When & How to Fertilizer Your Fruit Trees

By on April 23, 2018

Well fertilized trees will be full of blooms, like this apple

Fruit trees need good nutrition to grow and produce an abundant harvest, just like vegetables, flowers, and other plants. In our helpful video, Tricia explains if, when, and how much to fertilize your fruit trees. Or keep reading here to learn the 5 Easy Steps for fertilizing your fruit trees!

Step One: Know When to Fertilize

  • There IS a right and wrong time to fertilize your trees.
  • Just before bud break is the perfect time. This is when your trees are beginning their annual growth cycle and “eat” the most food.
  • You can fertilize up to a month before this, or if you’ve miss the ideal moment and the trees have already begun to bloom, you can still fertilize until June.
  • Do NOT fertilize in late summer or fall, though, because the new growth put on by the tree can be damaged by frost. If you’ve waited too late in the year and still want to feed your trees, you can mulch them with compost and top-dress with soft rock phosphate; however you should avoid all nitrogen fertilizers.

Step Two: Measure to Decide if You Need to Fertilize

Not all fruit trees need fertilizer every year and they don’t need it in the same amounts. This can change from year to year depending on a variety of factors, so be sure to measure annually.

What will happen if the incorrect amount of fertilizer is given?

  • Too much fertilizer will lead to lots of leaves and shoots, and not a lot of fruit. It could even make your trees weak from too-rapid growth, risking broken branches later in its life.
  • Too little fertilizer can cause slow growth and under-performance, so you don’t get as much fruit as you want at harvest time. Not fertilizing fruit trees grown in poor soil can even lead to nutrient deficiencies, poor health, and trees that are less able to fight off diseases and pests.

Luckily, fruit trees are pretty good at telling you what they need. All you need is a tape measure and a few minutes of your time. Be sure to take your measurements in the winter or early spring while it is dormant, before the tree starts growing again for the new season.

Measure Annual Growth

Steps in Measuring the Previous Year’s Growth

  • First–locate last year’s growth rings. The growth ring is the point on the branch where the tree started growing in the previous season. The newest growth that you will be measuring is often a different color than the rest of the branch.
  • Second–measure from the growth ring all the way out to the end of the branch. Repeat these measurements at several spots around the tree.
  • Third–calculate the average of these measurements. This is the previous season’s “annual growth” of the tree.

Repeat this step for each of your trees. Even if you have several trees of the same variety and age, they may not have grown at the same rate and thus have different fertilizer needs. Note–if you have pruned your tree significantly more than normal, so that you’ve removed over 20% of its canopy within the last year, don’t fertilize until the next year.

Check the Chart to Evaluate Growth

Finally, use this chart to evaluate your tree’s annual growth. If the tree’s growth rate is at the low end of, or below, annual target growth, then you should fertilize the tree this year. If your tree’s growth rate is at the high end of, or above, the annual target growth rate, you do not need to fertilize this year (but measure again next year in case that changes!).

Annual Growth Rates

  • Peaches and nectarines–non-bearing young trees should grow 18”-24”, mature bearing trees should grow 12”-18”.
  • Apples and pears–non-bearing young trees should grow 18”-30”, mature bearing pears and non-spur type apples should grow 12”-18”.
  • Bearing spur apples should grow 6”-10”.
  • Plums and sweet cherries–non-bearing young trees should grow 22”-36”, mature bearing trees should grow 8”.
  •  
  • Tart cherries–non-bearing young trees should grow 12”-24”, bearing mature trees should grow 8”.

Step Three: Choose the Right Fertilizer

  • Fruit trees prefer an organic, high nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Blood meal, soybean meal, composted chicken manure, cottonseed meal, and feather meal are all good, organic nitrogen sources.
  • There are also specially formulated fruit tree fertilizers.
  • In addition to nitrogen, your tree needs other macro and micronutrients too. Adding compost when you fertilize is a good way to provide organic matter and trace minerals. Azomite or Cascade Remineralizing Soil Boost are good sources of trace minerals.

A soil test can tell you whether you need to add more phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients.

Step Four: Calculate how Much Fertilizer to Use

More is not always better when it comes to fertilizing your fruit trees. Now that you know that your tree needs fertilizer, and have picked the perfect fertilizer to use, you’ll need to determine the correct amount to use on each tree.

For those of us who did not excel in math—fear not—we will walk you through the fertilizer calculations.

The amount of fertilizer you will use is calculated based on the age or size of the tree, and the nitrogen-value on the package.

Determining How Much Fertilizer to Use

  • Trees need 0.10 pounds of “actual nitrogen” per year of age, or per inch of trunk diameter (measured 1 foot above the ground). The maximum you should give a fruit tree in a year is 1 pound of actual nitrogen.
  • For example, if your tree has a diameter of 5 inches (or, if your tree is 5 years old), multiply 5 by 0.10 pounds of nitrogen, equals 0.5 lb. This means that the tree will need 0.5 lb of actual nitrogen.
  • But wait, you’re not done yet! “Actual nitrogen” pounds is not the as simple as just weighing out that amount of fertilizer, because there is more in a fertilizer than just nitrogen.
  • The NPK numbers on fertilizer show the percentage of nutrients per pound of fertilizer, not the actual amount. N, P and K refer to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
  • For example, if the N listed on the fertilizer package is 7 (meaning 7% nitrogen), such as with E.B. Stone’s Fruit Tree fertilizer, then there is 0.07 pounds of actual nitrogen for every pound of fertilizer.
  • To calculate how much fertilizer to apply, divide the amount of actual nitrogen the tree needs by the amount of actual nitrogen per pound in the fertilizer.
  • So, using the previous examples, a five-year-old apple tree needs 0.5 lb of nitrogen. The E.B. Stone Fruit Tree Fertilizer has an N-value of 7 on the package, meaning it has 0.07 lb nitrogen per pound of fertilizer. Half a pound, or 0.5 lb, divided by 0.07 lb equals 7 lbs. The answer–7 pounds–is the amount of this fertilizer to apply to the tree.

Step Five: Applying the Fertilizer

To help the tree “eat” the fertilizer most efficiently, apply the fertilizer evenly starting a foot away from the trunk and continue all the way to the “drip line.”  The drip line is the perimeter of the tree’s furthest reaching branches.

  • The easiest way to do this is simply by spreading the fertilizer on the ground and raking it in.
  • Digging a series of small holes is another method of applying fertilizer. It is a bit more work, but it best ensures the fertilizer is getting to the tree roots, especially when using a fertilizer containing less-soluble nutrients like phosphorus and mycorrhizae.
  • Dig the holes six inches down and 12” to 18” apart, throughout the same area as you would have spread the fertilizer. To make the digging job easy you can use an auger attachment with a cordless drill. Sprinkle a little bit of fertilizer in each hole until it is used up.
  • Once you have finished fertilizing, spread an inch-deep layer of compost around the tree and water well.

Resources

For more information on all aspects of fruit trees—selecting and planting a bare root, pruning, controlling pests, and even how to preserve your harvest—browse our videos and articles in Fruit Tree Central. Some staff-favorite books on fruit trees are The Home Orchard from UC Davis, along with The Fruit Grower’s Bible and Landscaping With Fruit.

Keep on living the dream with your organic orchard, now that you know when and how to fertilize your fruit trees.

 

  Comments (20)

W

So, according to your calculations, you are using 7 lbs of fertilizer for a 5 year old apple tree. If I used your Citrus and Fruit Tree Food 7-3-3, a 4 lb box, I would be using up almost two boxes of fertilizer! This somehow doesn’t seem correct. Please clarify.

Posted by Wendy A McKeown on Mar. 26, 2017 at 8:37:53 AM

Wendy, the calculation is correct for that size of tree and how fast it is growing. You can use other fertilizers that have a higher N, so you won’t need to add so much fertilizer.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 04, 2017 at 1:55:20 PM

T

Thank you for the great article. We have apples that are forming on the trees nicely. Based on your article I should not add any fertilizer at all? Even just a little teeny bit?  Would just a little fertilizer perhaps produce larger, sweeter, juicier apples? 

Is there anything you can think of that we can add at this stage of things, middle of summer, that will result in really nice large, sweet, juicy apples?

Thanks!
Tom

Posted by Tdors on Jul. 30, 2017 at 10:45:03 AM

Tdors, you can add a fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus level than the nitrogen. Here is the link to our page that you can find a fertilizer with a higher level of phosphorus than nitrogen, https://www.groworganic.com/natural-and-organic-fertilizers/nutrient-specific-fertilizers/high-phosphorus-fertilizer.html. Keep in mind that it does take time for the tree to actually take up the fertilizer, so not sure how far along your trees are, or if they actually need additional fertilizer. But one very important thing to do to get larger fruit is to make sure that you thin it in June. If the tree is not thinned the fruit may not get really big.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Jul. 31, 2017 at 9:20:22 AM

D

I recently moved into a house where the previous owner did not take care of his fruit trees. After pruning them back, I can tell they’re still very much alive. The thought of having a lime, orange, lemon and a guava tree in my backyard, is exciting. However, Living in a HOA for the past 40 years, I am clueless on how to render care to my new trees. Can you provide some basic “how to” rules and regs on fertilizer(s) etc., I should be using for my new roommates?  Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by Diane Wilson on Feb. 02, 2018 at 7:47:08 AM

Diane, you can fertilize your trees in the spring with a fruit tree fertilizer, you could also fertilize with a fertilizer without nitrogen in the fall, like our Foothill Fertilizer mix, without nitrogen. You just don’t want to put a bunch of nitrogen on the trees late in the season. That will stimulate new growth and it may not get hardended off before cold weather, and end up getting damaged by the frost. If you have citrus, use a citrus fertilizer in the spring or early summer.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Feb. 09, 2018 at 11:27:46 AM

R

I have more of a question than a comment. I have a pomagranate tree that’s at least 20 ft tall and approx. 7 yrs. Old. Very year it produces blooms but the all fall off. Had a couple get approx. 1 inch fruit. Then they fall off. I live in NW Florida. What could be the reasons I have no fruit?

Posted by RACHELLE on Feb. 19, 2018 at 6:22:07 PM

Rachelle, there could be several reasons why your flowers are dropping and the fruit is not developing to maturity. If the flowers do not get pollinated, then they will fall off (female flowers). So not sure how your pollinators are around your area, but you might want to plant some flowers to attract them. You might want to fertilize with a good fertilizer that is lower in nitrogen and higher in phosphorus and potassium. Another thing is your tree should be in full sun. They like hot dry summers and not sure you get that in Florida. The soil should be well draining. Hope that helps.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Feb. 20, 2018 at 11:27:27 AM

I

I had no idea that you need to fertilize fruit trees. I just moved into a home that has peach trees in the backyard. So, I am glad that you talked about how you shouldn’t fertilize right next to the trunk of the tree.

Posted by Ivy Baker on Feb. 20, 2018 at 7:16:17 PM

G

I have chicken manure, should I just spread it around the trees with the straw?

Posted by gary on Feb. 26, 2018 at 7:08:02 AM

Gary, you should compost your chicken manure before working it around your trees. May be too “hot” if you do not.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Feb. 26, 2018 at 9:56:22 AM

S

How about fertilizer for the dwarf nectarine and apricot trees?  They are both five years old, about an inch and a half in diameter, and 4-5’ tall (above the soil level in the pots).  The pots are about 3 feet in diameter.

It seems the Nitrogen focused fertilizer in Spring is to encourage growth, and I am not sure if I really want a whole lot of growth! 

Thank you!

Posted by Saina on Mar. 16, 2018 at 12:28:29 PM

Saina, you can use a good quality, and organic, fertilizer that is recommended for fruit trees. You do need to fertilize more often since the trees are in pots and just follow the label on the fertilizer that you choose. You would want to give a fertilizer that has less nitrogen and more phosphorus and potassium.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Mar. 24, 2018 at 4:57:45 PM

D

I have apple trees which were mature when we moved into the house 34 years ago, trees are probably at least 50 years old. I have done occasional pruning and nothing else! We get a useful crop form most.

1 Should I fertilise the trees?
2 They are now surrounded by lawn.
3 How long, or to what age, are apple trees viable?

Thank you.

Posted by Davidmartin30@hotmail.com on Apr. 15, 2018 at 7:30:10 AM

P

I have a pear and a Apple tree in tubs both are 3 year old what is the right amount of fertilizer and what type should I use.  Please can you help me on this thank you Peter
I also have two grape Vines One of them has been transferred from another garden which could be about six years old just been replanted in A plastic plasters bath which has two small drain holes in the bottom last year it was planted it just produced leaves no grapes but otherwise did well it has just shown a little sign it is coming to life what is the best way to look after this please I also have a grape vine That is in the second year in a 2 ft.²  lined drywall bricks I have nowhere else to put them thank you Peter

Posted by Peter on Apr. 15, 2018 at 7:30:20 AM

Peter, on your trees in tubs, you can use a fruit tree fertilizer and follow the label instructions for how much and how often to fertilize. Grapes don’t need much fertilizer, if you just transplanted them, it will take some time for them to recover and start producing fruit. Make sure where you are planting your grapes that is is well drained. They don’t tolerate being wet all the time. We have a two great videos on winter pruning and summer pruning grapes. Proper pruning will also help with fruit production.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 18, 2018 at 10:23:29 AM

David, your trees will benefit from at least yearly fertilizing with a fruit tree fertilizer. Follow the label instructions for how much to apply. According to Dave Wilson’s site: Productivity of Apple and Pear, standard is 20 to 40 years; Apple and Pear, semi-dwarf is 15 to 25 years. Your tree can live much longer, but just might not produce as much.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 18, 2018 at 10:28:07 AM

M

Hi GO team,
My Fig tree has just been uncovered and all looks good. There is nothing weird going on…
Past years, I’ve gotten lots of leaves and underdeveloped fruit which doesn’t ripen by November here in zone 7a.
I’ve read on your forum that there may be too much nitrogen in the soil. Would that mean a PH over 7? Or over 8?
What can I do to remediate?
Thanks!
MJ

Posted by MJ Ramos on Apr. 26, 2018 at 11:51:31 AM

MJ, Figs really love the heat and it is possible that they are just not getting enough of it and long enough growing season in zone 7. Not all figs will do well in zone 7, so also depends on the variety you have planted. Is your tree in full sun? Have you gotten a soil test done? If you are not getting your fruit to full development may be a result of several reasons, one being the length of your growing season and the other a deficiency of phosphorus.

Posted by Suzanne at GrowOrganic.com on Apr. 27, 2018 at 2:13:31 PM

M

Great information. Thank you.

Posted by Melanie on May. 14, 2018 at 10:11:59 AM

+ Show More Comments

Leave a Comment

3