Like many of us you may have fruit trees that are covered in blossom during the spring but which are disappointingly poor when the fruit grows. In cases where the fruit drops off the branches early you may be suffering from poor pollination. Certain species, including apples, pears and sweet cherries need to be grown near another of the same species in order to become pollinated as the process is carried out by bees. Others, like peaches and nectarines can be fertilized by their own pollen without any problem.
Timing is another important consideration regarding pollination as you cannot cross pollinate an early blooming fruit tree with a late blooming one. This should be taken into account when planning your orchard, but if you have inherited your trees and you do not have the space required for cross pollination speak to a local tree nursery during the winter months. Ask them for a supply of similar branches that are filled with blossom during the spring and you should find that pollination will take place naturally.
If you are growing plums you need to take care, as many plum trees available from the garden center claim to be self-pollinating. While this is true in principle, the yield you will get from them will be a fraction of what you would get if they were being pollinated by another tree. Do your research to find out which varieties will successfully cross pollinate with others and plan your planting accordingly. Pears and Malus (apples) can also be difficult to marry up, as some varieties will not accept others for pollination purposes although they will share a plot quite happily.
Bees are natures’ best pollinators, but because of chemical pesticides and modern construction techniques the bee population is shrinking. Encourage bees on to your land wherever you can, and give them access to clean fresh water if you want these valuable insects to continue their work. Avoid using chemical fertilizers as much as possible, and try to use natural rather than chemical pesticides on plants in and around your orchard.
Should your efforts be unsuccessful you can always resort to manual pollination. This is not easy to do, and the success rate can be very variable, but when the weather is dry and there is no breeze, take a small brush (a paintbrush is ideal) and use it to collect pollen from one of your trees. When the brush has a quantity of blossom on it, simply shake the pollen over the blossom of a similar tree. Carry on with the process every day until the blossom disappears, and with a bit of luck you should find fruit there when the trees have finished flowering.
It can be frustrating to buy a tree, plant it out and wait for a harvest that never appears. However, bear in mind that some trees do not like disturbance while others take several years to bear fruit. This is easy enough to discover if you are planting the tree yourself, but harder to determine when your trees are already planted on your land. Some species are not regular and can have a heavy fruit crop one year while the next is frugal, so feed and water them when they are saplings to get consistent yields.