How to Care for Your Apple and Pear Trees So They Produce the Most Fruit
Fruit trees have undeniable ornamental value—whether or not they are studded with fruit—but caring for your apple and pear trees to improve fruit production is a relatively easy process. What's more, the benefits are tasty. "What people want is the experience of harvesting their own apple," says Don Eaton of Bower and Branch. "It's an incredible experience that everyone should have. It's very easy to get them to fruit—you have to work really hard to [mess] this up." If you choose a variety likely to thrive in your agricultural zone, plant it in the right spot, and prune it annually, you should see the amount of fruit you're producing rise every summer. "Fruit is a multi-year experience," says Eaton. "There's nothing more satisfying than increasing the number of apples you get." Ahead, exactly how to do so.
Choose the right type of tree.
Selecting a variety of apple or pear tree that will thrive in your yard and produce the fruit you want requires careful research. Jon Traunfeld of the University of Maryland Extension recommends checking the USDA Extension Service for your state for a list of fruit tree varieties best suited to resisting your area's common pests and diseases and to flourishing in your climate. Another key decision is how many fruit trees you have space for and the time to tend to. Apple and pear trees come in both cross-pollinating and self-pollinating varieties, and if you choose cross-pollinating, you'll need at least two of the same trees to produce fruit. (Traunfeld describes one exception to this rule: "Ornamental flowering fruit trees may provide needed pollen for a lone fruit tree if their bloom period overlaps," he says. "For example, crabapple trees are excellent pollinators for fruiting apples.")
Find the perfect place to plant.
In a petite or shaded yard, you may only have room for one fruit tree. "Fruit trees require at least eight hours of direct sun each day," says Traunfeld. "That can be difficult to achieve with small or well-treed yards. The soil should be well-drained—no standing water hours after heavy rain—and fertile. One- to three-inch organic mulch helps to conserve water, limit weeds, and prevent competition between the trees and lawns." Before planting, Traunfeld recommends submitting a soil sample to determine the pH and nutrients in your plot, which can help you source fertilizer with the most effective combination of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. If the prime spot on your property happens to be in an existing garden, embrace the beauty of fruit trees as part of your overall aesthetic, recommends Eaton. "It's not just a fruit tree," he says. "It could be more than just a tree in the middle of the lawn that gets beat up by the lawnmower. It could—and should—be part of your landscape."
Don't be afraid to prune.
While you shouldn't trim a fruit tree the way you'd trim a hedge, Eaton stresses the importance of removing dead, damaged, and diseased wood every year to improve airflow, disease resistance, and fruiting. "America's backyards are full of ugly apple trees because nobody prunes them to make them attractive," he says. "More branches does not equal more fruit—more branches equals smaller, more poor-performing fruiting." The goal is to create six to eight primary branches for the tree, which provide structure for smaller branches to fork off over time, and trim new growth back to a bud in early spring each year.
"For apples and pears, in year one, you prune; in year two, they set spurs; in year three, they fruit," says Eaton. "For both height and width, we always prune back the newest, youngest branches to keep our tree in the shape and size we want. Otherwise, they'll take all the growth, and those aren't the branches that make fruit." Thinning the branches allows sunlight and air to reach the middle branches, improving your fruit yield from both inner and outer branches. "The last part of pruning is, you repeat it every year," says Eaton. "If you're afraid, just see it, prune it, and move on."