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Over the Garden Fence

Where gardeners come to find out what's happening out in the yard.

Understanding Fruit Tree Pollination

Posted by Richard Hentschel -

Down the Garden Path

Richard Hentschel, Extension Educator

Getting your fruit trees in the home orchard to provide you with the fruits you expect involves understanding the different kinds of pollination your fruit trees need. In Northern Illinois, the most popular fruit tree is most likely apple. It is the hardiest when it comes to fruit production while some of our other fruits may not bear a crop every year. The fruit trees themselves are winter hardy, just not the flowers when we have severe winter weather.

Nearly all apple varieties are what are known as "self-unfruitful" meaning that pollen from one flower on the same tree cannot pollenate another flower on the same tree as well as understanding that two trees of the same variety cannot pollenate each other either. These trees require "cross pollination" in order to produce fruit. This is why fruit tree catalogs will suggest another variety known to be a good pollinator the variety you want to grow. At the very minimum you will need two trees each one a different variety that bloom at the same time.

As with any general rule there are the exceptions. In the fruit tree catalogs you may find an occasional apple variety that is known as "partially self-fruitful".  This is a tree that will produce a better crop if it was cross pollenated, but will go ahead and set fruit using its own pollen if cross pollination does not occur. Examples of partially self-fruitful apples are Rome and Golden Delicious apples. Some plums and apricots are partially self-fruitful too.

The third kind of pollination is "self-fruitful" where you only need one tree to get a crop. That tree can accept pollen from other flowers on the tree and set a crop of fruit. As with the partially self-fruitful trees, a better crop will result if there is cross pollination available. Examples of self-fruitful trees include peaches, nectarines and sour cherries.

Understanding pollination requirements helps when a home orchard will be several trees and you have limited space. If a neighbor has a fruit tree that is a different variety, then the neighbors tree can act as the cross pollinator your fruit trees. In an urban setting the ornamental flowering crabapple can also serve as the pollinator for apple trees requiring cross pollination as long both are in bloom at the same time. In these situations the trees only need to be nearby since the bees will be moving the pollen from one tree to the other. In another example, if the home orchard contains what is offered as a 3 or 5 in one apple, there may be the correct pollinator available on the same tree from the different varieties that have been grafted into the fruit tree canopy. Read the catalog description or plant tag at the retailer to be sure.

Although not directly related to pollination, homeowners should always consider dwarf trees for their home orchard. Dwarf fruit trees are easier to train, treat for insects and disease and harvest. Using dwarf trees can mean a wider variety of fruits in the back yard too.

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