The Drought Chronicles: Fruit Trees Have a Fighting Chance

This is the first of a series of articles focusing on fruit tree care during a drought. This article offers advice from the perspective of the Master Gardeners program, backed by UC research.

Home fruit tree production provides numerous benefits to the community; a fruit tree offers sweet nectar for bees and other pollinators, relief from the sun, oxygen production, soil erosion prevention, a source for local food, a habitat for wildlife, and fuel to warm our houses.  Currently, the effects of drought are threatening the health of fruit trees.  Homeowners are already experiencing the effects through lower yields and poor fruit quality.  With the Sierra snowpack at a record low, scarce precipitation to refill reservoirs and rivers, and increased depletion of groundwater, Californians must make difficult landscaping decisions.  Luckily mature fruit trees are heartier than most plants, but there are several factors to consider when allocating water amongst one’s landscape.

California is in its 3rd consecutive drought year, and currently Los Angeles is experiencing “Exceptional Drought”, categorized by the US Drought Monitor. Water is precious now more than ever and homeowners must create a hierarchy in their yards to determine which plants are worth saving.  Master Gardener Janet Hardin, the UC Cooperative Extension Environmental Horticulture Advisor of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, firmly believes that mature fruit trees are at the top of the hierarchy in a home landscape.  Mature fruit trees have deep, established roots, which allow for longer periods of time between watering unlike many other plants.

The way in which one applies water to fruit trees can help maximize water efficiency.  Trees uptake the most water with deep, slow, and infrequent applications.  For sandy soils, apply water especially slow so the roots have time to capture the water before it drains through the soil.  Mulching around fruit trees will help with water retention.  Master Gardeners suggest 2”-3” of mulch about a foot away from the trunk of the tree.  If mulch forms a mound around the trunk, it will capture moisture, which attracts disease.  Mulching prevents weed growth by inhibiting photosynthesis.  With fewer weeds surrounding the tree, there is less competition for water.  When watering, be sure to apply water beneath the mulch to ensure ground absorption.  Applying too much fertilizer to fruit trees can also decrease water efficiency.  The more fertilizer a tree is given, the more water the tree will need.  Excess fertilizer does not get absorbed and becomes runoff, polluting waterways with dangerous amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus.

During a drought, a fruit tree’s yield will not only be less than expected but the quality of the fruit may be degraded as well.  Thinning will help establish fewer but healthier and tastier fruit.  Water and water-soluble nutrients will concentrate and develop lush pieces of fruit instead of stretching resources amongst many pieces of feeble fruit. It is imperative that the fruit is thinned and not the buds.  There is no way of knowing which buds will get pollinated and germinate so it is risky to clip buds for risk of losing potentially hardy pieces of fruit.  Pruning is also a way to cope with drought.  On a tree, the most water loss occurs via transpiration in the leaves. Water retention will increase with less foliage.

The Homeowner Quick Guide to Fruit Tree Care During A Drought


  1. Practice deep, slow, and infrequent watering
  2. Mulch around fruit trees one foot from the base of the trunk
  3. Minimize fertilizer applications
  4. Thin fruit to produce healthier and tastier fruit
  5. Prune trees to remove excess foliage

Here at Food Forward, we cannot speak highly enough about fruit trees.  We strongly suggest homeowners do what they can to save their fruit trees in such strenuous times- even if that means watering just enough to get by and not producing fruit this year.  Stay tuned for more helpful information!

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