Fertilizing Fruit Trees (apples, pears, cherries and plums)

I am just finishing up my mowing in the orchard. There is a mix of brome grass there (impossible to get rid of plus various forbs), I typically hand mow close to the trees with a weed wacker and then use the tractor between rows further from the trees. If I time it right, mowing just as the grass start to flower, this one mowing will work to keep the field mowed all season, due in large part to our lack of rain.

One thing I noticed while weed wacking this year, is the grass right by the trees (5-10’ out) is taller and more lush than that further away; to be expected as I put down spring fertilizer and water the trees. I was wondering as I mowed, how much of that fertilizer I put down goes to the grass rather than the trees? I suppose it eventually comes back to the soil as the cut grass is left as mulch around the trees, but still it seems a wasteful and counter productive thing, making more work for me mowing.

It seems that some other fertilizer practice might get more fertilizer to the trees and less to the grass I need to mow. I am curious how others deal with this. Note this is a large field (~ 1 Ac in size and not a neat manicured lawn). Nicely mulched areas around each tree are likely out (not enough materials, time nor a way to keep the invasive Brome out of there). And herbicides around the trees are out too, although they would be an easy solution. But there must be other ways, what did farmer with orchards do before Roundup?

I am curious how others here deal with this problem.

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Before the 1950’s, three main methods were used to control weeds under trees in fruit orchards. They were mechanical tillage, mulches, and flaming.

Since the advent of herbicides for orchard use in the 1950’s, most farmers have opted to use herbicides. Overall, the proper use of herbicides can result in a lower over-all impact to the enviroment.

Under my blackberries i use landscape fabric. With my figs, I’m using wood mulch. In my planned apple orchard, I’m going back to landscape fabric. Mulch may seem expensive, but you can usually find tree trimming people to drop it off for free.

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I second the suggestion of free wood chip mulch from an arborist / tree maintenance company. Around here, they do a lot of pruning and mulching, and then they have to drive to a transfer station and pay the city to tip it! They are happy to drop a load in someone’s driveway for free. It saves them time and money.


Many orchards use something like roundup close to the trees and several feet out. Roundup is not as hard on trees typically as other things. It won’t kill every weed. Wood chips are very time consuming though they are the best solution. If that grass is killed and the ground exposed the sun really bakes it. Wood chips prevent moisture loss and promote soil fungi that is beneficial to the trees. Eventually wood chips break down to excellent fertilizer in about 3 years.

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Thanks All.

The biggest problem is the smooth brome grass which was planted here. Very vigorous and invasive and hard to keep out. Sounds like wood chips would be the way to go, and from other garden areas, I would expect them to keep the grass down for a year or two before it starts creeping back in again. At that point it would likely be some herbicide or a bunch of hoeing to try and stay on top of it.

We have tried using cardboard and old sheets under wood chips and other mulch, and again it works OK for a year or so before the grass starts poking thru. Perhaps though, renewing the wood chips will prove effective.

I am curious, any thoughts on the question of how much of the fertilizer is going to the grass and how much to the tree? I suspect it is not the sort of thing researched at the ag schools because it would not be a concern for conventional ag methods. But I am curious. If the answer is not much then this is just a questions of looks, but if the loss to the trees is significant I definitely will need to do something about it.

Brome is a heavy feeder so it will steal all the fertilizer it can. You can get it back when you cut it if you throw the grass towards the row of trees which is what I do. If you cut the middle row of the grass first work each pass of grass cutting towards the trees and throw the dead brome at their feet. That will give them more moisture and more nutrients.