Growing Fruit Trees: The First 3 Years

Downloadable pdf for both Fruit Trees and Perennial Shrub Fruit

Getting Started with Fruit Trees

Pear orchard in bloom

Some things to consider:

  • Fruit varieties
    • Easiest are plums and Asian pears; pests and disease pressures are low in our climate and allow you to minimize spraying.
    • Second easiest are apples and European pears; these do need a little more disease and pest management but are still easy in most planting sites.
  • What kind fruit do you want to grow? When do you want it ripe? Because fruit trees do take maintenance throughout the year, make sure you are ready to take on the work, and that it is worth your time. If you never buy or eat apples, you probably won’t be motivated to grow them.

Do you have a suitable site for fruit trees? Some things to check out before buying trees:

  • Drainage- Dig a hole where you want to plant,16″ deep, in the winter. If water fills the hole and stands in the hole more than 36 hours, you will need to mound up the planting site. You want to build a 3′-5′ wide mound with 16″ to the water level.
  • Sunlight– fruit trees need as a minimum, ¾ of a day (6-8 hours) of good sunlight. If your site is shady before 4pm in mid-summer, it is probably too shady to produce good fruit.

What do rootstocks do?

  • Potential size comparison of apple rootstocks

    Almost all fruit trees are grafted: a select variety of fruit onto a selected rootstock.

    • In general, smaller rootstocks fruit earlier than larger rootstocks
    • In general, smaller rootstocks need staking
    • Larger rootstocks are more tolerant of marginal soil, and slightly more drought tolerant when established
  • Rootstock helps determine Tree size
  • How much room do you have?
  • How high on a ladder do you want to climb?
  • Tree Spacing– Remember there are size options because of rootstocks. Larger trees need wider spacing, smaller trees can be closer together.

Pollination– what does that mean? All fruit trees need to have pollen moved to the anthers of their flowers by a pollinating insect for that flower to become a fruit.

  • Many fruit trees are self-sterile, and need a second variety nearby to provide pollen to set fruit
  • Some stone fruit are self-fertile and do not need a pollinizer- their own flower’s pollen will work to set fruit
Planting bare root

Planting bare root

What to look for in purchasing a tree?
  • Bud union of the graft should be firm and clean
  • Tree is tagged with variety and rootstock
  • Thumb nail test- if you scratch a branch, is the wood underneath the scratch green?
  • Will you need to permanently stake this tree? (dwarf rootstocks)
Planting Requirements: Are you ready to take care of your trees?
  • Soil isn’t too wet to work, or you have built a mound
  • Planting- when planting, be sure to keep the graft union 2″-4″ above soil line
  • Root care-Prune broken roots off, spread out over soil mound
  • Water trees in, and have a plan for watering during the summer
  • Tree support and tie- even semi-dwarf trees need staking 1st year
Fertilizer and lime

Graft union 2″-4″ above soil line

  • Young fruit trees benefit from fertilizer the first 3 years to stimulate growth. In sandy or gravelly soils, they may need fertilizer past 3 years.
  • Western WA soils are typically acidic, and fruit trees prefer a neutral pH Liming at planting and annually in the fall will help sweeten the soil and provide calcium for good fruit production
    • If terminal shoots stop growing, it is one of three things usually. Not enough water, mildew (silvery gray or dead looking tips on branch ends.), or tree is deficient in nutrients. Lime and compost additions in years 1 and 2.
    • Remove all but 2-4 fruits first years.
Year 2-3
  • Prune apples and pears in dormant season (Before leaves come out). Prune peaches, plums and cherries after bloom.
  • Review our Disease and Pest Management in the Home Orchard information, available on website and at nursery.
  • Familiarize yourself with useful, locally oriented disease and pest management sites like WSU Hortsense and PNW Pest Management Handbooks pages.
  • New growth- if growth is less than 18″ per year average per shoot then the tree might be lacking water and/or nutrients
  • Keep 3′-4′ area clean around trees first 7-8 years so voles/field mice don’t eat your tree’s roots.
  • Watering 1″ per week in the growing season is a good rule of thumb. Heavier soils may need less water, sandy soils more.
    • Check the soil moisture level to make sure you are watering enough: 24 hours after watering, dig 6″-8″ down and make sure soil is moist!
  • Train new shoots in late summer
  • Fruit– leave up to 6 fruit, remove all at ends of branches
 Year 3
  • Same as year 2, but more of everything, including fruit.
  • Come to advanced Fruit Growing Classes
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