Fruit trees and small fruit bushes offer years of healthy, delightful harvest. The hardest part about growing them may be selecting which variety to plant. Fortunately, from heirlooms to new genetics with regional specificity, you’re sure to find the right one for you and your location. (And, of course, remember that taste is a key consideration!)
You can find a wide variety of fruit plants at your local garden center.
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Dehydrating is one way to preserve extra fruit.
Photo Credit: Megan Bame
Imagine picking ripe raspberries from your own back yard instead of at the grocery!
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
Grapes aren’t just for vineyards.
Photo Credit: Felder Rushing
We all know that fruit is good for us, and many know that we should be eating 4-5 servings of it every day. But let’s face it: It’s not always that easy. Personally, the price of fresh fruit in the grocery store scares me away, and I’m leery of the “health benefits” I get from eating canned fruit floating in syrup. Frozen fruits are great because all the nutrients are preserved (and they’re generally free of sugary additives), but there’s just something missing from the texture and taste of thawed fruit. So I’ve decided I’m ready to try growing my own. (Won’t you join me?)
Of course, there are limitations to what fruits I can grow. Since I live in Zone 7, I’ll have to keep getting my citrus from Florida, but there are other tree fruits and “small fruits” (like berries) that’ll do just fine in my landscape.
There are quite a few site-specific, plant-specific and gardener-specific considerations to be made prior to purchasing any fruit tree, bush or vine. You might ask your neighbors what varieties they grow (if any), or check with your local Cooperative Extension service to see what kinds are recommended for your area.
As you should do before buying any tree or shrub, think about how the mature fruit-bearing plant you’re considering will fit in your landscape. If you have a small yard, you might want to consider a dwarf or semidwarf variety. If space is not an issue, a taller, shade-providing semi-standard or standard may be more desirable. (“Semi-standard” and “standard” are classifications of rootstock sizing.) Consider support methods for your plant, too. Most blackberries, for example, require a trellis, while some varieties are naturally more erect and self-supporting.
And while USDA hardiness zone information is useful to know, it’s important to recognize that these zones are a generalization for a large area. Your property or area may actually contain “microclimates,” where the temperature and humidity level can deviate from the average. By identifying the microclimates on your property, you can select the proper planting site for your fruit tree. For example, if there’s a hill on your property, you should know that the “valley” will be colder than the slope, that frost damage is a great risk at the base of hills, and that south-facing slopes are warmer than north-facing slopes based on sun exposure. Remember, too, that water and stone absorb heat during the day and reradiate heat at night, so plants near a wall or pond will be more protected from chilling temps as that heat is released.
Here’s a refresher-lesson from grade school science class: In order for a plant to produce fruit, the flower must be pollinated.
Some plants, like figs, grapes and most berries, are self-fertile, meaning they’re capable of pollinating themselves. Others are self-sterile, meaning they require pollen from another tree. Apples, pears, plums and cherries are a few species that generally require a pollenizer. So if you buy only one pear tree it will not produce fruit unless there’s another pear tree of a different variety nearby. For example, if you buy a Yellow Bartlett pear, you would also need to purchase a Bosc pear or a Cascade pear (or even a Red Bartlett would do) – any other pear variety. In most self-sterile cases, two different varieties are sufficient. The general recommendation for planting them is that they be placed no more than 50 feet apart from each other.
Temperate fruit trees and shrubs, like cherries, apples and peaches (basically anything that’s not tropical), have an inborn “chilling” requirement. “Chill” is the number of hours below 45 degrees F from November to mid-February. Depending on the plant variety, the trees or shrubs must be exposed to a certain amount of cold weather prior to blooming. The required chilling time can range from 100-1,400 hours. Of course, you aren’t expected to keep a running total of the chill hours in your yard. You can find historic data of a “normal” winter for your area, which would provide sufficient information for choosing the right fruit tree varieties for your location. Your local Extension office should be able to give you such information. (Those living in USDA Hardiness zones 9 and 10 should look for varieties that have low chill requirements.)
Space may be a limiting factor for some gardeners, while others may have room for an orchard. When deciding how many trees you should plant (above and beyond the two you’d need if a pollenizer is required), consider how much fresh fruit your family can realistically consume, how much you’d like to give away (or sell), and how much you plan to process (for juice, canning or drying). At maturity, a dwarf apple tree can produce 60 pounds of fruit, while a semi-standard may produce up to 200 pounds!
Of course, not all fruit ripens at the same time, and it can be a great learning experience to appreciate when fruit crops are naturally in season. Within fruit species, you can select early, mid- and late fruiting varieties to extend the natural season. With a little planning – depending on your climate – you can grow fresh fruit from May to November (and perhaps preserve enough to carry you through winter).
So don’t delay: Winter’s the time to get those bare-root fruit trees in the ground! Just be aware that they may not bear fruit the first year or two. As your plants grow, the yield will increase until they reach maturity – allowing you to truly enjoy the “fruits of your labor.”