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While many garden plants bear fruit during their first growing season, some bushes and trees may take several years to produce a good yield. Growing and caring for these plants is a lot of work and after such a long wait, you deserve to be able enjoy the fruits of your labors (pun intended!) Knowing how to get the most out of each growing season can be tricky business. If you’ve done everything you can and you still aren’t getting the yields you want, try some of these tips to boost your garden’s health and increase the amount of fruit your trees and bushes produce.
1. Don’t Be Hasty
Before you begin trying to encourage fruiting, make sure that your plants are old enough and healthy enough to bear the load. Standard fruit trees need anywhere from five to seven years before they are ready to produce. Figs and berry bushes usually need two to three years. If you notice that your plants are producing flowers before enough time has passed, pick the blooms off before they begin the energy- and nutrient-intensive process of growing fruit. This will cause the tree or bush to redirect its efforts toward growing stronger limbs and roots.
2. Go With Dwarfs
If you don’t want to wait several years to get fruit from your garden, consider planting dwarf varieties of your favorite trees. Dwarfs don’t grow as tall or as wide as a full-size tree so they begin to bear fruit within the first two to three years. These smaller trees also don’t require as much space, making them perfect for gardeners who want to grow their own fruit but don’t have a lot of land. Also, for the casual gardener, dwarf varieties are often the better choice because their shorter height makes them easier to prune, harvest, and treat for pests.
3. Prune As Needed
Fruit trees ideally need to be trained in their first few years of growth into the shape you want them to maintain throughout their productive lives. Pruning should be done at the end of winter, before the tree comes out of dormancy. If you see leaf buds beginning to green up and soften, the tree is awake and it’s too late to safely prune. Some basic tips for shaping your fruit trees through pruning include:
- Maintain a strong central shoot or trunk with evenly-spaced side branches. Avoid over-crowding – branches that receive little or no sunlight will produce less fruit.
- When removing branches, cut close to the trunk or limb. Leave the collar and avoid damaging bark near the cut.
- Use very sharp shears to promote faster healing. Avoid snapping or tearing off any part of a tree as this can lead to parasitic infections and disease.
- Prune within 1/4” of healthy bud encourage new growth and avoid excessive dead ‘stubs.’
- Remove root suckers and water sprouts as soon as you see them. (Read #4 for more information.)
For more tips on pruning, check out this great article from the Washington State University Extension.
4. Root Suckers and Water Sprouts
While it may be our initial impulse to allow plants to keep as much new growth as possible, it is important to recognize that not all growth is good growth. The production of flowers and fruit require a huge investment of nutrients and energy from your plants so you want to be certain that these resources aren’t being wasted where they aren’t needed. Root suckers and water sprouts are two such wastes.
New shoots that grow from the rootstock of a grafted fruit tree are known as root suckers. These growths often look like a new plant that has taken root at the base of the existing parent. Seems like a good thing, right? Unfortunately the rootstock and the fruiting graft (the upper portion of the plant) are actually two different trees which have been joined together for their mutual benefits (ie: disease resistant roots paired with a tree that grows sweeter fruit.) Allowing root suckers to continue growing is an enormous waste of nutrients which the upper graft could be using to produce fruit. Learn more about removing root suckers.
Water sprouts are vertical shoots that grow straight up from the established limbs of trees. While these growths aren’t nearly as undesirable as root suckers, they can still be a waste of nutrients if they aren’t properly controlled. An overabundance of water sprouts can block sunlight and air circulation from the more mature fruiting branches. They also tend to be weak and easily broken by the elements which is an open door for disease and parasites. Learn more about controlling water sprouts.
5. Know Your Soil
Plants are a lot like people in that different varieties and species have different tastes. It is important to know what balance of nutrients and trace minerals is best for each plant. Soil pH can also play a big part in maximizing fruit yields. If you aren’t sure what kind of soil you have, it’s always better to test samples from around your trees and shrubs. Once you know what’s missing, you can amend the soil to boost future fruit production. Also, you need to know the physical composition or texture of your dirt in order to grow the best plants. An easy way to test this is to scoop a small soil sample into a clear glass jar, fill the jar with water, and shake vigorously. Let the resulting muddy water settle completely. Once the water on top is clear and all of the dirt rests at the bottom of the jar, you should be able to see distinct layers of clay (bottom), silt (middle), and sand (top).
6. Check For Parasites
While some pests leave obvious signs like cocoons or chewed up leaves, others can be much better at hiding their presence. Root parasites, bacteria, viral infections, fungus, and insects which burrow beneath the bark of trees are some common culprits that might slip under your pest radar. If whole branches or limbs of a plant are dying with no apparent explanation, take a clipping to an expert and have it tested.
For gardeners in the US, check with your local state university extension for a multitude of invaluable online resources which can assist you with the identification and treatment of plant ailments. Most extension services maintain a crew of friendly and knowledgeable staff – and oftentimes definitive experts in the field of horticulture – who are happy and able to help.
7. Proper Pest Control
In order to deter pests and diseases, it is important to maintain a healthy growing environment for your trees and bushes. Ensure that the soil conditions are right for your plants. Also, try to limit the growth of weeds inside the drip line around each plant. This will allow roots to take advantage of all of the nutrients in the surrounding soil. Fastidious weeding also hinders disease transmission from neighboring plants and eliminates hiding places for vermin and harmful insects. Remove and promptly destroy any dead limbs or parts of the tree infected with fungus to prevent the spread of disease in your garden. Make certain to pick up and discard any fallen or rotten fruit from around your plants as these will attract animals and insects that feed on the healthy fruit meant for your consumption. Finally, be sure to apply the proper amounts of natural insecticides or find ways to attract natural predators as needed to keep pests at bay.
8. Encourage Pollination
Some fruit trees and bushes do much better if they have two or more different species of the same genus growing in the vicinity to help them pollinate. For example, if your seven-year-old McIntosh isn’t producing much fruit, you might consider planting a Crab Apple nearby. If you aren’t sure what pollinator you need, consult this guide.
Of course, trees won’t pollinate their neighbors without help. Beneficial animals like bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and bats are a few of the top pollinators, as are some species of ants and beetles. For this reason, it is important to keep your garden hospitable for wildlife. Avoid overuse of pesticides (natural or chemical) which can kill beneficial insects. Not only will the lack of bees and bugs negatively impact fruit yields, the resulting imbalance in the micro-environment of your garden can also drive away other small animals that help with the pollination process.
9. Harvest Everything
This is perhaps the easiest advice to follow when it comes to growing successful fruit trees. Still, it bears mentioning. Unharvested fruit left on the branch at the end of the season actually signals to the tree or bush that it made too much that year. During the next growing season, the plant will actually produce less as a result. So make sure to pick all of the fruit that your garden grows and let your plants know that you just can’t get enough!