If you’re new to growing fruit trees and expecting instant gratification, we’ll have to burst your bubble before we get any further: most fruit trees take three full growing seasons before they begin to bear delicious, juicy fruit.
But that just means you should get started with your planting ASAP.
To learn about what beginners need to know when deciding to add fruit trees to their landscape, The News & Observer talked with Mike Parker, an NC State Extension horticulture specialist with fruit tree expertise.
When will my fruit tree bear fruit?
It will take two full growing seasons for a full harvest — this is usually referred to as “the third leaf,” Parker said.
“If you allow the trees to fruit in the first two years, it will be at the expense of future productivity. And fruit trees are crops for the long haul,” he said. “We’re not in this for the short term. When we plant fruit trees, we need to look ahead to 10, 20, 25 years. Plus!”
Trees turn water, carbon dioxide and sunlight into carbohydrates, the energy source for tree growth and fruit production. The fruit is last in line to get carbohydrates, so if the tree is producing fruit in its first two seasons, its energy is being put into the wrong place, Parker said.
Trying to support fruit production will result in less tree growth, smaller fruit and reduced future production — not what you want for a long-standing crop. Stressed trees produce smaller and inferior fruit.
If your tree begins to bear fruit in its first couple seasons, you’ll have to manually remove the flowers and fruitlets (small fruits), ensuring the stored energy within the tree is directed to other areas, like developing growth and gaining strength, Parker said.
“Fruit trees can be done easily and well, but they don’t happen by accident. There’s a lot of management required.”
How to determine where to plant a fruit tree
Site selection is the most important part of establishing your fruit trees, according to NC State Extension’s North Carolina Production Guide for Smaller Orchard Plantings, which Parker helped write.
Here’s what you need to know about site selection:
▪ Sunlight: Fruit trees require full sunlight for ideal fruit quantity, size, quantity and color. Make sure trees are well spaced so they do not shade one another, and ensure tree borders are clear of other trees and bushes that could provide shade.
▪ Temperature: Fruit trees have a chilling requirement, or a period of cold temperatures required to break dormancy, so successfully bud and bloom in springtime. Optimal chilling requirement temperatures are between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Below freezing and above 59 degrees Fahrenheit are too extreme, the Production Guide says.
Temperature requirements differ between apples, peaches and pecans, which are some of the most popular trees for growers across North Carolina, Parker said.
Apples: Apples require warm days and cool nights, and freezing temperatures during early flower development can result in “halo” apples, commonly called “frost ring,” the Production Guide says.
Peaches: Peaches are especially prone to early spring frosts and freezes, the Production Guide says.
Pecans: NC State Extension only recommends growing pecans in the eastern part of North Carolina, avoiding harsh spring temperatures, early fall freezes and a shorter growing season, the Production Guide says.
▪ Soil drainage: Poorly drained soils will produce dead or stunted trees, but with proper drainage, fruit trees can grow in a variety of soil types. Wet soils can induce more root diseases.
Here’s how the Production Guide says to test soil drainage:
Dig a test hole about two feet deep in the proposed orchard site.
Fill with water.
Notice how quickly the water seeps through the soil.
If standing water is left in the hole after 24 hours, there may be a drainage problem.
▪ Air drainage: Choose an obstruction-free site for growing that slopes downhill. Valleys or bottomlands, where the air will settle and pool, shouldn’t be used for planting locations. Air drainage is important for regulating temperature and avoiding cold, stagnant air around the fruit trees, the Production Guide says.
For the full guide, which includes step-by-step instructions for planting a fruit tree, visit content.ces.ncsu.edu/north-carolina-production-guide-for-smaller-orchard-plantings.
First timers’ common mistakes
Here are common mistakes first-time tree fruit planters make, Parker said.
▪ Don’t aim for fruit the first few years: If your fruit tree begins to flower and fruit in the first two growing seasons, you want to manually remove flowers and fruitlets. This is because all of the tree’s energy will go toward flowering and producing fruit, stunting growth and productivity.
“We have peach trees blooming now, but if you look at them, they have nice pink blossoms but no leaves. So where’s the energy coming from to promote fruit growth?” Parker said. “That’s coming directly from stored carbohydrates, which are limited. When we have blossoms in early spring, the fruit is pulling stored energy from the tree.”
While it might feel impossible to wait a few seasons, remember that fruit trees are not “instant gratification” crops, Parker said.
▪ Don’t adjust soil only in the planting hole: Some think that only the hole where the tree will be planted needs to be adjusted with lime and fertilizer. But the key to a good soil test for fruit trees is to soil test a large area, add lime and fertilizer and incorporate as deep as possible, then dig out the hole for the tree.
“Modify the entire area, and then plant the tree. Don’t only treat the hole itself,” Parker said.
When soil testing for a fruit tree, sample 18 inches deep, if possible, and separate topsoil from subsoil.
“I would suggest sampling a 16 to 18-inch depth, combine the recommendations and then incorporate into the entire area,” Parker said. “You only get one chance to pre-plant the soil volume that the trees will grow in for many years.”
▪ Don’t plant a tree where there is other vegetation: Removing vegetation underneath and around the base of the tree is key, since plants need to compete with one another for moisture and nutrients. Trees will always lose that fight with grasses and weeds, Parker said.
“Get herbicides labeled for fruit trees, since they kill competing weeds,” he said. “If you just break up the grass, it’ll be back within three weeks. But the right herbicide ensures they’re gone for longer periods of time.”
By tilling the soil and incorporating lime and other needed nutrients, the grower should start with a clean area, Parker said. Then vegetation can be controlled under the tree further.
▪ Don’t get a low-quality tree: You can trust big box stores and local gardening stores, but remember that you’ll need to put work in to ensure the tree is growing and cropping at the right pace.
And buy the tree you want, not just the tree that’s available, Parker said.
How do you know you’re getting a high-quality tree?
▪ Don’t be afraid to ask questions: NC State Cooperative Extension is a free resource for North Carolinians, and experts can give you guidance specific to your area.
If you need help with anything related to your garden, you can use NC State Extension’s Garden Help Directory to help you contact the best person for your needs. For more information, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/need-gardening-help. To find your local program, visit emgv.ces.ncsu.edu/find-your-local-program.
Good fruit trees for beginners in NC
Parker recommends fig trees for beginners: Celeste and Brown Turkey cultivars grow well in North Carolina.