After moving into a century-old house, it didn’t take long for me to discover the benefits of having mature fruit trees and vines. Season after season they give — and we can take. But I’ve learned that for an optimal fruit harvest, they do require some knowledge of fruit tree and vine care.
If you’ve recently inherited established fruit trees or vines, here is what you need to know.
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Many specifics of plant care vary by geographic location, such as when to prune, how to water appropriately, and how to protect against pests and adverse weather conditions. So after mastering the principles in this article, it’s a good idea to pinpoint information about your specific area and even connect with local experts. You can start by talking to your neighbors about how they care for their plants and what they recommend based on their experiences.
This map of the nation’s land-grant universities can help you locate the nearest USDA-sponsored University Extension office. Most Extension programs offer gardening classes, printed materials, and walk-in hours with agriculture specialists.
For already established plants, pruning is the key to fruit tree and vine care.
Why prune? Pruning is what stimulates a tree to break dormancy and start new growth in the spring! When you prune, you maximize air exposure to prevent disease and sun exposure to activate photosynthesis. This, in turn, improves fruit quality and size.
While the specifics of pruning vary by the plant, some key points include the following:
- Prune yearly while the tree is dormant, in late winter or early spring.
- Remove dead or diseased branches, suckers, and water sprouts — fast-growing, non-fruit bearing new growth — whenever they appear, regardless of the season.
- Make a clean (not jagged) cut parallel to a bud at a 45-degree angle above the bud.
- Prune apples, pears, sweet cherries, and European plums according to the central leader structure with the main branch going straight up from the center.
- Prune apricots, nectarines, peaches, sour cherries, and Japanese plums according to the open center structure with the biggest branches growing at an angle from the center out.
- “Think twice, cut once!” But don’t be overly nervous about really paring down branches: experts agree that it is better to prune some than not at all.
Fruit Tree and Vine Care Specifics
These woody perennial vines thrive in full sun and are perfect for snacking or making juice or jelly. Flowers and fruits grow on new shoots from the trunk, called canes. Grapes need a trellis, arbor, stake, pergola, or fence to climb, so you may need to add one of these near your grapevine if the trunk is supported but the shoots have nowhere to go.
Prune your grapevine in the spring before any leaves emerge. Prune back the vertical canes, leaving two or three bud spurs four to six inches apart. Cut off any woody growth that isn’t producing. At the end of the pruning, it may look like your grapevine has gone through an extreme makeover, and you may even notice that your plant is crying (oozing with water) at the cut spur. But they’re happy tears. Heavy pruning yields the best fruit.
With over 2,000 varieties in the U.S. alone, apples are a favorite among fruit you can grow at home. But apple trees are a target of maggots and other pests, so it’s likely you’ll need to spray your tree with a lime-sulfur spray or other chemicals before the tree produces leaves.
Once apples have started forming, thin them within 20-40 days of full bloom spaced six to eight inches apart on the branch.
Using the central leader structure as your guide, prune apple trees in late winter or early spring. Prune to expose the tree to light and air and trim any branches that bend towards the ground. Remove broken, dead, or diseased branches exposed at the top of the canopy.
In general, pears should be pruned in late winter or early spring. While you should remove suckers and crossing branches whenever they appear, you shouldn’t remove more than 25 to 30 percent of the canopy in one season. If you’re dealing with a tree that hasn’t been pruned regularly, pruning may need to take place over a couple of years.
Pests are common to pear trees and include codling moths and spider mites. If spraying to prevent pests or fungal disease, spray before blossoms emerge.
Apricot trees blossom early in the spring, which makes them prone to damaging late winter frosts. Because of this, you’re not guaranteed a good apricot harvest every year.
But when it rains, it pours. This year, the Intermountain West had a mild, wet spring and the apricot trees were overflowing with fruit because of it. If you get lots of snow and rain, you only need to water a mature apricot tree a few times the entire summer. If you have a dry winter and spring, watering every 10-14 days is sufficient.
Prune your apricot tree starting in late August or early fall, after the fruit has all fallen, but don’t wait too long. The cuts need to heal before the rain and snowy seasons. Trim away dead, diseased, and drooping branches in addition to 60 to 80 percent of the previous year’s healthy growth. Thin apricots in late May while the fruit is immature.
Harvest apricots once they are colored and have a slight give in the skin. Apricots will ripen at room temperature once removed from the tree as long as they are not green. When in doubt, pick them earlier rather than later — before the birds do!
Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned a lesson in plant resilience, especially when it comes to bramble fruit like blackberries and raspberries. When I first saw my blackberry plant, then just a group of stumps a few inches tall, I mistook it for weeds. But my husband recognized its potential and coaxed it back to fruit production.
The first year, the plant’s primocane grows, and the second year, the primocane develops flowers and fruit, called floracane. Once the two-year-old floracane vine has flowered and produced, a new primocane comes up from the root system, preparing for fruit-bearing the following year.
Water mature blackberries just enough to keep the soil moist but not enough to cause rotting in the roots. This amounts to about one inch of water per week and twice that during the fruiting stage.
Blackberries should be pruned in the summer as soon as the last fruit has been picked. Cut the old canes and thin new shoots to improve the size and quality of the fruit on the remaining shoots. For semi-trailing blackberries, attach them with a soft string to the lattice or other climbing aid.
Crash Course in Fruit Tree and Vine Care
As you care for your mature fruit trees, you may find you love it so much that you want to plant a new one. Growing fruit can be intimidating if you lack experience or think gardening doesn’t come naturally to you. But a green thumb can be developed! With a bit of knowledge, patience, and grit, you’ll soon be enjoying the fruits of your labor.
Written by Rebecca Graham
Rebecca is a millennial mom with interests in the outdoors, home improvement, and physical, mental, and financial wellness. You can read more of her writing on Best Company’s Mortgages blog.