In the spring gardeners are often looking at gardening catalogs or stalking the aisles of nurseries looking for fruit trees. The selection is often vast- especially in catalogs so how do you choose the fruit trees right for your landscape? There are many decisions to be made so here’s a quick guide to help you choose. This article is mostly about non-citrus or tropical fruits.
First before buying any fruit trees make sure you have a suitable spot for them. All fruit trees require a full sun position in well-drained soil. You can amend soil that is low in nutrients but fruit trees will not grow where the soil stays wet for long periods of time.
Second decide on how much room you can devote to fruit trees. You can grow fruit in the front yard or close to the house but there is some mess involved with fruit production, and fruit trees pruned for good production are not as ornamental as other trees. But it’s a good idea not to have the trees too far from the house in rural and suburban areas where deer and other animals are a problem. You will be better able to protect the trees and their crops if they are away from the edges of woods and close to your home.
How much room do fruit trees require?
Each standard sized fruit tree will need 25 feet between it and the next tree in all directions. Each semi-dwarf tree will need 10-15 feet of space in all directions, depending on variety and species. True dwarf trees can be espaliered against a fence or planted as closely as 5-8 feet apart. Some dwarf fruit trees can be grown in tubs but in northern areas these can pose a problem in winters. To keep the roots from being killed the tubs may need to be buried in the winter or moved to another location where temperatures are cool enough to satisfy dormancy requirements (about 40 F) but not cold enough to kill the root system in an above ground pot.
Next you need to decide what species of fruit you can grow in your planting zone. Find your planting zone by clicking the link at the bottom of the article. Most apples and many pears and cherries will grow in planting zones 4-7. Peaches, nectarines, apricots and plums are a little less hardy. Some will grow in planting zones 5, a few even in 4, but most do best in zones 6-8. Of course northern gardeners ( zones lower than 8) will not be able to grow citrus in the ground. And those in planting zones 8 and above have to search for apples and other fruits that have a low dormancy or chilling requirement. Some fruit varieties will not set fruit of the winter temperatures are too warm. Once you have become interested in a certain fruit variety make sure to check the zone hardiness which should be given in the catalog description or plant tag.
Fruit tree pollination requirements
Pollination requirements are another factor you need to consider when choosing fruit trees. Apples, pears, sweet cherries, and some plums and one or two varieties of peaches or apricots need two trees of different varieties nearby to make fruit. Sour or pie cherries, and most peaches, nectarines and apricots will self- pollinate- you don’t need two trees. This pollination requirement may figure in when you have limited space to grow fruit trees. Nearby usually means within 500 feet. If a neighbor has a similar fruit tree you may not need two of that kind. For apple pollination some ornamental crabapples or wild trees growing along roadsides can provide pollination. (The fruit will not be affected by this cross pollination.)
Two trees of the same variety of apples, sweet cherries, and plums or even closely related varieties will not pollinate each other. That means you should not plant two McIntosh apples if there are no other apple tree varieties nearby. Read catalog descriptions to get an idea of what tree varieties will pollinate each other. As a tip Golden Delicious apples are good pollinators for almost all apple varieties. Gala and Red Delicious pollinate each other, Red Delicious and McIntosh are also compatible, HoneyCrisp and CandyCrisp can be pollinated by Jonathan or Gala apples.
Bartlett pears are good pollinators for most other pears. Any two different pears will generally pollinate each other. European type plums like Damson and prune plums do not need another pollinator but Japanese type plums do. Pie type cherries are generally self- pollinating and one variety of sweet cherry called Stella is also self- pollinating. Sweet cherries can also be pollinated by tart cherries; you may want one of each. Pawpaws need two varieties to set fruit. Persimmons are self-pollinating.
You don’t need two trees of the same size for pollination- if you don’t have room for 2 semi-dwarf apple trees for instance- you could plant a dwarf variety and a semi-dwarf. Or for apples, maybe you could plant a small ornamental crabapple in another location in the landscape.
Should you buy potted or bare root fruit trees?
Should you buy your fruit tree potted or bare root? Potted trees are generally found at local nurseries. These may be large and attractive looking if they have been well cared for, but the selection of varieties will be small. Buying bare root fruit trees by mail or on line will allow you to choose from a wide selection of trees, including heirloom types. Bare root trees will catch up quickly to potted trees if they are planted soon after they arrive and are well cared for. They may even be healthier than potted trees that have sat around for a while. Even pretty good sized trees can be sent in dormancy bare root by mail.
The size of the tree and the age of the tree will determine how soon you get fruit. Size means both whether the tree is dwarf, semi-dwarf or standard in height when it is mature and what size it is when you buy it. Most people will find semi-dwarf trees are the easiest to care for and they bear quicker than standard size trees. Some types of semi-dwarf fruit trees will get 20 feet high, but they can be pruned to remain lower. Standard trees may get 40 feet in height in old age. Peaches, nectarines and apricots tend to be smaller trees even if standard size is selected. Dwarf trees usually remain below 10 feet in height. Except in very restrained space conditions it’s generally better to select semi-dwarf trees. Dwarf trees bear small crops and they often have trouble supporting those crops. They tend to break under wind and snow loads more easily.
If you want fruit quickly, buy the largest size fruit trees you can. Some places sell trees by trunk diameter, others by their height. But larger size generally means the tree is older and will start bearing fruit earlier. Larger sized and older trees cost a little more, but since fruit trees take from 3-5 years to even begin bearing fruit, sometimes longer for standard trees, buying trees that are 2-3 years old or more will get production going faster. Some places sell “selected” fruit trees. These are usually large and well branched for their age. They may make your wait for fruit shorter if you can afford them.
Beware of people advertising seeds or seedling fruit trees. Fruit trees are almost always propagated from cuttings grafted on to root stock. Seeds of most fruit trees do not come true and will not bear the same type of fruit the parents had. It’s impossible to tell what kind of fruit a seedling will have until it starts producing and by then a lot of time has gone by. Don’t go to the store and buy apples (or other fruits) and save the seed to plant. You’ll get trees but the type of fruit you get will vary considerably and probably won’t be very good. Don’t buy seeds or seedlings unless you have lots of time and enjoy surprises.
If you want to grow your fruit trees with minimal spraying of pesticides look for varieties that say they are disease resistant. Most of these are newer varieties and there are more apple varieties in this category than other fruits. Keep in mind that they are disease resistant, not disease free. Almost all fruit trees can be managed organically but how the fruit looks and how big your harvest is can vary by your management techniques. It helps to start with disease resistant trees.
The variety or “flavor” of a fruit type is a personal choice based on your taste and needs as long as it’s suitable for your space and climate. Read up on what uses the variety is good for, like fresh eating or canning. You may want to purchase different types of fruit and do a taste test, keeping in mind that fresh off the tree the fruit will probably taste better. You may want to ask other gardeners what they like and what grows well in your area. This may be the hardest decision you’ll make because there are hundreds of varieties of common fruits.
So go ahead, buy some fruit trees this spring. There’s nothing better tasting than fruit straight from your own trees.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
Finding your planting zone
Advantages and disadvantage of buying bare root plants
Shamrocks, four-leaved clover and oxalis
You can read the authors weekly garden blog here.