouting leaves and are beginning to branch out. My question is how should my watering/ fertilizing be different in these raised beds.
    Thanks,
    Will

    • In raised beds, be sure to use a water-soluble fertilizer or soil amendment so that it can easily move down to the root system of your trees. This can be fertilizers like granules or liquids you mix with water, or soil amendments like compost or aged manure.

      Regarding watering in general, since you said the location gets waterlogged after a rain, I would recommend watching the weather closely so that you’re not providing water in addition to the rain. You really only need to provide a nice watering once a week or so, but if it’s going to rain in that time period, you don’t need to water additionally unless you notice that the raised bed soil/medium becomes dry to the touch a couple inches below the surface.

  20. Lewis Stout permalink

    Thank you for this article. Very informative and encouraging. Leiws

  21. Kathy permalink

    I have a 6 year old Sweetheart Apricot, which I moved to my new house 4 years ago. Last year I had 20 apricots and this year have hundreds of the most delicious fruit! The pits are delicious almonds, just as described. I used Stark’s Tree Pep when putting it in, and after the move, too; this is a wonderful product for getting fruit trees off to a great start, and an early-bearing start at that.
    My son has gotten started with his own orchard and all are from Stark’s. Love your products, the packing, the shipping and arrival times.

    • Thank you for the kind words and the review of the Sweetheart Apricot, Kathy. :) I haven’t had the pleasure of trying the edible kernels of this variety yet, but now I feel very encouraged!

  22. Christine permalink

    With the California drought in full swing, I’m wondering whether I could cut back on irrigating my orchard by doing things slightly differently. We’re on a well and it’s started dropping precipitously. Currently I’m watering 60 minutes once a week. Would it be ok to water every other week, but water 90 minutes instead? That way I would save 25% of water, and it would be a deeper watering. But, of course, also only every other week. Thoughts?

    • Your math seems logical, and deep watering does benefit trees overall by causing them to seek out water and improve root establishment in the process, but causing your orchard trees to go two weeks without water during a drought will be quite stressful — especially if they are young trees.

      I’d have to suggest getting an expert opinion from a local nursery there, or at least get some input from your local county cooperative extension, since they will be better able to advise you based on similar growing locations and resulting information. Sorry I can’t be more help!

      • Christine permalink

        Thank you very much for your quick response! And thanks for the link to the extension. That makes sense to ask there.

        Christine

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