Fruit trees are a great addition to any garden. However, when they’re dying it’s hard to watch all that effort go down the drain – especially if you don’t know offhand what’s causing them to die. What kills fruit trees – and how do you fix it?
Fruit trees die due to one or more of six classes of issues. Each class has between one and dozens of causes and fixes. The problem must be diagnosed, reversed, and addressed in a timely manner to save the affected fruit trees. Here are 40-plus issues and common fixes to save afflicted fruit trees.
Ready to figure out what’s afflicting your fruit tree? Let’s find out what it is – and then let’s also talk about the proper fix.
The 40-plus Reasons Your Fruit Trees are Dying
While there may be one main reason your fruit tree is dying, odds are that there are actually several factors at play. And while addressing the main issue may help, addressing all of the issues will fix things far better – and faster.
Even so, let’s start by looking at the six classes of reasons fruit trees die, based on the information I found in my research. Let’s also look at how many possible problems exist in each category, their definition, and a baseline look at appropriate remedies.
|Reason Your Fruit Tree is Dying||Number of Possible Issues||Definition and/or Example||Appropriate Remedy or Fix|
|Abiotic Disorders||11+||Non-pathogenic, non-living stressors and problems. Most usually related to environmental issues or user error.||Increase your gardening education and adjust how you garden to reflect that increased knowledge. Address environmental factors as needed.|
|Insects (Arthropods)||21+||Arthropods are a type of insect that may damage fruit trees either by eating them, using them for housing or as part of their lifecycle.||Some insects should be tolerated while others should be eradicated or removed from fruit trees.|
|Diseases||15+||Fruit trees are susceptible to various types of bacteria, viruses, fungus, molds, wilts, rots, and other infections.||Prevention is the best treatment. The next best options are the removal of visibly affected parts, the treatment of the rest of the tree, and addressing disease transmission.|
|Molluscs||1+||Snails can damage fruit tree foliage, especially if they become too numerous.||Make sure soil drainage and watering are adequate to discourage the snail population. Then, consider how you will remove excess snails.|
|Vertebrate Pests||2+||Small mammals, like pocket gophers and voles, can do extensive damage to fruit tree roots and bark.||Manage clutter, weeds, and attractants. Monitor the area for signs of an infestation. Reduce or eliminate the population of pests.|
|Weeds||39+||Weeds are plants that grow where you don’t want them to be. Weeds steal nutrition and water from the purposely-placed plants.||Manual, chemical, or mechanical removal of weeds. Use a 3-inch layer of mulch or other weed-control methods to prevent and control weeds.|
In my experience, there’s going to be some invisible (or totally visible) overlap between the categories.
For example, overwatering is an abiotic issue that will need to be addressed. If it goes too long without being fixed, though, you’ll have more than a single problem. You’re also going to need to deal with rots, fungus, snails, and weeds. So as you’re finding issues, fix them – but then know the other issues so that you can watch for them and fix them before you lose any more fruit trees.
Symptoms of a Dying Fruit Tree
Speaking of sick and dying fruit trees, let’s take a quick step back and make sure we know what those look like. That way, we aren’t trying to fix a nonexistent problem.
|Cankers||Like a canker in your mouth, a tree canker is a dying (and painful) or dead spot on a tree. Cankers may be caused by one of several diseases that bores into the tree to attack it. Prune any visibly affected branches – up to 12″ below the canker. You may also want to spray the rest of the tree with an appropriate compound (organic or otherwise) to prevent spread.|
|Cracks||Some cracks are normal and some aren’t. Some cracks are caused by an overload of fruit and some are caused by other issues. Watch cracks carefully, as they may weaken the tree’s infrastructure or become host to pests who would kill your tree. Sealing cracks is a great way to prevent further issues.|
|Deadwood||Deadwood is wood that’s died. They’re dry, brittle, and easy to break off. Deadwood becomes a strain on the tree, so please remove it.|
|Decay||Decay usually starts inside the tree, so it may be hard to spot. But if you can see spores, mushrooms, dead branches, or breakable wood – that may be your first clue that the tree is decaying. Be sure to check at the bottom of the tree, too. Visible roots that look to be decaying are an immediate threat to your trees.|
|Poor Structure||Broken off limbs (from storms or cracks) and poor attempts at pruning may cause your tree to have an odd shape or lean to one side. This needs to be fixed ASAP – or the next storm could topple your tree. Your tree needs a solid center of gravity, too.|
|Weak Joints and Unions||Branches connect to the tree via joints or unions. If they don’t look healthy – or very attached – then there’s an issue. This may especially be the case if branches are growing too close together – and the bark is getting in the way. Be sure to trim branches so they have room to grow and don’t cross over each other.|
If you’re keeping a regular eye on your fruit trees, you should be able to anticipate problems and prevent them – especially if you remember what a sick tree looks like. That way, you can keep your fruit trees plenty healthy – so they will bear lots of fruit.
Abiotic Disorders in Fruit Trees (with Fixes)
Abiotic disorders are non-pathogenic, non-living stressors and problems that impact your fruit trees. Abiotic disorders are most usually related to environmental issues or gross user error.
In other words, the best way to treat abiotic issues is to increase your gardening education. Then, adjust how you manage your garden to reflect that increased knowledge and address environmental factors as needed.
So let’s go through the abiotic disorders – and how to fix them.
|Abiotic Disorder||Diagnostic Information||Best Fixes|
|Salt damage (from deicing or excessive fertilizers)||Look for a drought-like look or scorch symptoms on leaves.||Minimize the use of deicing salts that can run-off into your garden. Use fertilizer cautiously and sparingly, rather than excessively.|
|Drought (underwatering)||Drought damage looks like leaf wilt, folding, scorch, or an overall tree decline.||Consider your area, environment, and current watering patterns. Consider using deep watering of root zones to provide better watering results.|
|Herbicide damage||Look for leaf deformation, dieback, spotting, and scorching.||Follow herbicide directions carefully and do not use it at all on a windy day or if the temperature is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Control the spray and keep it to intended targets.|
|Improper planting||Inadequate and otherwise unexplained tree growth.||Prevention is the best fix. If the tree is already planted, consider moving it or checking common issues. Remove forgotten burlap or baskets from the roots. Fix the stakes or too-high levels of mulch. Monitor the tree for proper growth after planting.|
|Iron chlorosis||Look for a distinctive yellowing to the leaves – while the veins stay deep green.||Evaluate and adjust your soil’s pH to improve iron absorption. Fixing this absorption issue will protect your plants from pests and diseases.|
|Leaf scorch||Yellowed, spotted, or damaged leaves.||Reevaluate plant watering and exposure to wind or sunlight.|
|Mechanical damage||Visible damage anywhere to the tree.||Put a protector on or around the tree and its root zones to protect from mowers, equipment, and damage.|
|Overwatering||Signs include canopy dieback, necrosis, scorch, leaf loss, and yellowing.||Eliminate standing water. Analyze your soil for its water-holding ability – add sand to clay-like soil to improve drainage.|
|Restricted root zone||Trees enclosed by concrete or too-small spaces.||Open up space around the tree – or choose a better planting site that will accommodate a fully-grown tree for the next time. Or choose a different tree.|
|Sunscald||Split bark that opens up and exposes the inner tree.||Use a horticultural wrap, white exterior latex paint, or plastic tree guard to protect thin-barked trees from sunscald. Apply the wrap in the fall and remove it in late spring after the last thaw.|
|Winter desiccation||South and southwest sided damage to evergreen plant leaves from the top down.||Water evergreen trees until the ground freezes. Watch trees during strong winds and prolonged winter sunlight.|
While all of these abiotic disorders may not be big problems in your area, that’s okay. Become familiar with the ones that will affect you – and learn to watch for them. Then, take good care of your trees.
Or if you don’t have your trees planted yet, make sure you learn the right way to prepare the soil and area for them. For example, here’s how to get ready and plant citrus trees.
For example, there aren’t many evergreen fruit trees that grow well here in Utah. We don’t have any holly trees (or any evergreen trees) in our yard. But learning about winter desiccation will still help me be a better backyard homesteader and gardener, so I was just fine learning about it.
What to Do About Insects Damaging Fruit Trees
There are millions and millions of species of insects – but let’s not count every single one. For one, that would make this article insanely long. Plus, it would make this article dated the moment that another species get discovered and cataloged.
So instead, let’s focus on some commonly-found insects, arthropod-related damage, and how to fix things so that your fruit tree keeps growing (and producing) well.
|Insect-Caused Symptoms and Appearance||What’s Ailing Your Fruit Tree||Control and/or Fixes|
|Curled or deformed leaves, stick sap, visible aphids on the tree.||Aphids:|
Aphids are green or black, soft-bodied insects that eat the underside of leaves and can damage young plants and trees)
|Spray or wash the tree with insecticidal soap, horticulture oil, or appropriate organic treatment for aphids.|
|Holes in leaves and visible bees||Bees (Leafcutters)||Tolerate the bees as they are natural pollinators. You can reduce nesting habitats by sealing holes in wood.|
|Visible eggs, moths, or holes in the bark near the base of the tree. Holes may or may not ooze if they have a secondary infection.||Borer beetles and insects, especially the Greater Peach Tree Borer and Shothole Borer||It’s best to prevent this issue, as borers are an invasive species that can threaten all of your fruit trees.|
|Tattered, skeletonized leaves or total defoliation of the canopy.||Cankerworm Moths||If the damage is minimal, ignore the moths and larva. If the damage is pervasive, use an insecticide to target the larvae.|
|Tattered appearance in leaves and flowers or holes in the fruit.||Earwigs||For smaller populations, use baited traps or use sticky adhesive (like Tangletrap) to keep pests from fruit trees. Larger populations may require pesticides if they’re too damaging to gardens and fruit trees.|
|Holes on leaves, stems, and seedpods.||Grasshoppers||Use a mesh net to keep grasshoppers from trees or plants. Grasshopper insecticides should be sprayed on a large scale, rather than in a yard.|
|Holes in leaves or marginal leaf notches.||Leaf Beetles and Weevils||Minor damage may be tolerated as long as you improve or maintain the tree’s overall health. You may also consider an appropriate insecticide (like pyrethroid).|
|Holes in leaves with white or yellow flecking on tops of the leaves. Leaves may also be yellowed, browned, or stunted.||Leafhoppers||Look under leaves for leafhoppers. For small populations and damage, monitoring is enough. Larger damage and populations may require intervention via insecticide.|
|Skeletonized leaves (usually the upper surface) may also be browned or cause leaf drop.||Pearslug or Pear Sawfly||Treatment varies depending on the damage and infestation, from monitoring to spraying larvae off the trees with a hose in the late summer/early fall to using insecticides.|
|Small insects with a hard protective covering on the tree branches and fruit. Bark ridges that develop a gray/black color late in the season may actually house colonies.||San Jose Scale||Use a horticulture oil (carbaryl mix) at the delayed dormant stage. Watch for larvae crawling around during the late spring – and use an insecticide. Once insects are grown, use a registered insecticide combined with either a surfactant or a spreader/sticker.|
|Mottled, dusty-looking leaves. Dieback and webs may also be visible.||Spider Mites||Use an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Be careful not to use an excessive amount of pyrethroids or carbaryls that will kill spider mite predators.|
|Stippled, yellowing leaves or holes in fruits.||Stink Bugs||Some damage may be tolerated. If needed, use an insecticide to control nymphs and adults.|
Again, this list is by no means exhaustive. You may want to check with your local agricultural university’s extension to see if they have a list of common pests and insects in your area. And check to see what’s natural to your location versus what’s invasive.
I saw something like the brown marmorated stink bugs in my garden last year – and they’re invasive and should be reported. So I’ll keep an eye out this year. And if that was them, I’ll be sure to report them to the University.
How to Identify and Fix Fruit Tree Diseases and Blights
Diseases and blights can be caused by all sorts of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and organisms. They can be spread by insects, the wind, nearby trees, or other vectors.
So, let’s go over some of the diseases you absolutely need to know about.
|Common Disease, Blight, and Fungal Symptoms and Appearance||What’s Ailing Your Fruit Tree||Control and/or Fixes|
|Leaves have small holes from purplish or black lesions. Lesions and cankers may also appear on branches and fruit.||Cornyeum Blight||Prune the heavily infected branches. Use a fungicide spray in the fall after the leaves drop.|
|Cankers or wounds on the tree that ooze amber-colored sap that’s gummy. Leaves may wilt and the bark may be strangely colored.||Cytospora or Pseudomonas Canker||Thin fruit and branches to prevent further injuries to the tree. Prune infected wood 12″+ below visible symptoms (but not during the fall).|
|Dying blossoms, fruit, shoots, twigs, and branches that appear to be browning or blackening as if it were burned. Amber-colored ooze may also be present.||Fire Blight or Erwinia amylovora||Remove affected areas 8-12″ below visible symptoms and disinfect pruning shears after each use. Ideally, limit heavy pruning to during dry winters. Remove fire blight host insects.|
|Spotted leaves. Some leaves turn yellow and fall off. Others develop holes from the spots.||Leaf Spots (various fungi and bacteria)||Rake and remove the affected fallen leaves. Use fungicides and bactericides like copper to prevent spread – the affected leaves cannot be cured.|
|White powdery appearance on green plant and leaf tissues. Powder might be on the top or bottoms of leaves.||Powdery Mildew (Cleistothecia or mycelia)||Use resistant plants. Fungicides may be used at first discovery of white spots. Test fungicides for leaf damage before general usage.|
|A general decline in your trees, yellowing leaves, or sluggish trees with branch dieback.||Root Diseases and overwatering||Manage your irrigation better and ensure good drainage.|
|Black, sooty-looking fungal growth on leaves, fruit, and trees.||Sooty Molds (fungal species)||Sooty molds colonize honeydew excretions from insects and are spread by aphids, leafhoppers, and other insects. Wash insects off the tree to control the mold spread.|
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the potential diseases that your fruit trees could have – it’s just some of the most common ones, especially in backyard homestead orchards.
For a more extensive list of potential tree diseases, pictures, and fixes, go to your local agricultural university’s extension. Or, check out my preferred reference via Utah State University’s ornamental pest guide. Click on diseases to access their picture-based guide to fruit tree diseases. This is a screenshot-style sneak peek at how it looks.
That index will also let you look up every other type of pest – and has a great picture guide. Or, grab the downloadable PDF version! It’s a fantastic resource to have on hand for any backyard homestead orchard and garden.
As far as the diseases I’ve seen, the worst one by far so far is fire blight. With that, we did everything right to try to save the afflicted pear tree – and it still died. So based on my research and experience, be aggressive in treating that one. Even then, you may not be able to save your fruit tree. However, you can prevent it from spreading to your other trees – and that’s worth doing.
How to Identify and Fix Mollusc-related Fruit Tree Problems
Snails are only fun if you’re a kid who’s searching for shells. Otherwise, they’re a pain in the posterior – a pain that eats all kinds of foliage and does damage to trees.
Granted, if you’ve only got a few snails, they aren’t a big issue – they’re just a nuisance. But if you’ve got lots of snails? Then you’ve got a problem that needs to be fixed.
However, using traps or copper strips to try to control the population isn’t enough on its own. The other thing you’ve got to do is address your irrigation issue that’s causing the population boom in snail town.
You see, snails love wet soil. So if you’ve got a lot of soil moisture, you’re going to (eventually) develop a snail problem. To fix or prevent snail town from booming, you need to do the following.
- Minimize soil moisture
- Increase soil quality and drainage
- Increase time between watering
- Use deep watering to make sure your fruit trees stay healthy
- Eliminate favorite snail habitats
In our yard, we’ve had a lot of snails. They prefer the raspberry bushes, but we don’t want them to get to our fruit trees. So we’re taking a proactive approach. We’re changing the soil moisture by adding organic material to our too-clay-like soil. We’re also using mulch to improve the soil and improve drainage. And we’re improving our irrigation to use better deep watering techniques.
This way, we’re hoping to stay on top of the snail problem so that snail town doesn’t grow. That way, they’re just a nuisance and the kids can enjoy looking for shells – rather than my fruit trees becoming a casualty.
Fruit Tree Problems Caused by Vertebrates
There are several vertebrates that pose a danger to fruit trees in general. Most of them are going to be gophers, voles, and other burrowing rodents.
These animals will damage root systems, lower trunks, and strip bark right off of fruit trees. You’ll be able to know you have burrowing rodents if you’re able to see burrow holes, runways, or dense areas of heavy ground cover and foliage.
When we first moved into our current home, our backyard raspberry patch was severely overgrown. There were several burrow holes, though we couldn’t identify who lived there. It could have been snakes – and we want those garden snakes to stay!
Even so, we removed the ground cover and pruned the raspberry patch – and kept an eye on those burrow holes. After a year or two with no visible activity, we decided that the holes were either for a snake or long-abandoned. We covered them with mulch and haven’t had any further issues.
But we’ve still had good-snake sightings, so that’s good news for us and keeping any burrowing animal populations under control. In any case, here’s a quick list to help you know how to fix vertebrate (and burrowing rodent) problems under control.
- Prevent your garden and orchard from being an ideal habitat for these animals.
- Make use of a safe, non-venomous garden snake to manage things for you.
- Use a barrier or tree guard to protect your trees from rodent damage.
- Use traps to catch, rehome, or kill pests based on your tolerance and preference levels.
- For out-of-control levels of rodents, you may need to call a professional pest control service to use poisons.
Personally, I’m glad we’ve got the small, safe garden snake option – and that I don’t have to actively manage the rodents.
The other main vertebrates who can cause irreparable damage to fruit trees are well-meaning but uninformed people – including children. If your kids like to climb trees, too, you’ll need to have a talk with them about how to climb and care for fruit trees without damaging them.
But then we’re getting back into abiotic causes, too. So feel free to go back and review those as needed with friends and kids. That way, they can become fruit tree experts, too. And you won’t have to worry about damaged fruit trees, either.
How to Identify and Fix Weed-related Fruit Tree Problems
Weeds are a problem to fruit trees because they take the nutrients, water, and sunlight that you intend for your tree.
But what is a weed? Well – a weed is a plant that you don’t want there. Common weeds include:
- Unwanted grasses (bluegrass, ryegrass, bermudagrass, crabgrass)
- Broadleaf plantains
Again, your definition of a weed may differ from mine. Personally, I dislike purslanes and dandelions and say they’re weeds. But I know others who purposely grow those because they’re great in salads.
So weeds are whatever you don’t want growing there – and that will need to be remedied.
So in order to prevent weeds from becoming a threat to your fruit trees, they do need to be addressed, managed, or even removed. How you address them will depend on the type of weed, its size, how hardy it is, and how close it is to your tree.
Here are some ways to fix weed-related issues around and related to your fruit trees.
- Use a weedeater to show the weeds who’s boss.
- Mow around your trees.
- Pull weeds out by hand.
- Dig up weeds with a shovel or other weeding tool.
- Use a tiller to destroy root structures.
- Lay down a protective weed barrier around your trees.
- Use 3″ or more of mulch around your trees (just be sure to not mulch them too deeply, especially if they’re dwarf trees!).
- Use a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent additional weeds from growing.
- Use a post-emergent herbicide as needed or wanted.
- Get your kids and family involved and helping out against the weeds.
You can use any, some, or all of these methods to control weeds around your fruit trees. Just remember that there’s no permanent weed fix – it’s going to be a constant struggle every year.
Oh – and a quick note about getting your kids involved. Do it! My kids love picking dandelion flowers – they think they’re one of my favorite flowers. And while I actually like daisies better, I do love that the dandelion flowers are picked before they can seed and blow off to further infest my garden.
How to Stop a Fruit Tree from Dying and Revive it
To stop a fruit tree from dying, there are three simple steps to follow. They’re simple in theory, anyway.
- Identify the issue
- Fix the issue
- Hope it works
However, because many issues have a good bit of overlap, you may actually need to find, fix, and evaluate several issues. Then, whether or not your tree recovers will depend on its reserves, root system, how much damage it sustained, the time of year, and a dozen other factors.
Remember our pear tree that died of fire blight? We caught the fire blight pretty early – and were fairly aggressive in treating it. Even so, our year-old-Bartlet pear tree wasn’t able to recover. Our other pear tree is just fine, though.
So our current plan is to plant a new tree – but we’ll be finding and planting a pear tree with fire blight resistance, thanks!
Can You Fix Dying Fruit Trees Organically (without Insecticides and Fungicides)?
It is possible to identify, treat, and fix fruit trees organically, but it does take a lot more work to skip the use of insecticides and fungicides. Organic fruit trees will require far more planning and prevention.
One of the most important steps in organic gardening is to naturally breed plants for resistance to common blights, diseases, and insect problems. This can be done via cross-breeding, grafting, and other methods.
Another option is using an organic-approved system plans to treat the existing fruit tree issues. EOrganic.org, OMRI, and your local university agricultural extension will have lists and great resources for making sure that you can keep things purely organic – while also controlling the problems that would otherwise decimate your fruit trees.
Where Can I Get Help Identifying and Fixing Fruit Tree Issues?
If you need more help identifying and fixing issues with your fruit trees, I’ve got three solid suggestions for where to turn for help.
- Find your local agriculture university extension and contact them. They may be able to help with many issues. They may want you to take in a sample and talk to a Master Gardener.
- Talk to an arborist or horticulturist. Start asking around at your local university extension.
- See if your university extension has a Facebook page or other social media platform to browse.
The Utah State University extension has a gardening Facebook page that’s super helpful. Experts are constantly being asked for advice, diagnoses, and the like. People who need help simply need to ask their questions and upload images to get the requested help.
It’s pretty awesome – so go find your extension or gardening support group now. And hopefully, I’ll see you in there!
- “Integrated Pest Management.” Resources, utahpests.usu.edu/ipm/ornamental-pest-guide/index. (PDF version)
- Nischwitz, Claudia, and Mary Ann Hubbel. “Fire Blight of Pears and Apples.” Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic, Utah State University, Mar. 2018, utahpests.usu.edu/uppdl/files-ou/factsheet/fire-blight-08.pdf.
- Thomson, Bob, and Jim Tabor. The New Victory Garden. Little, Brown, 1987.
- Utah State University. “Agriculture & Natural Resources.” USU, extension.usu.edu/agriculture-topics.
- Vegetables, Fruits, & Herbs Book: A Guide to Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs. Utah State University, 2016, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1817&context=extension_curall.