When to fertilize fruit trees?

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Since we’ve started adding more fruit-bearing trees to our yard, I’ve been wondering when to fertilize fruit trees. There’s definitely lots to learn, but now I’m confident my trees will remain happy, healthy, and well-fed!

The best time to fertilize fruit trees is in the spring. Early spring in particular is a great time to apply a balanced organic fertilizer. Avoid fertilizing fruit trees in the late summer and early fall.

Read on to learn what goes into planning when to feed fruit trees with fertilizer each year.

When to fertilize fruit trees

Seasonal considerations for annual spring fruit tree feeding

Feeding your fruit trees with fertilizer is a key part of springtime fruit tree maintenance. Fruit trees require a whole host of different nutrients to be healthy and produce fruit. A balanced organic fertilizer acts like a multivitamin for your trees.

Spring is the best time for fertilizing fruit trees because spring is when trees need plenty of energy to push out new leaves and nurture baby fruit. Feed the trees before they break from dormancy, during bud break, or during the growing season. June is really the last reasonable month to apply fertilizer. If it’s July or August already – you’re too late – wait for next spring.

Early springtime is the perfect time to feed fruit trees with fertilizer. An early spring feeding will ensure that the trees have adequate nutrients available as they break from winter dormancy and begin to grow blossoms and leaves. You can also feed other fruit plants like raspberries in the spring.

Fruit trees can be given a spring feeding while it still feels like wintertime, or they can be fed up to the point where they’ve blossomed and are starting to grow their green leaves. I prefer to apply organic fertilizer just before my fruit trees wake up from winter dormancy. I don’t get there in time every year, but my trees don’t seem to mind!

Using water soluble fertilizer for fruit trees
Does your fruit tree really need fertilizer? Or would it be better if you gave it a nice drink of water and sent it to bed?

Do you fertilize fruit trees in the fall?

Fertilizing home fruit trees in the fall is discouraged. Most fruit tree owners stop any type of feeding in the late fall and early winter. Fertilizing fruit trees encourages growth, which is the opposite of what we want the trees to be doing in the fall! Fruit trees should be closing shop for the winter.

In the fall, trees should be getting ready for the upcoming cold weather, not focusing on growing new branches and leaves. Any branches and leaves that grow in the fall may still be quite tender when cold weather hits, leaving them susceptible to winter damage.

Stop feeding trees in the fall and let the trees calmly enter winter dormancy. Step away from the fertilizer…Don’t encourage growth! Would you give a toddler sugar at bedtime?

Crabapple tree in fall
This is an ornamental crabapple tree. It gets high-nitrogen fertilizer to support healthy branches and leaf growth. High-nitrogen fertilizers can make a fruit tree grow so much that the fruits get robbed of nutrients. That’s not good for a tree growing a crop of edible apples, but it’s not such a worry for an ornamental fruit tree.

What kind of fertilizer is good for fruit trees?

Now that there’s no rush on fall fruit-tree feeding, there’s some time to get ready for a well-planned spring feeding. So what kind of fertilizer is good for fruit trees? Balanced organic fertilizers with a reasonable amount of nitrogen are best for fruit trees.

Soybean meal is a very popular option as it provides adequate nitrogen without the burn of chemical fertilizer. Too much nitrogen in fertilizer can make branches and leaves grow so vigorously that the fruit itself suffers. There are also specialized fruit tree fertilizers which are great if you aren’t fertilizing an entire orchard.

Always remember that it’s better to underfeed than overfeed, even with organic fertilizers. Your local ecosystem will thank you, and you’ll be less likely to get a tree with lots of new shoots that are more susceptible to damage down the road.

Spring fruit tree blossoms with honey bee
Fruit blossoms are one of the joys of spring! If you’re noticing that your tree is already blossoming, get on with the fertilizing! June is the last month to fertilize fruit trees. If it’s july already, i’d be waiting for early springtime next year.

Can you fertilize a fruit tree too often?

Can you overfeed a fruit tree? It is completely possible to fertilize a fruit tree too often. Fruit trees don’t require constant feeding. Once a year, in the spring, should be more than enough.

If you’re thinking about a second feeding, do a soil analysis first to make sure your fruit tree really does need a bit of a nutrient boost of some kind. Without a soil test, you’re pretty much flying blind. I like this article which reminds us why even the pros do soil tests of their home gardens!

It can actually be bad for the environment to over-fertilize. The excess fertilizer can enter groundwater and natural streams and mess with the balanced ecosystem. Basically…fertilizer can be a pollutant. That’s bad. Plus it’s bad for your wallet. Don’t over-fertilize.

Pear tree blossoms in spring
Here is a newly-planted chanticleer pear tree blossoming during its first spring in the ground. This fruit tree is grown as an ornamental rather than for its fruit (like a crabapple). It doesn’t need fertilizing yet, but if it does in future years, i won’t be too scared to apply a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer. Nitrogen encourages foliage over fruit…and that’s ok for a tree that isn’t going to bear edible fruit anyways.

Guidelines for fertilizing new fruit trees

So how do you fertilize a new fruit tree? Honestly, I wouldn’t fertilize a new fruit tree. It doesn’t need the distraction. It’s better to let the plant get used to its new environment and become established. Spend your time and effort keeping the soil adequately moist instead of focusing on fertilizer.

My preferred schedule is to plant a new fruit tree in early fall. Fall is nice because the heat of summer is gone but there’s still time for the roots to grow and establish. Then I feed the tree with a top dressing of compost in the early spring. I do fertilize the existing trees in our yard that grow decent crops of fruit, but I skip the new baby fruit trees for a couple of years.

If you’re planting a bare-root tree, it will be delivered during dormancy. Let it come out of dormancy and get its bearings. Keep the soil moist and observe the tree regularly. It may be ready for feeding in a year or two, but it also might thrive on its own. If you’re super-eager to feed your tree, consider a light top-dressing of homemade leaf compost instead of a store-bought fertilizer.

Growing a row of healthy fertilized apple trees
Here is a commercial apple orchard. This particular orchard does use limited amounts of fruit tree fertilizer but focuses more on making sure the apple trees have great access to the right amounts of moisture, air movement, and nutrients. This should be kept in mind, when trying to grow an apple tree organically at home. Feeding a tree that’s in a less-than-desirable environment won’t fix the problem. Plan your tree site wisely, as it’s impossible to correct errors now with just fertilizer later.

How do you fertilize fruit trees?

Fertilize fruit trees by applying a top dressing of compost (or applying an organic fertilizer) onto the ground under the canopy of the tree, particularly around the perimeter of the tree (drip line). Water in the fertilizer after application. Follow the instructions on the package of the specific product you’re using.

What is the best fertilizer for fruit trees?

The best fertilizer for fruit trees is often homemade organic compost. A store-bought slow-release fertilizer for fruiting trees is also a great option. Just be sure to follow the instructions on the package.

Mary Jane Duford
Mary Jane Duford

Mary Jane Duford is a gardening expert and founder of Home for the Harvest. She's also a professional engineer, certified permaculture garden designer, and master gardener in training. Mary Jane has been featured by publications such as Real Simple, Mother Earth News, Homes & Gardens, Heirloom Gardener, and Family Handyman.