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When To Give Up On A Fruit Tree

Are fruit trees hard to grow? Wanting so badly to produce as much of our own food as possible, I didn’t delve into this question nearly as deeply as I should have before going out and buying over $600 worth of fruit canes, vines, bushes, and trees. I believed it was just a matter of making sure they had enough sun, water, fertilizer, and pruning to get all the fruit we would ever need.

Five years later, and I’ve realized that the question shouldn’t be, “Are fruit trees hard to grow?”, but, “How hard is it to get fruit trees to produce?”

The answer is twofold: not as easy as the nursery catalogs make it sound; and, it depends on where you live.

Peach tree loaded with fruit – something I’ve never seen, and a dream I’m giving up on.

Maybe you’re like me and were overly enthusiastic about growing your own fruit, and now find yourself with several trees, bushes, or vines that are not producing nearly as much as you thought they would. Or they get a disease or pest every year before the fruit has a chance to mature.

We want to hang onto our food crops, and give them second, third, and fourth chances to provide for us. After all, we paid good money for those plants! But at some point, you’re going to have to admit that you wasted your money purchasing something that just doesn’t do well in your area.

How do you know when it’s time to admit defeat? I’ll give you some guidelines, while telling you the story of the Great Mini-Dwarf Peach-Nectarine Tree Failure.

The beginning

A couple of years before moving onto our five acres, I bought a bunch of fruit plants and put them all in containers to await the Big Move. Four were mini-dwarf peach-nectarine combo trees. Grow them in a twenty-gallon container, the nursery said, or space them four feet apart because they’ll never get taller than five feet and the roots will stay small.

Two unpruned peach trees on the left, two on the right pruned down to about six feet high. So you see how huge they were getting.

The year before we moved, the roots of two of the trees were growing out of the bottom of the twenty-gallon fabric pots. Hmm. Are they supposed to do that? Maybe I needed a thirty or forty gallon container?

The middle

We moved, and eventually planted the peach trees in the ground. In the meantime, the roots of all of the trees had torn out the bottom of the pots. And the trunks seemed to be getting suspiciously large for mini-dwarf trees.

So we planted them about six feet apart. Just in case.

The next summer, the new growth well surpassed the five foot maximum height. I called the nursery and asked their on-staff horticulturalist about it.

“It sounds like they lost their mini-dwarf root graft,” she answered in surprise.

Long pause. “Uh…they can lose their root graft?”

Sure enough, they can. And did.

As did half of my mini-dwarf apple trees.

Our peach trees, planted ten feet away from the house and only six feet away from each other, were starting to grow into regular-sized trees.

Pro tip: do NOT buy mini-dwarf trees!!

About an hour ago, this naked peach tree…

…was about the size of, and had as much foliage as, the tree next to it.

The result of this loss is that every summer, I’ve had to spend time cutting the trees back to the height I want them. In the miserable summer humidity.

Which brings me to reason number one to give up on a fruit tree:

It’s causing you a lot more work than you bargained for. (And you can afford to buy fruit from the store, so it’s really not worth the headache.)

But I was okay with doing this annual severe pruning, if it would only produce fruit. Long story short, in five years I haven’t gotten more than a dozen ripe fruit off of four trees – and most of them have come off a single tree. It wasn’t because I didn’t thin them, or didn’t fertilize them. One of the major culprits is the fungus it gets every year due to the high humidity where we live.

That leads us to the second reason to give up on a fruit tree:

It’s prone to destructive disease or pests in your area.

Second pro tip: just because a nursery catalog says something will grow in your growing zone, doesn’t mean it will be healthy in the particular climate you live in.

This year, despite all the flowers that appeared on all four trees, most flowers fell off, fruitless, and of the fruit that began to grow, most of it shriveled up before getting two inches in diameter.

This was because with all the rain we’ve been getting – especially in February and March, which is when peach trees are in bloom here – the bees didn’t come out to pollinate.

I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Oh, well. So we pollinate by hand from now on.”

The end

Except.

I kept looking out the window, and watching how the peach tree branches were growing wider and taller than ever. The trees were already middle-aged, and hadn’t produced jack-nothin’. I gave them second and third chances. I wanted to be able to focus my time and energy on the plants that were producing, not keep hoping for fruit from seven-year-old trees that had barely ever given me anything.

Third reason to give up on a fruit tree:

It’s not producing, no matter how well you follow the rules of caring for it.

Right now, we’re in the process of taking out our peach trees. They’re not the first fruit plants we’ve given up on, and I don’t think they’ll be the last.

More than half of the branches I pruned off.

Close-up of the above pile.

Yet another pile from the same peach tree.

We’ve spent a lot of money learning the answer to, “Are fruit trees hard to grow?” Any plant that bears a sweet fruit comes with challenges, some more than others.

If your fruit tree in question:

  1. is causing you a lot more work than you thought it would (and you can’t/don’t want to do that work);
  2. is overcome by pests or disease every single year to the extent that it destroys the harvest before you can get anything out of it; and/or
  3. it’s well past the age of beginning to produce, but it just doesn’t, no matter what you do right,

it may be time to say good-bye and turn the tree into firewood. Or compost. Or just a brush pile.

If you learn nothing else from this post, learn this:

Never, EVER, buy a mini-dwarf fruit tree!

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