Did you accidentally prune your fruit off?

A lovely healthy peach tree – with almost no fruit!

Do you have any fruit trees this year that don’t have fruit on them?

Not sure why?

It might be because of how you pruned them. One of the principles of pruning is that the harder you prune, the more the tree will respond by growing, as you can clearly see in these pear trees that have been hedge pruned, leading to a massive growth response at the tops of the trees.

Pear trees that have been hedge pruned
Pear trees that have been hedge pruned

The risk is that if you prune a tree too hard it will divert all its energy into growing wood instead of producing fruit, and it’s one of the most common (but by no means the only) reason your tree may not have fruit.

With mature fruit trees the aim with winter pruning is to keep the tree in balance, so that it keeps growing some new wood, but also stays nice and settled and produces plenty of fruit.

A President plum tree showing a good growth response to pruning
A President plum tree showing a good growth response to pruning

This photo above shows a President plum tree with lovely strong new shoot growth in response to last winter’s pruning.

The photo below shows that it also has a nice crop of fruit – success!

A nice crop of President plums on trees that were pruned in winter
A nice crop of President plums on trees that were pruned in winter

However for young trees, the balance between shoot growth and fruit production needs to be very one-sided – it’s all about growth!

A young cherry tree showing strong growth in response to pruning to create new branches in the tree
A young cherry tree showing strong growth in response to pruning to create new branches in the tree

We’re often asked how quickly a fruit tree will start producing fruit. In fact they’ll often flower and bear fruit the year you plant them (depending on what type of tree they are) but we reckon it’s better to NOT let them have fruit until the tree’s grown enough branches.

If you’re trying to grow a vase-shaped tree (which is a great shape for most backyards), it usually takes at least two to three years to prune the tree into the right shape.

Three year old apricot trees of different sizes
Three year old apricot trees of different sizes

In the photo above of three year old apricot trees, you can see that the tree on the left has grown well, and has grown enough branches to make the shape we want, so it’s been deemed mature enough to bear fruit.

However the tree on the right hasn’t grown as well for some reason and is much smaller. Any fruit that set has been removed to allow the tree to continue putting its energy into growing new branches for at least another year before it’s allowed to have fruit.

Learning when and how much to prune your trees is one of the strategies in the How to Look After Fruit Trees in the First 3 Years short course, but as you can see, the principle still holds good with your mature trees, and may just help to solve the problem of why your tree has no fruit!

Success in the nursery

It’s so nice when things work as they’re supposed to!

A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery
A successful grafted cherry tree in the nursery

The grafting in Carr’s Organic Fruit Tree Nursery finished a few weeks ago, and now we can see whether it worked or not. Excitingly, most of them did!

This is always a time of some trepidation, as we’re faced with irrefutable evidence of the quality of our grafting technique.

While our mentor (and Katie’s dad) Merv is always there teaching and advising, he’s handed over the actual grafting to us – so there’s no hiding any more. The success or failure is ours to own!

So it’s incredibly gratifying to see that our success rate this year was actually pretty good, and definitely better than last year!

Spring is also when we get confirmation on whether last summer’s budding was successful. We always check whether the buds appear to have “taken” before we cut the rootstock back to the bud in late winter, but you’re never really sure until you see this:

It’s also a good time to check whether the establishment pruning you did in on your young trees in winter has produced the desired effect.

The point of making a heading cut (as we describe in Pruning Young Fruit Trees) is to create new branches, in the desired location in the tree.

And here’s an ideal result, where the three shoots directly below the cut have all started growing, creating three new branches in this young cherry tree exactly where we want them.

Success is so satisfying!

The monster tree that got away

Moving into a new property with existing fruit trees can be very exciting, with the promise of ready-made fruit harvests outside the back door without having to plant trees and wait years for them to mature.

The reality is often quite different, as it often turns out you’re inheriting problem fruit trees. You know the ones – the “monster” trees that have been abandoned, neglected or just unloved, and they get a little wild.

Getting them back under control is possible but needs a bit of specialist care – we call it renovation pruning. As the name suggests, it’s all about bringing trees back into good repair and productivity.

How would you prune trees like these?

Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years
Wild apple trees that have been left unpruned for a few years

This example is actually a whole lot of monster trees in an organic orchard that was left unpruned for a few years. They were neglected for years and ended up crowded, tangled, and full of blackberries.

Here’s another typical example of a backyard fruit tree that got away:

In both cases the trees are still healthy, and so the good news is it’s completely possible to bring them back into production and make them manageable again, so if you’ve inherited some fruit trees that haven’t been cared for for some time, don’t despair.

Here’s how we’d approach the first example (you can modify these instructions to suit your own situation of course):

  1. Firstly, remove all the blackberries. This can be a challenge because blackberries love to regrow, but a combination of grubbing out the canes, cutting the rest very low, and if possible following up with sheep or goats, or mowing regularly should gradually get rid of them. We wouldn’t use poison on them around fruit trees, because it’s not good for the soil.
  2. Start pruning by removing any dead wood from the trees.
  3. Decide what shape of tree you’d ultimately like to achieve (e.g. ‘vase’ or ‘central leader’), and select the permanent limbs you’re going to keep in the tree to give you the best approximation of that shape.
  4. Remove limbs you don’t want.
  5. Reduce the height of the tree by pruning each retained permanent limb down to a lateral that is at the right height to become the new ‘leader’ of that limb.
  6. Now do the regular maintenance pruning job on each limb. Starting from the top and working down to the bottom of the limb, make a decision about how to treat each lateral (or side branch), which boils down to either leaving them alone, shortening them or removing them.

Here’s the same trees after the first year’s renovation pruning – the blackberries have started to be removed, suckers have been removed, some limbs have been removed, and some lateral growth shortened. They’re starting to look like fruit trees again!

Apple trees after the first year's renovation pruning
Apple trees after the first year’s renovation pruning

Renovation pruning has many challenges, including the fact that when you remove a large amount of wood you’re likely to stimulate the tree to grow a whole lot of new wood to replace it, often at the expense of growing fruit.

As we explain in our Pruning by Numbers ebook the way to minimise the shock to the tree and help keep it calm and fruitful is to create a renovation pruning plan over a number of years – the larger the tree, the longer it might take you to finally get it under control.

A backyard plum tree after the first year's renovation pruning
A backyard plum tree after the first year’s renovation pruning