Tree Fruit


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    Tree Fruit

    Fruit that grow on trees, tree fruits, are some of the delicious delights of summer and fall.  Tree fruits include apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears, and plums.  Many Utah gardeners have a fruit tree or two in their back yard.  These trees can add beauty to the landscape and provide fully ripe fruit for fresh eating and preserving. 

    Before purchasing and planting fruit trees, consider whether you have the space, time and expertise needed to grow and care for them.  Because they are long-lived woody perennials, wise planning and preparation will avoid errors that can continue for many years.  Fruit trees require much timely annual effort in pruning and pest management.  Neglected trees may still produce some fruit, but it will likely be of poor quality. 

    This guide is to help backyard gardeners make good decisions before trees are planted and to provide the best possible care for existing fruit trees.

    Site Selection and Preparation

    Once fruit trees are planted, it is not easy to move them to a more desirable location.  Therefore, it is important to establish the planting in a well-prepared, suitable site. Urban and suburban gardeners have to make the best use of the limited land they have.  The best site for fruit trees is gently sloping land so that cold air can settle into adjacent lower areas.  The bottoms of valleys are frost pockets and may be several degrees colder that nearby hillsides in midwinter and on spring mornings.  This may determine whether cold tender buds and flowers are damaged by cold or if they survive to produce fruit. 

    Fruit trees require full sunlight at least three-quarters of the day.  Shady locations are not suitable.  Obtaining adequate sunlight is perhaps the most important consideration for fruit production.

    Fruit trees grow best in fertile loam soils, but they will grow in all but the rockiest or heaviest clay soils.  The soil must have good internal water drainage.  Fruit trees won’t grow with “wet feet”.

    Once you have a location selected, begin to prepare the site.  Control perennial weeds either by tillage or with the use of non-selective herbicides.  Take a soil test of the location to a depth of six inches and follow the soil test recommendations.  Add any recommended phosphorus fertilizer before planting and incorporate it into the soil.  Add organic matter such as manure, compost, or peat moss to improve soil fertility, tilth, aeration, and water holding capacity.  Incorporate the organic matter into the soil with a roto-tiller, shovel, or digging fork. 

    Space Requirements

    Depending on the crop and the rootstock, fruit trees can require a fair bit of room.  The amount of space required can be reduced when dwarfing rootstocks are available and used.  The table below lists approximate space requirements for tree fruits.


    Approximate space (sq.ft)

    Apple (dwarf)

     < 100

    Apple (semi-dwarf)


    Apple (standard)










    Sweet cherry


    Tart cherry


    The Fruit Tree

    Fruit trees are composed of two parts: the above ground scion that produces fruit and the below ground rootstock.  Both parts are vitally important for successful fruit production.  None of the tree fruits will readily produce rooted plants from cuttings, so they are propagated by grafting or budding the scion cultivar onto a specially selected and grown rootstock.  Both parts, scion and rootstock, are equally important.

    Rootstocks can control tree size.  Rootstocks for apple trees can produce very small trees that may not exceed 6 feet in height or very large trees that are 30 or more feet tall.  Dwarfing rootstocks are preferred when they are available.  Apples, pears, and sweet cherries are available grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks.  Dwarfing rootstocks are not available for peaches, apricots, and plums, but these trees naturally do not generally grow as large as apples or sweet cherries. 

    Fruit tree roots tend to be shallow and well branched.  The roots have roughly the same horizontal spread as the branches.  Most of the active roots are found in the top 12 inches of soil where there is adequate moisture, oxygen, and nutrients.  Roots won’t tolerate overly wet soil.

    Apples and pears produce flowers and fruit at the ends of branches.  Apple trees may be spur types where fruit are borne on short shoots called spurs.  Spur-type trees tend to be smaller than standard types.  Apricots, cherries, peaches, and plums (collectively called stone fruits because of the hard pit in the middle of the fruit) bear fruit on the sides of branches.  Peaches and plums need to be pruned heavily each year to provide new growth that will produce fruit the following year.  Cherries and apricots are more inclined to produce fruit on spurs on 2-year-old and older branches.

    Fruit trees usually have a main trunk and side branches that are called scaffold branches.  The trunk and scaffolds are permanent features of the tree.  Small branches that bear fruit are renewed by removing larger, older branches in a way so that new branches will be produced in the same area.

    Procuring Trees

    Fruit trees are available from local nurseries and garden centers and via mail order nurseries.  Mail order nurseries generally have a broader selection of cultivars and rootstocks, but they can’t offer guidance about what cultivars and rootstocks will do best in local conditions.  Mail order nurseries generally sell bare-root trees that were dug in the fall and stored through the winter.  They ship in the spring according to zip code with warmer areas receiving trees before cooler northern areas.  Local nurseries generally sell containerized trees growing in pots.  Either type is suitable. 

    Expect to pay between $25 and $50 plus shipping for good quality trees.  Tree caliper (size) should be 5/8 inch or larger.  Well branched trees are preferred, but unbranched trees are acceptable.  Larger and branched trees will cost more than unbranched (whip) trees.

    Planting the Tree

    Trees should be planted in the spring after the danger of frost in your local area has passed.  Depending on your location, that usually ranges from early to late April.  Newly planted trees can handle a light frost (28°F) without injury. 

    Bare root

    If trees arrive from the nursery before they can be planted in your area, keep them in a cool place but don’t allow them to freeze or dry out.  Open the container and make sure the roots are still moist.  If not, add a small amount of water to moisten the roots, but don’t saturate them.  You may soak the roots in a bucket of water for 2-3 hours prior to planting. 

    Potted trees

    Potted trees can be kept for 2-3 weeks in the container.  Potted trees will need regular water, but be careful not to overwater.  The soil should dry slightly between waterings.  Remove the tree from the pot before planting and spread the roots.  If the roots circle the inside of the container, make several vertical cuts through the outer layers.  Don’t entirely dismantle the root ball.

    When you are ready to plant the tree, dig a hole large enough to accommodate the roots without bending or cutting them.  If one root is very long it can be shortened, but in general don’t prune the roots.  The hole should be deep enough so the entire root system will be in the ground.  Don’t add fertilizer or organic material to the soil that is put back into the hole.  Fill using the soil removed from the hole and gently pack it with your foot to ensure good contact between the roots and the soil.  Water the tree immediately!

    The depth of planting depends on the type of tree and whether it is planted on a dwarfing rootstock or not.  Trees that are grafted to a dwarfing rootstock (most apples and pears) should be planted so that the graft union is 2 to 3 inches above the final soil line.  For these trees the scion must not be in contact with the soil or the scion will root and the dwarfing influence of the rootstock will be lost.  For trees on seedling rootstocks or non-dwarfing rootstocks (most stone fruits) the graft union should be at or near the final soil level. 

    Young trees should be staked at planting.  Suitable staking materials include ¾ inch electrical conduit, pressure treated 2x2 lumber or 2 or 3 inch round wood stakes.  Drive the stake 3 to 4 inches from the tree to a depth of at least 2 feet.  Using light rope, tape, or fabric strips, tie the tree loosely to the stake in a figure eight pattern where the tie crosses between the stake and the tree.  This will hold the tree away from the stake allowing branches to grow on the stake side of the tree.  The stake should be left in place for the life of the tree.  The stake stabilizes the graft union, prevents wind whipping, and supports the central leader of the tree.


    In Utah’s arid climate irrigation is essential.  During the first year from planting, young fruit trees should receive 3-5 gallons of twice a week.  Sprinkler or drip irrigation may be enough.  You’ll want to check the soil to ensure that it is moist to a depth of 6-8 inches near the tree.  Deep watering is essential to root development. 

    In subsequent years, trees will need to receive 1-3 inches of water per week during the dry summer months and into the fall.  Don’t reduce water in the fall until the leaves have dropped from the trees.  Irrigation can be suspended following significant rain storms.

    Mineral Nutrition

    Like all plants, fruit trees require some essential mineral elements in order to grow.  Have your garden soil tested the year before planting fruit trees and incorporate recommended fertilizer to a depth of at least 6 inches with a shovel, fork, or tiller.  Micronutrients such as zinc, boron, and copper are not required in great amounts, and fertilizing with these nutrients is usually not required in Utah.  Utah’s alkaline (high pH) soils make soil iron unavailable for plant growth.  This often leads to the leaves turning yellow between the leaf veins. This is called iron chlorosis and it is very common in Utah.  Chelated iron products can help.  They can be applied to the soil and incorporated or they can be mixed in water and sprayed on the foliage.  It will take some time (a couple of weeks) before improvement is typically seen.  Annual iron applications are usually required.

    Nutrients can be applied as liquids, granules, or manures.  Granular fertilizer is usually the least expensive form.  Incorporate granular fertilizer by tilling the soil or watering within 24 hours of application to get fertilizer into the soil.  Liquids can be applied with a hose-end applicator or watering can.  Dilute liquid fertilizers according to package directions.  Manures are typically low in mineral content and should be aged before shallowly incorporating them. 

    Several weeks after planting, a light application of a nitrogen containing-fertilizer can be made.  Apply the fertilizer evenly around the drop line of the tree (the ground area under the canopy).  The rule of thumb is to apply 1 ounce of actual nitrogen to each tree per year of tree age, but not to exceed ½ pound of actual nitrogen.  Be sure to include any fertilizer applied to lawns under trees in the total annual amount.

    To calculate the amount of fertilizer to apply, divide the actual nitrogen needed by the percentage of nitrogen in the fertilizer.  For example, a 3-year-old tree should receive three ounces of actual nitrogen.  To calculate how much ammonium sulfate (which is 20% nitrogen) to apply, divide 3 ounces by 0.2 for a total application of 14 ounces of fertilizer through a year.

    You may need to adjust the standard nitrogen application based on the tree’s growth.  Shoots on young trees typically grow 15-20 inches through the year, while shoots on bearing trees should grow 8-12 inches annually.  If growth is less than this, add additional nitrogen.  If growth is more than normal, don’t apply any nitrogen for a year.

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