Fertilizing fruit trees: sorting out conflicting advice

central_valley(9)April 4, 2012

I'm looking for some perspective on how to fertilize temperate-climate fruit trees (apples, pears, plums, etc).

I'm in the Sacramento Valley, and my usual reference for garden matters is the ag extension web site from the University of California at Davis. The page I found there told me to use either compost or a pure nitrogen fertilizer such as urea, and gave quantity guidelines.

When I mentioned this to my wife, she said flatly that I got it wrong. She pointed out that the special fruit tree fertilizer we used last year was 12-4-8, and said that a nitrogen-only fertilizer would produce lots of leaves but no fruit.

I went back to the web site to see how I had misunderstood it. I hadn't. Then I looked at some other sites and got recommendations that were all over the map. The University of Colorado agreed that I should use nitrogen only. Another ag extension recommended 10-10-10. Another site (not one I'd consider very reliable) said 0-6-8.

I could explain moderately different recommendations by differences in local climate and prevailing soil conditions, but I can't stretch that to cover urea fertilizer and 10-10-10, much less 0-6-8.

Can anyone clarify what I should use on our fruit trees, and why I'm finding such wildly different recommendations?

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Randy31513(Georgia 8b)

It is a matter of perceptive. Urea is used to help breakdown fallen fruit and leaves and such to reduce the possibility of that being a source of inoculation and let be part of the fertilizer program. If you keep a clean orchard floor that will do the same thing but without the benefit of the nitrogen.

10-10-10 I think is often suggested because it is a common type and easy to get. Any other types specified are probably meant to be area specific albeit all in place of soil sampling.

From a Home orchard standpoint it breaks down to what is economical and practical. Soil samples is still a good idea. At present I don't fertilize grown trees because they produce well for my home needs without fertilizer.

That's take on it.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 2:00PM
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dmtaylor(5a (WI))

Don't mean to hijack, but personally I am curious whether timing may have any role in fruiting versus vegetative growth. Some sources seem to indicate that you'll get better fruiting out of a malnourished tree, versus a tree that gets too much fertilizer which will just want to grow grow grow and not fruit as much since it's not under as much stress to do so. Stress, sunlight, and near-horizontal branches are what produces fruit, as far as I can tell.

So, if I want a bit of fruit on my young trees, but I still want them to grow vegetatively as well, should I hold back from any nitrogen additions until fruit set has occurred to promote that piece, then blast with a pound or two of 10-10-10 or even higher nitrogen-content fertilizer to promote additional vegetative growth? Is it possible to get the best of both worlds in a single season this way?

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 3:15PM
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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Fruit trees in almost any soil will produce fruit with just nitrogen fertilizer. Mine have for 40+ years. But some soils might need other nutrients. A soil test is the way to find out.

The mistake many make is thinking more is better. So they over fertilize and over water. That's one reason store bought fruit is big and tasteless. Fruit quality will be better with moderate tree vigor. So get a soil test, add a little as recommended, and then watch the trees. Don't apply more unless growth is inadequate.

I'm growing the best fruit I've ever eaten in my greenhouse on trees that haven't been fertilized in 7 years.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 3:37PM
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The reason you see so many different recommendations and perspectives is 3 things...

There are SO many different soil types and climates across the USA.... Each type and climate takes a little different care regimen...
There are so many Universities and master gardener programs that have done research and have decided what THEY like to do best....
Market prices are HIGHER for larger, more colorful fruit (That might taste like cardboard).... Larger fruit can be pushed with lots and lots of Nitrogen...

So... Best thing to do....

Get a soil test performed by a reputable lab that participates in the program where they send samples back and forth to review the analysis results for consistency...

Amend per the recommendations....

But.. Also pay attention to where in the fruit tree's life cycle you are.... A young tree needs to put on size so it's stronger and better able to resist bugs and such... An older, mature tree doesn't.... Too much nitrogen on an old tree only produces big, watery fruit and fungus problems...

Also know that the root depth is much farther down than you can easily amend.... It's not easy to get amendments down 3' to 4' down to counter some deficiency in the subsoil... but luckily, trees will absorb a lot of that stuff through the leaves or through the fine roots in the top few inches of the soil....

And.. I suppose decide whether you want big, watery fruit or smaller, more intensely flavored fruit.... I know what I want....


    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 5:01PM
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Big, waxy, expensive, watery, testeless fruit is why people are looking to farmers markets and growing their own. Growing it might make this year's profit a little better but its nothing to be proud of and in the long term you will find there are no more customers.

This fruit is the reason I've stopped shopping at my local "high end" grocery store. Instead, every weekend I make a 30 minute treck to parts of the city I don't feel safe in just to get fruit with spots that tastes like it came from a tree rather than a lab.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 9:02AM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

"tastes like it came from a tree rather than a lab."

That made me laugh. I'll have to remember that one.

"Growing it might make this year's profit a little better but its nothing to be proud of and in the long term you will find there are no more customers."

I do think there is too much emphasis on yield in commercial production. It's not surprising. When most commercial growers are selling wholesale, the product is looked at as a commodity (i.e. it's all the same). When producing a commodity, the highest production generally receives the greatest reward.

This has been occurring for a long time and only in the last decade have grocer's been losing fruit customers. In previous decades they had customers well trained to accept fruit of poor eating quality.

Unfortunately, for wholesale fruit growers, the model still hasn't changed. Apples are still graded as #1, Fancy, Xtra Fancy. The grades are based on size and color. Wholesale growers are still paid based on that criteria. They do test sugar level, and firmness, but in my opinion the standards are pretty low (11 brix for most apples).

To be fair, in a way I think there are more demands placed on commercial growers. People want Galas in April. That apple probably isn't going to taste that great after 8-9 months in storage. In our household, we sometimes buy grapes in the winter. In that case, it's not the grower's fault they taste like crap.

A few years ago a large wholesale peach grower in MO told me his customers were always fussing he was picking his peaches too late. He wanted to leave them on the tree longer, but his customers wanted more self-life.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 11:20PM
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A Latin American fruit grower who apparently exports to both the US and Europe was quoted in a news story I saw as saying, "Americans buy with their eyes," with Europeans presumably more interested in taste and fragrance.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 9:12AM
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