Wondering if you should fertilise your fruit trees in spring? To understand if it’s a good idea (and what to use), first you need to understand where fruit trees get their nutrition.

When your fruit trees start to flower and then grow leaves in early spring, they’re using nutrients they stored away in their buds and bark last autumn.

Crabapple flowers and leaves in spring
Crabapple flowers and leaves in spring

But it’s a pretty limited supply, and as soon as their roots are active, they’ll also start to draw nutrients up through their roots from the soil. This usually starts happening well before the flowers have turned into fruit.

A fruit tree with the roots exposed
A fruit tree with the roots exposed

Do you need to give fertiliser to your trees?

So, do you need to add fertiliser to the soil to make sure your fruit trees have enough nutrition available?

Well, no … but yes.

Sorry, confused? The organic way to grow fruit is called the “natural fertility system”, and it doesn’t rely on adding fertilisers to your soil.

It’s the system that evolved millions of years ago without any human intervention. It works with nature rather than against it.

A pile of woody compost with a pH kit
A pile of woody compost with a pH kit

It turns out that the addition of man-made, artificial fertilisers (which are soluble nutrients) actually works against this naturally evolved system. This is despite the fact that they can seem to give good results.

Hugh checking the temperature of the compost pile at Rodale Institute of organic research
Hugh checking the temperature of the compost pile at Rodale Institute of organic research

Rather than supporting the populations of soil microbes, artificial fertilisers can actually kill them. Fertilisers upset the delicate balance in the soil and can quickly destroy the natural fertility system.

And guess what? That means you become dependent on the fertilisers for nutrition for your crops.

This explains how the great promise of the “green revolution” (when nitrogen fertilisers started to be mass produced) turned out to be a trap for farmers and gardeners all over the world.

The ensuing collapse of the natural fertility system is one of the root causes behind the devastation we’re now seeing in agricultural systems and ecosystems globally.

How to fertilise your fruit trees without doing damage

Staying away from fertilisers (and other chemicals) doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) add anything to the soil.

To keep your fruit trees happy and healthy, your job is to make sure that all the required nutrients need are present in the soil.

The next step is to provide the right conditions to favour the populations of healthy soil microbes. This helps them do what they’re good at, which is converting nutrients into a plant-available form (and eating each other!).

Fruit trees mulched with straw in spring
Fruit trees mulched with straw in spring

So what can you add?

Basically any organic matter, and from a variety of sources if possible. This might include:

  • compost
  • worm castings
  • wood ash
  • rock dust
  • wood chips
  • straw
  • Charlie Carp (find out more about this product here).

Basically, if something used to be alive, it’s organic matter!

Soil is one of our favourite topics, and we support home gardeners with a bunch of different short courses (we’d love to see fertilisers disappear off the shelves of garden shops). If you want to learn how to restore the natural fertility system in your garden, start with Is My Soil Healthy?

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