5 Tips for Fertilizing Fruit Trees
- including when to feed them -

Posted on March 11, 2020

5 Tips for Fertilizing Fruit Trees
Fruit trees, when they are healthy and productive, are a great joy. Beautiful fragrant blossoms in spring, delicious fruits in summer and fall, and a graceful, attractive tree for all seasons. But fruit trees are also some of the more difficult plants the gardener can take on. They can require a bit more specialized care to keep them thriving and producing.

It can be frustrating to try to figure out how to fertilize your fruit trees because so much depends on what type of tree you are growing and where. But there are some general rules that will apply no matter what your orchard's situation. Here are five.

1. Not all Trees Need Fertilizing Every Year

Fruit trees, especially ones you have picked because they are known to do well in your area, should be able to get all the nutrients they need from the soil without fertilization. This is definitely the case in orchards where a homeowner has taken care of the soil quality by enriching it with organic compost. Adding fertilizer to a fruit tree that is growing fine can cause more problems than it solves.

To determine whether your fruit tree is growing on target, measure its annual growth. To do this, in late winter, before the tree has begun to green, find a growth ring, that is, the spot at which growth started the previous season year. Usually the new growth is a different color and quite obvious. Measure from the growth ring to the end of the branch. Repeat the exercise at several places in the tree and average. This is your annual growth.
Apricot branch displaying growth rings

Below is a chart showing the expected annual growth range for the most popular types of fruit trees. If your tree is within this range, you don't have to add fertilizer, and in fact, you shouldn't.

Peach, Nectarine, Apple and Pear

Age of Tree Growth per Year
Young, not yet bearing fruit 18-30 inches (45-75 cm)
Mature, fruit-bearing 12-18 inches (30-45 cm)

Plum, Apricot and Cherry

Age of Tree Growth per Year
Young, not yet bearing fruit 22-36 inches (55-90 cm)
Mature, fruit-bearing 8 inches (20 cm)

2. Fertilizer May Not Help Fruit Trees

Diseased apple tree leaves - when not to use fruit tree fertilizer
Maybe your fruit tree didn't hit its growth target. And maybe there are other reasons you believe it needs fertilizer--it looks sickly, it's not setting fruit, etc. In most cases, pests, diseases, or a poorly planned planting location (with not enough sun, for example) will be the explanation for the problem and adding fertilizer will not help it. To determine if the soil is the issue, do a soil test. This will not only help you pinpoint your tree's problem, but it will also let you know exactly what nutrients and minerals you need to add to the soil with fertilizer--that is, the composition of the fruit tree fertilizer you'll use.

3. When to Fertilize Fruit Trees

Unopened fruit tree buds - when to use fruit tree fertilizer

The question of when to fertilize fruit trees is one of those rare garden conundrums that has a definite answer. The best time to add fertilizer to fruit trees is early spring right before the flowers open. You can also fertilize a couple weeks before and after that ideal date. But do not fertilize from the midsummer on, especially not with nitrogen. It will cause abundant green growth that will both sap energy from fruit production and lead to new tender branches that will not do well over the winter.

4. Too Much of a Good Thing

Applying granulated fertilizer to cherry tree

If you do end up needing to add fertilizer, the amount you will use will depend on the plant food's nitrogen content and the size and type of the tree. For example, an apple tree and a peach tree may need a fertilizer with different concentrations of key nutrients. Buy a reputable fertilizer that’s specially formulated for the type of tree you are growing.
Follow the instructions that come with it--both as to amount and as to application--exactly. Over-fertilizing can lead to the problems of late growth mentioned above and under-application can lead to a weakened tree susceptible to disease.

5. An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

Applying compost to fruit tree - organic fruit tree fertilizer

Like almost any garden bed, fruit trees can benefit from a top dressing of rich organic compost applied in spring and fall. Compost returns nitrogen (as well as other important nutrients and minerals) to the soil at a much slower rather than commercial fertilizers and hence avoids some of the overfeeding problems discussed above. Orchards receiving regular compost applications will have healthy living soil, and the fruit trees there probably will not require further fertilizers.

Two boys watering an apple tree - fruit tree fertilizer

Fruit trees can present a challenge to the home gardener, and it is difficult to come up with easy answers on exactly how they need to be fed. But putting in the time to learn the needs of your specific trees and the state of your soil can reap major rewards: beautiful landscape features and tasty homegrown fruit.

Just as important to your fruit tree's health as finding the right fertilizer is knowing how to prune correctly. Learn all about pruning fruit trees here.

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