One common reason that your tree isn’t bearing fruit is its age or development. A young tree can often take a few years to start yielding any fruit. Dwarf and semi dwarf trees usually bear before full sized trees. The timeline to bear can be substantially different depending on the type of fruit tree, on average dwarf and semi dwarf will bear fruit from 2-4 years while full sized trees can take as long as 4-10 years to fruit.
Factors that can shorten or lengthen this time period include how many times the tree has been transplanted. A tree that has been grown in place from its initial planting should fruit sooner than the same tree that has been transplanted to a different location every winter.
There is an old adage about not planting just one fruit tree, instead plant 2 or more of the same type of fruit trees. This is because fruit trees need pollination to set fruit. By planting two or more pear trees you are increasing your odds of pollination and thus our odds of getting your fruit trees to bear. Yes it’s true some fruit trees are self-fruitful, meaning they don’t need another pollinator tree nearby. However studies show even self-pollinated trees do better with a nearby pollinator tree.
When I first bought my property there were two mature apple trees planted side by side. It bore crisp tart apples, bushels of them each year. During Hurricane Sandy one got struck by lightning and died. The following spring the lone apple had no fruit set. Yes I had other apple trees but they were on the opposite end of the property. The lone apple tree wasn’t pollinated and stopped bearing fruit.
Region Appropriate Tree
There are mean reasons why people choose trees. Ones of commonly hear are beauty, it was on sale, or I needed something to fill this spot. Usually these are fine and good when picking an ordinary tree, but when it comes to fruit trees you have to consider your region. The USDA has come up with hardiness zones (LINK) specifically to help one identify what things will typically grow in what areas. In the Northeast for example it is hard to grow citrus. I know some people like to defy the odds with greenhouses and heaters and bringing them inside but in general we can’t grow an orange tree outside thru the winter here. By choosing regionally appropriate tree specifies like Apples, Pears, and Peaches which all grow great in our hardiness zone we can avoid a fruitless tree.
Choosing the right tree can be as simple as looking up your hardiness zone (for me it’s 6B-7) and then looking up the trees hardiness zone range. Most of the time they will give you a range like 4-9 or 5-8. In general this will determine if you can grow these trees in your area.
The next cause of meager or no fruiting is poor tree spacing. Trees planted to close to each other, buildings, or other structure will be at a disadvantage. Trees planted so close to each other that there branches are running into each other start to compete for light, water, and nutrients. If this happens one or often both trees will suffer. Giving your trees ample space to branch out is essential for optimal fruiting. If you have several trees planted to close to each other consider relocating one or more of them, winter is a great time to transplant your trees with little stress. If transplanting isn’t an option you can always cut down the smaller underperforming tree.
If you have the space I recommend planting young trees with a mix of dwarf and full size trees. That way when they start to get large enough to crowd out one another the dwarf tree is usually at the end of its life cycle. It is at this same time where the full sized tree really starts to hits its peak fruit production. If you space your dwarf trees in between your full sized tree you get the benefit from early bearing dwarf trees while the full sized trees will bear for decades after that.
Your tree might be not producing because of your lack of healthy growing conditions. Soil fertility is a big consideration when it comes to fruit yield. Too little fertility and your tree will suffer. Too much fertility and your tree will grow all new wood/vegetation but no fruit. Often times a tree will go thru cycles of being heavily stressed and then overly pampered. When your tree is heavily stressed it can drop all its leaves or produce all the fruit it can because it thinks it might be dying. When this happens you usually do nothing when it bears tons of fruit. This sets your tree up for a low or no fruit year next year as it is either out of nutrients or in need of something else. When it looks stressed and losses its leaves you generally feed it nutrients and give it extra water. This in turns sets it up for extra vegetative growth for next year but no fruit. You can see this can become a tricky cycle of unpredictable fruit yields. More on how to get your yields predictable coming soon.
Your tree might be trying to tell you something. Believe it or not fruit trees don’t fare well when they get nibbled on by critters. Deer, mice, rabbits, voles, moles, and any number of boring insects can cause your tree not to bear fruit. You can’t protect your tree if you don’t know its occurring, so be sure to visit your trees and inspect them for animal or pest pressure. Quick spot checks of the truck bark near or at ground level will identify small animal or rodent pressure. You can use the white tree wraps or black flexible drainage pipe (use the ones will the holes) to deter them. When using either make sure they come into contact with the soil so critters can’t easily borrow underneath and find a safe haven in between the trunk and the trunk guard.
Larger animals like deer, bear, or livestock can be discouraged by fencing. Fencing can be done around individual trees or entire clusters of trees. Either fencing method will work. Things to consider when fencing in single trees, the fence can be shorter because deer generally won’t jump over a fence into an area they don’t think they can jump back out of. When fencing in a large expansive area use an 8 foot or taller fence as deer are excellent jumpers!
Finally consider planting trap crops or trees. These plants or trees won’t be beneficial to you as far as a fruit yield goes but they will be planted to attract pests to them and away from your valued fruit trees. Be sure to plant these trees far enough away from your other fruit trees.
Dormant and summer pruning regularly will help keep your fruit tree yielding delicious fruit. Pruning your fruit trees helps with fruit development by helping air and light get to all parts of your tree. Mature unpruned fruit trees experience drops in production when these trees aren’t getting air and light into the middle of the tree. When air and light can only reach the outer most branches the whole trees yield will suffer.
Fruit yields are increased and trees benefit when some fruit buds are thinned. Removing a percentage of the fruiting buds with pruning allows the tree to put all its energy into growing fruit on the remaining buds. This energy will produce a smaller amount of larger, better tasting fruit. This is healthier for the tree to do instead of trying to produce thousands of tiny fruit that will never fully develop. Proper pruning will encourage your fruit tree to grow the appropriate mix of fruit and vegetative growth. This combination will benefit the fruit yield and the health of the tree for years to come.
The next time you notice a drop in fruit production consider these factors. While these aren’t the only factors limiting fruit production they are some of the major ones. By working your way thru this list you might be able to come up with a simple fix. At the same time we know nature can always throw us a curveball. If you’re having trouble with one of your trees not bearing fruit we would love to help you work through it. Leave a comment or email and we will do our best to work with you to find a solution.