It is not uncommon to purchase a new home and inherit a fruit tree or two. Fruit trees can greatly enhance the home garden by providing fresh fruit, shade, and beautiful spring blooms that are appreciated by pollinators. If you’re lucky, the previous owner will have cared for them properly and the trees will be in good health. As is more often the case, the trees may have been neglected for years and have grown out of control. Regardless, the keys to successfully maintaining fruit trees are good pruning, pest management, and proper fertilization.
Pruning is easily the most intimidating aspect of caring for fruit trees. Fearful of making a mistake, many people avoid it altogether, while others make pruning cuts only because they think it is something they are supposed to do. When fruit trees are pruned heavily or without a clear purpose in mind, they may end up being worse off than if they were left alone. However, when trees are appropriately pruned they will have improved structure, produce more fruits and flowers, have fewer disease issues, and be easier to harvest from. All fruit trees respond to pruning cuts in essentially the same way. As long as you learn the general rules, you’ll be able to predict how your cuts will impact future growth. If you’re new to pruning fruit trees, you should check out one of the UNH Cooperative Extension pruning demonstrations this spring to learn all of the essentials, from pruning tools to making proper cuts.
Another essential aspect of maintaining healthy fruit trees is good pest management. There are numerous insects and diseases that will attack various tree fruits in New Hampshire. Limit damage with careful monitoring and the use of appropriate management techniques, many of which are outlined in the Home Fruit Spray Schedule. Voles can also pose a significant threat to fruit trees in the winter months by stripping the bark from trunks and branches below the snow line. This girdling can be prevented by placing cylinders made of ¼ inch hardware cloth around the bases of trees. Apple trees are especially attractive to voles, so prioritize their protection. Mowing tall grass around the bases of trees and promptly picking up dropped fruits will also help keep voles from visiting the areas near fruit trees.
Mature fruit trees also require certain essential nutrients for healthy growth and fruit production. Some nutrients are provided by the soil in adequate amounts, but others may need to be added with a fertilizer. The main nutrients in most fertilizers are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. NH soils often already have all of the phosphorus that plants need, making it very important to get your soil tested to avoid unnecessary environmental contamination. A standard soil test indicates the availability of soil nutrients, as well as soil pH, and will give fertilizer recommendations.
Backyard fruit growers frequently complain that their trees fail to set fruit. There are many potential reasons for this, including insect or disease pressure, late frosts, or cool rainy weather that discourages pollinators from visiting flowers. Another factor beginning fruit growers may be unaware of is that some fruits, such as apples, pears, and plums, require cross-pollination from another cultivar in order to set fruit. If you notice that your trees are blooming but you aren’t getting very many fruits, it’s possible that you are lacking a compatible cultivar for cross-pollination. Most nursery catalogs supply information on which cultivars are best for pollinating each other, so it’s relatively easy to select a suitable match.
Growing backyard fruit trees can be incredibly rewarding when done well. Whether you have mature fruit trees on your property or are considering planting some new ones, you’re sure to have success as long as you devote some attention every season to their proper maintenance and care.
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