Growing Fruit Trees – Twenty Do’s And Don’t’s

1] Do prune your fruit trees

Pruning is a basic requirement that should never be avoided. Without it your trees will become unshapely and not very productive. Correct pruning - even of a basic kind – encourages the right type of new growth that will produce the flowers and fruit.

So it follows that if a tree isn’t making much new growth then it won’t be producing a lot of flower. This is even more important for young trees where formative pruning will result in a good basic structure that will see them in good stead thereafter. See the notes in our easy beginners guide to growing fruit trees which includes an easy to follow section on pruning – your trees will thank you for it!


2] Don’t prune your trees too early

The main time for pruning is late summer and early autumn mainly, or sometimes over winter. Often you will see your new trees making a lot of new growth during their first summer and it can be tempting to get those secateurs out and start pruning because it’s assumed they’re getting out f hand.

But if you do it too early, which is really any time before the end of August at the earliest, you are likely to get secondary re growth which just complicates matters and means you will have to do them again later the same season. Normally the trees will have largely stopped active new growth by the end of August which is why this is the yardstick we go by.

3] Do make sure you choose varieties that go together

Pollination is an important aspect of tree selection. Some varieties cross fertilise and some don’t. This is because all fruit trees vary slightly in the timing their flowers are open.

That’s why pollination groups have been devised so you can easily select from within the same group, ensuring they will be in flower at the same time and the bees are able to do their valuable working transferring pollen from one to another.

If you choose trees from different groups they may miss altogether meaning that during most seasons you get little or no fruit. It may be that there are trees nearby in an adjacent garden but it’s risky to rely on them to pollinate your own trees because they might not be of the correct group so it’s better to make sure your own are self sufficient when it comes to pollination.

4] Do avoid tetraploid varieties

A small number of varieties of apple and pear are known as tetraploids. This means they have no viable pollen of their own and are useless for pollination purposes. They have to be grown with two other different ones to ensure a crop and will give no pollen themselves in return.

Varieties like Crispin, Bramley and Suntan apples, or Merton Pride Pears, are known tetraploids and very good varieties they are in their own right but unless you are able to plant a number of different varieties in which they can mix in it’s better to avoid them.

They also tend to be quite vigorous in growth and slower to come into bearing, which is another reason why they tend not to be recommended.

5] Don’t grow these varieties!

Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley Apples, Victoria Plum….. I can hear the groans from traditionalists and I do sympathise because these three old favourites remain the first choice of many. But as garden varieties they leave a lot to be desired.

Cox’s Orange Pippin for a start is so disease prone it needs a lot of upkeep just to keep it even half way healthy and too often a little disease quickly becomes entrenched with this variety and trees become almost impossible to clean up. It’s a very high maintenance variety that is to be avoided unless you have experience and are willing to put the time and effort in.

Bramley Seedling is not recommended because it’s a triploid, making it difficult to pollinate unless part of a group, it is also over-vigorous, can be slow to come into fruit and is also prone to bitter pit. Victoria plum – well it seems almost sacrilegious to criticise this old luminary but it really is not that reliable and prone to off and on cropping – seasons of boom or bust.

The fruits are also prone to brown rot, although it is at least self fertile. The flavour of Victoria is almost incomparable but it comes at a price.

6] But DO grow these!

Apple Red Falstaff has everything; reliability, self fertile blossoms, frost tolerance and health. The fruits keep, have a very good flavour and the tree has good blossom. It starts to come into bearing early in life and is really the perfect garden variety. It’s flavour is more akin to a Braeburn than a Cox, if Cox is your favourite apple then look at Red Pippin. It has a great Cox-type flavour, stores for months and will do a whole lot better for you.

Cooking apple Bountiful is a great alternative to Bramley; compact, precocious, frost tolerant and easy to pollinate. Again the fruits store very well, often into the Spring, and it needs little sugar when cooked. A perfect garden cooking apple variety.

Lastly Plum ‘Jubilee’ has an enviable list of qualities. Prolific crops of well flavoured sweet fruits year on year, self fertile and trouble free.

7] Do grow flowers amongst the fruit

The right kind of nectar rich flowers encourage beneficial insects to linger amongst the fruit trees. Bees and other pollinating insects will do their work amongst the orchard blossom thus increasing the yield of your trees.

Ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies and other good bugs will then transfer to your trees helping to keep them pest free. As long as the flowers selected are not too deeply rooted or tall they won’t compete with the trees for moisture and nutrients. Plus the whole effect is one of considerable natural beauty.

Annual wildflower mixes are a great choice to sow beneath fruit trees as are spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils and crocus which will coincide with the first bees of the spring and also the natural flowering time of plums, apples, cherry and pear trees. A perfect symbiotic relationship.

8] Don’t plant fruit trees too deeply.

Fruit trees have a grafting point, usually a few inches above the first roots. It is easily identifiable as a knobbly join on the main stem. This should NEVER be buried beneath the soil, plant so it sits 2 or 3 inches above the surrounding soil level.

If it is buried beneath ground it may rot, additionally it will encourage the rootstock to grow and sucker which you don’t want as you will be forced to prune these off as they grow. A few suckers the first year or two is often the case but planting with the rootstock below the soil greatly encourages this and they can proliferate quite quickly.

9] Do prepare ground thoroughly before planting

A little advance preparation will go a long way towards ultimate success. Don’t be tempted to just plant on ground that hasn’t at least been well turned over to a good tilth, had all perennial weeds removed and has had a dressing of bonemeal or growmore worked in.

The addition of copious amounts of organic rich matter – rotted turves, leafmould, mushroom compost or a proprietary loam based compost – will help greatly not only with sandy soils where it will conserve moisture during times of drought, but also heavier soils as it will improve the structure.

Good soil that is well prepared will actually make it easier for you to plant the trees, and it will also be easier for the trees when new roots start to form they will be more readily able to access nutrients and water, and to grow down and provide anchorage.

10] Do water copiously and regularly the first summer

This is a no brainer must-do. No matter whether planted in the summer as pot grown, or in the autumn or winter as bare root, during that first growing season it is crucial that they don’t dry out.

Remember the roots are not yet established and it will not be easy for the trees to replace moisture lost through dehydration of the new growths and they won’t be able to access moisture from farther down in the soil.

Try to get into a routine whereby you water each day, early in the morning or later in the evening is best when it is cooler and the water doesn’t just evaporate away so readily. Use a hose where possible and REALLY puddle in the ground around the trunk so it sits on top of the soil surface until it drains away. Only then do you know that the trees have received sufficient.

Only avoid watering if it has rained consistently or heavily; normal light showers won’t be enough especially as the trees begin to develop a canopy which may sheltered the ground beneath from receiving water via rainfall.

11] Don’t plant the same fruit where previous trees have been grown

When replacing old or unproductive trees sometimes the only choice is to plant where the old tree was growing. But if it is of the same family – an apple for an apple, a pear for a pear etc, the ground is likely to be suffering from what is termed ‘soil sickness’ so the new tree will not thrive.

If you can’t find a new area in which to plant and must use the same spot, then at least choose a tree from a different family of fruit. It is also wise to dig out and replace as much of the soil as possible with fresh soil until you get a planting hole that is big enough plus a little bit more if possible. In anycase the roots of the old tree must be removed to effective enable planting.

12] Do remember to protect your trees

Rabbits and deer are so common even in urban area’s it isn’t really a good idea to trust to luck that they won’t decide to destroy your trees. Winter time is when they are more adventurous in trying to find food and this tends to be when they strip the bark from around trees – especially young ones. If the damage is severe it will kill the tree.

During the summer they are more likely to take tender new growths. So investing in some plastic spiral tree guards is really important, they are easy to use and cost effective. You can also buy wire mesh tubes and there are more expensive long-lasting options as well.

You may prefer to fence the immediate area to keep them out, especially when deer are around. For rabbits a guard of around 30” is usually sufficient but for deer it will need to be not less than 48”.

13] Don’t harvest the fruits too early

Be aware of a varieties’ natural season and picking time and also give allowance for the season – sometimes they will be earlier, sometimes a little later depending on the weather.

Don’t assume that just because the fruit has coloured up that it is ready to pick and eat. This is especially true for apples and plums. Normally the fruit continues to ripen for some time after it has shown colour.

If you pick them too early the flavour will not have developed fully and nor will the juice and sugar content. You want to enjoy the fruit at it’s very best so harvest at the optimum time.

There are a few good pointers that will tell you when a fruit is really ready to eat. With apples and pears you usually get a few fallers and this is often a good sign that the fruit is fit.

Plums usually have a little ‘give’ in them when gently squeezed; if they remain firm or hard then they aren’t ready. The same is true of cherries, peach, nectarine and apricot. Remember too with cherries and plums the fruit seldom all ripens at the same time on the same tree so you will need to be selective and go over the trees a few times choosing the fruit that is ripe and leaving those that aren’t for a few more days.

14] Do protect against disease – prevention is better than cure

If you don’t offer some sort of protection against fungal and insect attack most trees will usually get something at some time or other. Waiting until the first signs of disease become apparent is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted!

Experienced fruit growers protect their trees early in the season so disease and insects don’t take hold in the first place. With many diseases, offering a spray after the symptoms have become apparent does little good.

What you really need to do is to routinely spray with a broad spectrum fungicide and a systemic insecticide from early in the season, soon after the leaves have unfolded in the Spring. You can repeat the application some four to six weeks later. Between the two of them they should cover against most ills and you will find your trees stay nice and ‘clean’ for the duration of the summer and save you a lot of anxiety later on!

15] Don’t grow espalier plums and cherries

Espalier and fan trained trees are increasingly popular for growing against walls and fences. But because the application and use for fan tree and espalier is the same, less experienced fruit growers are sometimes a little hazy differentiating between the two.

Remember that the espalier is only for apples and pears; cherry and plum and greengage - and damson too – should only be grown as fans. This is because the spurring nature of stone fruits is different. You may well train a stone fruit into an espalier tree successfully and it might look the part, but it will seldom be very productive.

16] Do thin the fruits in years of over abundance

It might seem a hard thing to do; you have this mountainous crop of young fruits festooning the branches and you’re looking forward to a bountiful harvest which is a good thing and the just desserts of all your hard work – right? Not necessarily.

When a tree over produces it is likely to have a barren year the next, a rest. Or at least just a small number of fruits. Better to have a decent crop every year rather than boom or bust. Plus the branches can get broken by the sheer weight of the crop if there is too much.

Another setback is that the fruits may not attain full size and be disappointingly small. Some trees self thin [in apples this is known as ‘June drop’] but if come the end of June – earlier for Plums and cherries – there appears to be too much then be strong willed and thin them out a bit, carefully hand picking off a few fruit clusters from each branch. It’s best in the long run.

17] Do grow some fruit trees in containers

Even if you have space and a good amount of trees already the value of some additions kept in pots and containers can not be over estimated.

Not only does it allow you to grow something different and extend your range, during more difficult climatic seasons trees in containers are more likely to yield a crop where trees in more exposed locations may fail.

Apples, pears, plums, gage, damson – all do well in containers on smaller rootstocks. But you could also consider apricot, peach and nectarine which may be unsuited to a more open position [depending on your locality] but which will yield more reliably in a sheltered corner where it is warmer.

Cherries too can be much more reliable grown in this way. In short a collection of fruit trees in pots is an invaluable addition and standby to your fruit tree growing programme.

18] Don’t plant fruit trees too close together

It may be tempting to squeeze more in than is really practical but never space closer than the recommended planting distance for the stock selected. You will either have to over-prune to keep them in bounds or end up with trees that you can’t get between to harvest and prune. Another possibly more important aspect of this is that trees which are over crowded will be more disease prone and won’t yield as well where sunlight is scarce because of congested branches.

19] Don’t buy from non specialist sources

It can be a lottery buying fruit trees unless the nursery knows about them and can give you valuable after sales advise and knows the stock it is selling. All too frequently I have seen misleading, absent or quite frankly untruthful information given about the trees on offer. This is especially tree of certain online auction website listings.

Varieties described as self fertile when they most certainly aren’t [if you describe a variety as self fertile it is easier to sell] vigorous rootstocks described as semi dwarfing when in reality they will grow as big as your house ….

Innocent looking nice young trees in smartly presented pre-packs stand outside supermarkets with no information as to rootstock at all. They might look small and demure when you buy them but most of the time these are NOT on small growing rootstocks and no information is given on the package to tell you what you are buying.

There is also usually no information given about pollinating requirements. So if you want to be sure what you are buying, and be able to access valuable advise afterwards, make sure you buy from a specialist fruit tree nursery that knows the subject – and it’s stock – inside out. It might cost a bit more initially but it will be worth it in the long run.

20] Do remember to enjoy your fruit trees!

Take the time not only to enjoy their delicious fruit, but sit beneath the fragrant blossom on a Spring day, admire the character and outline of trunk and branch, and daydream about things to come …. Sit back and say to yourself – ‘I did this’ …..