This is one of the most frequent questions we are asked. The answer is not straightforward as there are many factors that affect when a young fruit tree will start to produce fruit.
Age when fruiting begins - apple trees
Most apple trees will start to produce fruit in their 3rd or 4th year - but this can vary greatly.
Age when fruiting begins - plums, cherries, pear trees
Plums, cherries, and pears usually start fruiting in their 4th year.
The rootstock on which the fruit tree is grafted has a very significant effect on the age when it will start bearing fruit.
In the case of apple trees the rootstock influence alone can cause the same variety to start fruiting in a range from approximately 2 - 7 years.
The rootstock effect is less prominent with other fruit tree species but still considerable.
The rule of thumb here is that the more vigorous the rootstock the longer it will take the tree to come into bearing. So if you want to have your own apples as soon as possible, choose the M27, G.65, G.11, G.16, G.41, M9 or Bud.9 rootstock - it will never be a big tree, but you will almost certainly get apples within 1-2 years.
The more vigorous rootstocks such as MM111, Bud.118, and M25 produce much larger trees, so it is perhaps not surprising that they take longer to come into bearing - they need time to reach their full size.
Other factors affecting the start of fruiting
After the rootstock, the next most important factor is probably the individual variety or cultivar. Some fruit tree varieties are naturally precocious, which means they will start to fruit at a younger age. This tends to be a quality in modern commercial apple varieties, since the earlier the tree starts bearing the earlier the owner starts to get a return on his investment. Granny Smith and Braeburn are precocious, as is the well-known English Conference pear.
Conversely, some varieties are naturally slow to come into bearing - a number of well-known traditional American varieties fall into this category, such as Northern Spy, and Wolf River. Using precocious rootstocks and other techniques can help to encourage these reluctant varieties to get into fruiting earlier - or of course you can just let them come along at their own pace.
How can I encourage my new tree to fruit sooner?
If you have a semi-vigorous or vigorous fruit tree and it is still not fruiting, there are several things you can do:
Firstly, in spring, tie any new shoots down to a horizontal position whilst they are young and whippy. The easiest way to do this is to plant a tall bamboo cane alongside the branch and gently tie the branch down to the cane. It won't look pretty but after a few months you should be able to remove the cane and the branch will stay in position.
The reason this works is that the act of tying the branch down simulates the weight of ripening fruit on the branch - and this in turn encourages the tree to set fruit buds over the summer which will produce blossom and fruit the next year. This technique works particularly well with apple trees.
Secondly, don't prune the tree. Pruning will either simply encourage the tree to put on more growth, or in some cases you may accidentally cut off the fruit buds that will form next year's crop. It is worth remembering that next year's blossom (and hence next year's fruit) is formed the preceding summer.
Don't over-feed the tree. One application of general plant food in spring is sufficient, along with watering when required. Over-feeding generally causes the tree to produce more branches and leaves, not more fruit.
Use a mulch around the base of the tree to suppress competing weeds.
Make sure the tree gets plenty of sunlight over the summer.
Is it wrong to encourage early fruiting?
Most gardening books stress the importance with young apple trees of picking off any fruitlets that form in the first few years after planting. The reason for this is to encourage the tree to develop its full branch framework before fruiting begins.
However for apple trees on vigorous and semi-vigorous rootstocks you don't have to do this if you don't want to wait. Allowing the tree to set fruit earlier is fine, but may cause the tree to grow more slowly than it otherwise would. This can sometimes work to your advantage - if you think the tree might eventually get too big for your garden, encouraging early fruiting is a good way to keep it under control, and probably more effective than pruning. In simple terms, if the tree is fruiting, it has less spare energy to put into growing bigger.
The exception to this principle is young trees on the very low-vigour rootstocks such as M27, G65, M9, Bud. 9, G11, G16. Trees on these rootstocks really need to be allowed to reach their full size before you allow fruiting, otherwise they may 'runt out' and stop growing altogether. The rule of thumb with these rootstocks is you should prevent fruiting in the first and second year by removing any fruitlets, so that the tree can continue to grow.
Why can't I buy a mature fruit tree?
We are often asked why we only sell very young fruit trees. Many customers would like to buy a 5-year old mature fruit tree that would be guaranteed to fruit the following summer.
The main reason we don't sell trees this old is because fruit trees can only be transplanted reliably from the nursery to your garden or orchard when they are immature. In fact the younger the tree the better - a 1-year 'maiden' tree will invariably establish quicker and grow away better in the spring than an older tree.
Even if mature fruit trees were available, they would almost certainly not fruit straight after planting, and without specialist planting and care in the first year after planting might not survive at all.
Customers often say that they have heard of mature ornamental trees being transplanted, and wonder why mature fruit trees can't also be transplanted. Part of the answer is simple market forces and supply and demand, but it is also partly because ornamental trees are usually not grafted on to size-controlling rootstocks and therefore reach maturity later, so the check to growth from the transplanting process is less.
How do I know the age of my apple tree?
We always state the age of the tree when we supply it - usually this will be a 1-year (maiden) or 2-year tree. If you can't remember how old your tree was, just contact us and we will have the details.
To keep it simple you can assume all trees have a 'birthday' in November, and the tree's age is basically the number of summers which it has been growing. So to work out the age of your tree just add the age of the tree when purchased to the number of whole years since the November of the year in which you purchased it.