If all goes well, you should harvest fruit like these apples two or three years after planting the tree. (Getty Images)

If all goes well, you should harvest fruit like these apples two or three years after planting the tree. (Getty Images)

Everything you never wanted to know about fruit tree pollination

If your trees are blooming and not setting fruit, the most likely culprit is poor pollination.

Growing fruit trees in the Northwest can be a very rewarding venture. There is nothing quite like going out to the back yard and picking a handful of tree-ripened cherries, a juicy Asian pear or Japanese plum. It just doesn’t get any fresher than “straight off the tree.”

That being said, when you’ve planted your trees and waited a couple of years for a crop and still nothing develops, disappointment is usually what you end up harvesting. If your trees are blooming and not setting fruit, the most likely culprit is poor pollination. Three things are usually the cause; lack of pollinators, improper varietal selection or late freezes. Let’s delve a little deeper into these three items.

When we talk about pollinators, we are usually referring to honeybees. Unless you have been living in a cave, you are probably aware of the plight of honeybees in the world. All sorts of things, such as extreme weather, loss of habitat, colony collapse disorder, pesticides and now murder hornets, are contributing to this crisis. As gardeners we can help honeybees by avoiding pesticides, especially when plants are in bloom, and increasing the variety of flowering plants in our gardens.

Other insects also can help with pollination, and the next best thing to a honeybee is our native mason bee. These little guys come out around March and do their work when it is too cold for the honeybees to fly. While most of us will never have honeybee hives in our gardens, we can easily encourage mason bees by installing mason bee houses on the south or east facing side of our homes or fences where the morning sun will warm them up and get them moving. Mason bee supplies, including actual sleeping mason bees, can be purchased from most garden centers. February is the ideal time to set them out.

As for varietal selections, things can get complicated. Some trees are what we call “self-fertile,” which simply means that the female part of the flower is compatible with the male pollen it produces, so it will pollinate itself and hence one tree is all you need. Peaches, apricots, nectarines, most newer varieties of cherries and European plums such as Italian prunes are all self-fertile.

Pears, apples and Japanese plums on the other hand require pollen from a different variety (but same kind of fruit) in order to set fruit. This is called “cross-pollination” because the pollen has to cross from one plant to another. In a few cases with certain varieties of apples, such as Gravenstein and Jonagold, their pollen is sterile and hence will not pollinate any other apple tree, so you can’t rely on them as a source of pollen. If you plant a Gravenstein you will actually need two additional different apple varieties so that everyone gets pollinated. I told you it can get complicated.

Finally, late-season freezes can destroy flower buds and ruin your crop for the whole year. Commercial growers have systems in place to protect from late freezes, but homeowners have few options. Keep a blanket handy if a hard freeze is in the forecast and hope for the best.

If you are planning on buying some fruit trees this spring, make sure you ask the salesperson if you need a pollinator and if so, which varieties work best. And don’t forget to plant them in a full sun location with good drainage. If all goes well, you should start enjoying a bounty of home-grown fruit in the second and third year from planting. Stay safe and keep on gardening.

Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com

Free class

Sunnyside’s next free online class is “PNW Fruit Trees” at 10 a.m. Jan. 29, in partnership with The Everett Clinic. For more information and to sign up, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.

Talk to us

More in Life

Photos by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times 

The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House will open to public visitors Memorial Day weekend.
A landmark steeped in 19th century history reopens on Whidbey

Beginning May 28, you can venture inside one of the state’s oldest buildings: The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House, which dates from the 1850s.

Caption: Incorporating frozen vegetables into your menu plan is a fast and cost-effective way to save money on rising food costs.
The secrets of cheap meals: frozen veggies and slow cookers

They not only stretch your food budget, but also timesaving godsends for busy parents. Here are three recipes to try.

Cinderella_Red.jpg: Red Riding Hood (Katelynn Carlson) gets advice from Cinderella (Grace Helmcke) in Red Curtain’s production of Into the Woods, running May 20-June 5 at the Red Curtain Arts Center, 9315 State Ave. in Marysville.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Marysville troupe stages a Stephen Sondheim musical masterpiece. Jazz, featuring the sons of legend Dave Brubeck, takes over Edmonds. And there’s this music festival in downtown Everett …

Navigating the rough, often scary seas of a hospital stay

After helping a friend who underwent major surgery, Paul Schoenfeld reflects on ways to cope for patients and their loved ones.

Sam Bowles records the run off the water from a chalk drawing with friend and co-artist, Rhyanna Mercer, Tuesday afternoon in Everett, Washington on May 10, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jackson High’s global TikTok star is chalk full of ideas

Sam Bowles, 18, uses vibrant videos and social media fame to raise awareness of autism.

I canceled my flight to Frankfurt, but now I can’t use my credit

Melissa Crespo receives a $2,060 ticket credit when she cancels her flights to Frankfurt, Germany. But now her online agency has told her she can only use 25% of the credit at a time. Can it do that?

Lonicera ciliosa, commonly called orange honeysuckle or western trumpet vine. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: orange honeysuckle

Its orange trumpets announce spring is here, and hummingbirds are irresistibly drawn to it.

Home & garden happenings in Snohomish County

The Mill Creek Garden Tour will return this summer after a two-year absence due to COVID-19.

Photo Caption: Would you believe a zipper sold for $18,450 at Morphy Auctions? What about a diamond necklace that looks and works like a zipper?
X-Y-Z spells ‘big money’ with this high-fashion zipper

It’s actually a necklace, but the zipper function works. Someone paid nearly $18,500 for it at a recent auction.

Most Read