green foliage of raspberry plants growing in a row

Raspberry plants with landscape fabric used for weed control. Photo: J. Traunfeld, UME

Updated: May 16, 2024

Proactive plant care can support a fruit tree or shrub through many years of productive harvests. As relatively high-maintenance landscape plants, success with fruit depends on regular monitoring of plant health and intervening early to prevent significant damage from pests, diseases, or wildlife. By promoting vigorous growth and keeping plants healthy, they will be more resilient when facing stressors that could weaken plants and reduce fruit production.


  • Small fruit plants have shallow, fibrous roots that are vulnerable to drought stress, especially blueberries.
  • Keep small fruit plants well-watered for the first 2 years to get them established, especially in summer and fall when rainfall is sporadic or insufficient. 
  • Continue to water fruit plants after the last harvest during dry periods. Most fruit plant buds for next year’s growth are produced in late summer and early fall.
  • As a guide, the typical recommendation is one inch of water per week during the growing season (65 gallons per 100 square feet of planting area), whether from rain or irrigation. The need for consistent moisture increases during flowering and fruiting. Many fruit plants develop buds for next year’s crop in late summer or early fall. Drought stress at that time can reduce next year’s harvest because fewer buds will form or buds may die during dormancy.
  • To discourage disease problems, water in the morning, and avoid wetting the foliage. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation conserve water and keep foliage dry. Overhead irrigation (like with a sprinkler or hose spray nozzle) has the advantage of cooling small fruit plants during extremely high temperatures.
  • During dry periods, tree fruits should be irrigated for the first 3 to 5 years. Stone fruits (cherry, peach, apricot, etc.) are more shallow-rooted than pome fruits (apple, pear) and more vulnerable to drought stress. Peaches are most sensitive to drought at the ripening stage when the fruit is rapidly increasing in size. 


Fruit plants should be fertilized based on soil test results and plant needs. Lawn fertilizers applied to turfgrass growing near fruit plants may reduce the fruit’s fertilizer needs. Most fruit plants are fertilized in spring at flowering time.

Using fertilizers

  • Follow fertilizer label directions. Over-application of chemical or organic fertilizers can burn foliage and roots, stimulate leaf growth at the expense of fruit, and produce weak growth that can be prone to attack by diseases and insect pests. Excess nutrients can also pollute surface and ground waters.
  • Nitrogen (N) is the major nutrient needed in the largest amount. Unlike nutrients that are part of the mineral soil, nitrogen is supplied through organic matter and fertilizers. Each year, applying 1 to 2 lbs. of N per 1.000 sq. ft. or 0.10 to 0.20 lbs. (1.6 to 3.2 ounces) of N per 100 sq. ft. is recommended for fruit plants.
  • If your soil test report shows that your phosphorus (P) and/or potassium (K) levels are low, the lab will include a fertilizer recommendation for supplying those nutrients. If your phosphorus and potassium levels are reported as “optimum”, “high”, or “excessive,” you can fertilize with nitrogen-only fertilizers. Adding more P and K will not benefit the plant, is a waste of money,  and may pollute surface waters. Options include nitrate of soda (15-0-0), calcium nitrate (16-0-0), blood meal (12-0-0), and fish emulsion (5% N). Or, use complete fertilizers (which contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) that are high in nitrogen relative to the other nutrients, like cottonseed meal (6-2-1) or fish meal (10-2-2).
  • Example for calculating how much fertilizer to apply: the recommendation is to apply 1.5 ounces of nitrogen per 100 sq. ft. and you want to supply the nitrogen using nitrate of soda (15-0-0). This fertilizer is 15% (0.15) nitrogen by weight (1.0 lb. of the fertilizer contains 0.15 lb. of N). Divide the recommended amount of nitrogen by the percentage of nitrogen in the fertilizer: 1.5 ÷ 0.15 = 10 ounces of fertilizer. 

Use Louisiana State University (PDF)Tons to Teaspoons to convert weight to volume measurements.

Organic matter as a source of nutrients

  • Organic matter in the soil not only adds slow-release nutrients directly as a natural fertilizer but also helps to retain nutrients and moisture, especially in sandy soils. Increase organic matter content before planting by incorporating compost. 
  • Regular topdressings of organic matter (about one inch of compost per year) will reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental fertilizer. Compost can be applied to the top of the soil around plants once they are established to avoid disturbing roots. Mulches should first be raked aside and then reapplied on top of the compost. 

Fertilizing techniques

  • To ensure direct contact with the soil, move mulch away from plants to fertilize and reapply it after fertilizing.
  • If using a dry fertilizer formulation, sprinkle it over the root zone of fruit plants when foliage is dry. Brush fertilizer off leaves and water it in if rainfall is not expected. Once plants are in the ground, do not disturb shallow roots by working fertilizer into the soil.
  • Keep fertilizers from contacting the crowns (base) and lower stems of small fruit plants.
  • Avoid late summer and fall fertilization because it interferes with the dormancy process (called hardening-off) and can lead to winter injury. (Strawberries are an exception as they are fertilized in August.)

Managing pests and diseases

Fruit plants are vulnerable to many insect pests and diseases. Other problems can be caused by environmental factors, like compacted soil and extreme weather, or human errors such as crowding or neglecting plants. Wildlife, like deer and squirrels, can injure bark or consume fruits. Weather plays an important role with insect pest and disease spread and severity. For example, wet weather favors disease spread. In many cases, plant problems are caused by a combination of factors.

Integrated Pest Management

The Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach to preventing and managing pest problems is highly recommended and can be summarized as follows:

  1. Right plant, right place, right care. Select healthy plants and give them what they need.
  2. Monitor for problems. Scout plants regularly and thoroughly for new, changing, or worsening symptoms. When symptoms of a possible problem appear, try to correctly identify the cause(s).
  3. Anticipate and prevent issues, especially the most common insect pests and diseases..Refer to our fruit plant profile pages.
  4. Use physical/cultural, biological, and chemical approaches to prevent and manage problems. Examples:
    1. Physical/cultural: handpick insect pests, prune to improve air circulation, remove diseased plants and plant parts, and cover berries with bird netting
    2. Biological: plant a wide variety of flowering plants to attract and conserve pollinators and beneficial insects (natural enemies) of insect pests
    3. Chemical: spray low-toxicity products, such as horticultural oil, to smother spider mites or scale insects

Tips for preventing and managing fruit problems

  • Select disease-resistant cultivars when possible.
  • Use fencing to protect small fruits and tree fruits from deer, voles, rabbits, and groundhogs.
  • Remove and dispose of all infested and diseased plant parts, including dropped fruits and leaves; do not compost unless you maintain a hot compost pile. Good sanitation practices reduce the ability of pests and pathogens to overwinter.
  • Hand-pull weeds or apply organic mulches around plants. Weeds compete for water and nutrients and can harbor insect pests.
  • Prune properly to improve sunlight penetration and air circulation, and to improve spray coverage. Prune out dead, damaged, twisted, competing, or weak branches, canes, or stems.
  • Consider painting the trunks and large scaffold branches of young trees, especially peach, plum, and cherry, with white latex paint to prevent frost cracking and sunscald injury to the bark.
  • Avoid late summer-early fall pruning or fertilizing.
  • Thin apple, pear, and peach fruits in early in the spring to create  6-inch spacing between fruit. When thinning, remove fruits that are deformed, infested with insect pests, or infected by diseases. The thinning process will lead to larger fruit and fewer disease and insect problems.
  • Keep plants healthy by fertilizing according to recommendations and by watering plants regularly through the initial establishment period, as well as during dry periods.
  • Avoid applying too much nitrogen fertilizer, whether from organic manure or inorganic sources. This can reduce fruit set and encourage feeding by pests like aphids. Do not fertilize apple trees if yearly shoot growth exceeds 12 to 18 inches.
  • Tie small bags around individual apples and peaches to exclude pests and improve fruit quality. [Watch a video about this.]

Why are my apples blooming during fall? MSU Extension

Why is there no fruit on my tree? PSU Extension

Pesticides and spray schedules

Small fruit plants generally have fewer pest problems and can be grown organically more successfully compared with fruit trees. New plantings, especially where isolated from other similar fruit crops, might be free of some or most insect pests and diseases, and pesticide treatments may not be necessary for some time. Eventually, though, one or more serious problems will typically develop, especially in apple, peach, cherry, and plum trees. 

  • The use of pesticides is meant to keep pest populations below levels that might result in moderate to severe damage, rather than to eradicate all pest organisms. 
  • The kinds of pesticides that might be needed and the frequency of their application depend on many factors. 
  • Pest populations increase and decrease at different rates as a result of changes in the weather, plant and fruit maturity, and management practices. 
  • Pesticides should be used only when needed, and always in strict accordance with label directions.

The idea of spraying pesticides on a schedule before problems arise seems to contradict the IPM approach of correctly identifying the cause of a problem before taking action. Pest management in fruit plants is a bit different:

  • Common, damaging fruit pests and diseases come back each year. They become active and are best controlled at specific points during a fruit plant’s growth cycle.
  • For example, some diseases can be prevented by applying a fungicide before or during bloom, the time when the diseases are becoming active but haven’t yet caused infections and symptoms. 
  • Once  disease symptoms are seen, it is often too late to intervene. Preventing pest and disease outbreaks not only helps to ensure a usable harvest, but also protects long-term plant health and survival overall.

If you have a current problem with a particular pest or disease, you should plan preventative treatments for future growing seasons. This is particularly true for significant diseases such as brown rot of peaches, black rot of grapes, apple scab, and rust diseases. Some diseases and insect pests cause only cosmetic injury to plants and fruits and don’t need to be controlled. Examples include fly speck and sooty blotch, late-season fungal diseases of apple.

  • For the management of diseases and pests of fruit grown in home gardens, we recommend referring to the Virginia Pest Management Guide for Home Fruit produced by Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE); (click Home Fruit in the right sidebar). 
  • It includes information on synthetic and organic pesticides and specific pests and diseases, as well as spray schedules for all major fruits. 
  • Maryland and Virginia fruit growers share the same insect pest and disease problems, and this guide is updated annually. In a few cases, pesticides recommended by VCE will not be labeled and available in Maryland for home gardeners. 
  • Organic pesticides are not generally as effective as chemical pesticides, and just like synthetic pesticides, some can negatively impact beneficial insects (pollinators and natural enemies of pests). 
  • If a pesticide is needed, choose the least-toxic material and closely follow label directions.

Mating disruption traps are used by commercial growers to monitor the populations of insect pests like codling moth and plum curculio. The traps have a sex pheromone to attract male insect pests, alerting the grower when the adults are active and about to lay eggs. Some organic growers place multiple traps in a single tree to control pests directly by trapping a large percentage of adult males, limiting how many mate successfully.

Wildlife management

A variety of animals will feed on small fruits and tree fruits. Deer will browse most fruit plants, and their antler rubbing can injure or kill young fruit trees. Birds and squirrels are some other persistent pests.

  • Adequate fencing is the best approach to exclude deer.
  • Surround new fruit plants with a cylinder cage made from 1/2-inch hardware cloth that extends from below the soil surface to the top of the plant.
  • Cover blueberry shrubs and other vulnerable small fruit plants with polyethylene mesh netting, tulle, or other suitable material that won’t trap birds or snakes. This will prevent problems with deer, voles, birds, and rabbits.
  • Individual apple and peach fruits can be bagged with homemade or commercial fruit bags. 
  • There are many types and brands of commercial animal repellents to choose from that are helpful in deterring wildlife. Some repel by taste and some by smell. Read the product label before application to see if it is labeled to be used on edible plants. Repellents need to be applied frequently as new growth emerges or as weather dilutes the treatment. 
  • Homemade deer repellents may be easier to try but could be less reliable: hang small mesh bags of human hair or deodorant soap on fences or branches. Hang them 30 inches from the ground and no more than 3 feet apart. 

More information on managing wildlife

Mulching and weed control

  • Turfgrass and weeds compete with adjacent fruit plants for water and nutrients. Herbicides used to control lawn weeds can injure fruit plants if there is no buffer zone between them.
  • Organic (biodegradable) mulches, like wood chips and tree leaves, reduce competition by creating a lawn- and weed-free zone, and can also help:
    • Suppress future weed seed germination
    • Moderate soil temperatures
    • Hold moisture in the soil
    • Add organic matter as it decays in place
    • Insulate overwintering plant crowns
  • Apply mulches to a depth of 2 to 3 inches and replenish them whenever necessary to maintain that depth. 
  • Avoid mulches contaminated with weed seeds.
  • Keep mulch away from trunks and crowns.

  • Maintaining a winter mulch can help prevent winter injury to plant crowns and roots. Keep mulch from touching plant crowns to prevent vole feeding and to maintain good air circulation.

Pruning and thinning

Fruit plants are pruned to:

  • Control size and shape
  • Stimulate the growth of new fruiting canes and wood
  • Improve air circulation and increase sunlight exposure to inner growth
  • Remove dead, broken, and diseased branches.

Specific pruning guidelines are included on our pages for each fruit type.

Pruning principles

  • Prune when fruit plants are dormant. Late winter (February or March) is usually best.
  • If you train your fruit trees properly in the first three years after planting, you will need to perform only moderate pruning in later years.
  • Prune young trees (up to 10 years of age) lightly.
  • Excessive pruning encourages excessive shoot growth, delays fruiting, and reduces the quality of the fruit on young trees.
  • Thinning-out cuts (entire limb or shoot removal) are associated with increased flower bud production on apples.
  • Make your thinning cuts back to the branch collar—do not leave stubs.
  • Heading-back cuts (shortening the ends of branches) encourage shoot growth and denser branching.
  • Remove and dispose of clippings to reduce the risk of spreading pests and disease spores, which most home compost piles will not kill.
terms for pruning a fruit tree
Fruit tree pruning terms. Illustration: Ray Bosmans

Fruit thinning

Fruit thinning is the practice of removing a portion of the fruits from fruit-bearing trees, while the fruits are still small and developing, so that the remainder can develop to full size. Some fruit trees self-thin their own fruits, a phenomenon called “June drop,” in order to retain only those fruits they can ripen fully. June drop can look alarmingly excessive, but will not hurt the tree or diminish the harvest.

  • Fruit thinning of apple, pear, plum, and peach trees increases the plant’s ability to form flower buds for the next year, provided the thinning is done when fruits are about ½-inch in diameter.

  • When pinching or clipping fruits off, leave one fruit every 4 to 8 inches and remove the rest, depending on the plant variety and expected fruit size. Apples are thinned to 1 to 2 fruits per cluster, removing any extras. When thinning any fruit type, remove those that show feeding damage or other types of injury.

  • Failure to thin can lead to biennial bearing problems in apple and pear. In this situation, excessive fruiting in one year is followed by a year of extremely low yields as the tree recovers.

  • Thinning reduces the weight of the fruit load on the branches, reducing the risk of breakage.

Resource: Physiology of Pruning Fruit Trees (PDF) from Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Additional resources

Author: Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist. Reviewed by Christa Carignan, Digital Horticulture Education Coordinator, and Miri Talabac, Lead Horticulture Consultant