Fruit trees are a wonderful addition to any garden as they will produce every year without having to start seeds like annual plants in a vegetable garden, such as tomatoes, melons, and beans. Winter through mid-Spring is the time to plant fruit trees, so this is the time of year to consider if you want to add fruit trees to your garden.
There are many factors when considering which fruit trees to plant. The first is to look at the climate you are located in, or your bug out location (BOL). When you should plant will depend on the USDA zone you live in. If you live in a warmer zone, such as a zone 9 or 10, you’ll be planting fruit trees earlier in the year, such as January or February. If you live in a USDA zone with a lower number, such as 5 or 6, you’ll be planting later on during the year. Look to your local nursery for when you should be planting your fruit trees. When the bare root fruit trees arrive at the nursery, that’s the time to plant.
If you don’t know what USDA zone you live in, there are numerous web sites where you can input your zip code and find out what USDA zone you live in. Many gardening magazines and books also include USDA zone maps as well.
The earlier you get your trees into the ground the better. You want to plant your fruit trees before they “break bud.” Breaking bud refers to the flowers and leaves breaking out of the tight sheath along the branches. Planting before trees break buds cut down on the amount of shock the trees will experience when you plant them. Don’t pick a tree with leaves and flowers already unfurling and blooming because they are pretty. Do your homework beforehand and pick based on your needs.
Also, when you consider which fruit trees to plant, you must choose trees that fit your climate. Some varieties of fruit trees are not suited to USDA zones colder than zone 6. If you live in a colder region of the U.S., USDA zone 5 and colder, you should look for varieties that have been bred to withstand the cold. Check around to what varieties are grown in your local orchards and U-Pick’em farms.
Another factor to consider when planting fruit trees is which varieties to plant. It’s easy to look at some of the web sites and catalogs out there and think, “Ooh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to plant a Cortland apple tree.” It’s only nice if you live in an area with a minimum of 1,000 chill hours in your area, otherwise you’ll have a tree that doesn’t produce apples. If you live in an area with only 200 chill hours, you’d be better off planting an Anna or a Sundowner apple tree, since they have much lower chill hour requirements.
Fruit trees, with the exception of citrus and tropical fruit trees, need a certain number of chill hours in order to set fruit. The purpose of chill hours is that the fruit tree has a certain amount of dormancy time within a certain temperature range required in order to set fruit. Even pomegranates require chill hours, but their minimum chill hour requirements are usually very low, in the 150-200 hour range, which makes them suitable for warmer winter climates for fruit production, even though they are hardy to USDA zone 7.
Chill hours refers to the cumulative hours where the temperature is between 45 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit during late Fall to early Spring. For California, the dates are calculated between the dates of November 1 and February 28/29. Contact your local masters gardening program or a university in your state with an agricultural program as they will have more information about the chill hour totals for your area. Many universities have chill hour monitoring stations set up around the state to monitor chill hours.
Some fruit varieties require as little as 100 chill hours, some need up to 1,000 chill hours. Researching each variety before selecting will avoid years of dedicating land, water and time to a tree to only find out you don’t have enough chill hours to set fruit. If a variety of cherry tree needs 500 chilling hours, it means it needs at LEAST 500 chill hours in order to properly set fruit. Once again, if you live in a colder climate, look to see if that variety is suitable for your USDA zone.
Here is a list of fruits and the range of chill hours needed. As always, look to the variety for their chill hour requirements, as some of the low numbers reflect inclusion of trees bred for low chill hour climates:
- Apples 100-1,000
- Apricots: 200-800
- Asian Pears: 250-500
- Cherries 200-800
- Figs: 100
- Nectarines: 100-800
- Peaches 200-1,000
- Pears: 100-800
- Persimmons (Asian) 100-200
- Plums (Asian) 250-700
- Plums (European) 500-800
- Pomegranate 100-200
- Quince 300
Now that you have a list of apple, pear, and stone fruit trees that fit your climate and chill hours for your area, now we have another factor you must plan for: pollination.
Different varieties of trees will bloom at different times. Some apple trees bloom early, some mid-season, some late. You might think, “So what?”
Well, depending on the variety, you may have to have a “boyfriend” for your tree to pollenate it. Some apple trees are self-fertile, which means with no other varieties are needed to fertilize the blossoms, they will set fruit without having any pollination from another variety of tree, like Fuji and Gala apple trees. However, even self-fertile trees have higher fruit yields when pollenated by another variety. Some trees require being pollenated by another variety of tree in order to set fruit. So if you only have one variety of tree, say three Granny Smith trees, unless you get another apple variety that blooms at the same time Granny Smith does, you’re not going to have any apples. Granny Smith is a mid-season bloomer, so if you picked another mid-season bloomer, like Cox’s Orange Pippin, you’ll have apples, since Granny Smith will also fertilize the Cox’s Orange Pippin, as that requires another pollenizer too. I’ll go into the blooming season in the next section.
And then there are varieties with sterile pollen. This means that they not only require pollen from another tree to fertilize the blossoms for fruit but that you cannot use that tree as a pollenizer for other trees. If you do get a tree with sterile pollen, you must have other trees to pollenate the sterile pollen tree. For example, if you get a Mutsu or Elstar apple tree, both of which have sterile pollen and are mid-season bloomers, you will need another mid-season bloomer. Preferably two other midseason bloomers with fertile pollen or are self-fertile. So if you have an apple tree with sterile pollen, it is preferable that you have at least three trees, all different varieties. A combo of three trees that would lead to a good harvest while using a sterile pollen tree might be Mutsu (mid-season sterile), Pink Lady® – A.K.A. “Cripps Pink” (mid-season self-fertile) and Cinnamon Spice (mid-season, requiring another pollenizer). The Pink Lady® pollenates the Cinnamon Spice and Mutsu, while the Cinnamon Spice pollenates the Mutsu and increases the yield of the self-fertile Pink Lady®.
Regarding other fruit varieties, apricots, figs, and pomegranates are self-fruitful, so you can have one tree and can harvest fruit. Most varieties of nectarines, peaches, and persimmons are self-fruitful, but there are a few varieties that need pollenizers. Apples, pears, and cherries have some self-fertile varieties and somewhere a pollenizer is required where bloom time will be important to match up. Only apples have a few sterile pollen varieties, which can be dealt with by planting with self-fertile varieties for pollination.
TIMING OF POLLINATION
Now that you have picked a fruit tree for your USDA zone, chill hours and pollenization, you have to make sure that blooming for pollenization happens at the right time. Some apple, pear and cherry trees are early bloomers, some mid-season bloomers, and other late. If you are selecting trees to pollenate each other, if you get one tree that is an early bloomer and the one you want to pollenate with is a late bloomer, you’ll be out of luck and you won’t have the blossoms fertilized resulting in no fruit to harvest. If you have the land available, you can get two or three variety of apples that are early bloomers, two or three that are mid-season bloomers and two or three that are late-season bloomers. The same goes for pears and cherries. I’ll cover more on this towards the end of the MULTI-GRAFT TREES OR SINGLE VARIETY section.
STORAGE ABILITY and TASTE
If you’re selecting fruit trees for flavor, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of varieties for all the fruit I’ve listed. How will you know which trees to pick? Depends on what you want to use them for. For apples, some varieties are better for making pies and applesauce, others for fresh eating, some for cider. The same goes for pears, and also for cherries. Sweet cherries are best for fresh eating while sour are best for preserving and pies, though sweet cherries can be canned and made into jam as well. If canning sweet cherries, a little lemon juice and zest will brighten the flavor when cooking.
If you’re choosing fruit for storing fresh in a cellar, check to make sure the variety you pick is good to excellent for storage. With pears, some early ripening varieties are good keepers, and many pear varieties do better with some time in storage to improve flavor. With apples, the rule of thumb is, the later they ripen in the season, the better the keeper and the better the flavor. Gravensteins are one of the early ripening varieties ready for harvest during the second half of July in California’s Central Valley (ripening will vary based on your location), and they are wonderful for applesauce, but terrible keepers. If you plant a Gravenstein, be sure to plan to do a lot of canning of applesauce or drying of fruit. If you grow a Granny Smith or an Arkansas Black apple tree, which ripens in the later half of October into November (also based on Central California regional climate), those are long keepers with a lot of flavors and will keep well. However, there are some varieties that defy this rule, such as Honeycrisp, which ripens in early August, stores well and is a particular favorite for flavor in my family for its intense flavor.
If you’re not rushed to plant a fruit tree this Spring, I recommend this year you go to various festivals, farms and horticultural events where you can try the different varieties that work for your area (based USDA zone and chill hours). Many markets offer a variety of apples and pears throughout the Winter you can try now. Some specialty and gourmet markets might have some of the harder to find varieties that would work in your area.
You may be feeling overwhelmed at all the information I’ve given you so far and figure you’ll just take a seed from a Fuji apple and just plant it in the ground and get a Fuji apple tree. That’s not how it works. The Fuji apple may have been pollenated by another variety of tree and you may wind up with a tree that makes little green sour apples that are only good for cider. Breeding for fruit trees, especially apples, is a very complex art. If you want a better grasp of the breeding of apples and why you can’t grow a Fuji apple tree from a Fuji apple seed, I recommend you watch the one-hour TV program, “Botany of Desire.” There is an excellent 15-minute section on apples. Basically, all fruit trees that are grown for food have been grafted onto the rootstock. This has been the practice since Roman times, propagating a certain variety to create true copies of that fruit’s characteristics. I will cover grafting scion wood onto rootstock in a future article.
Now the next choice you have to make it your rootstock collection. Some nurseries will sell trees already on a preselected rootstock. Some mail-order nurseries will have a choice of rootstock.
You have to choose a rootstock based on your area’s conditions. There are different rootstocks for apples, pears, cherries, stone fruit, nuts, and even grapes. Each rootstock will have qualities that help the tree survive in certain environments. The choice of rootstock will also affect the final size of your fruit tree once mature. If you are tight on space, a dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock variety, like Budagovski 9, which results in a tree only 6′-10′ will better serve you than something like Antonovka rootstock for apples, which has a full height of 25′-35′. Some rootstocks are better suited to soil adaptability, some are better suited to resist crown rot, fight blight and nematodes. The Malus Fusca ‘Wild Crabapple’ rootstock is suitable for wet sites with poor drainage. Please talk with your local master gardener program to see which rootstocks would be best for your conditions, while also considering if you have space restrictions as well. I will cover pests and diseases, like fireblight and nematodes in a future article.
If for some reason you need to go with a rootstock that results in a larger tree, you can always prune vigorously each year to control height and width. People have been controlling the height of trees through espaliering and bonsai for centuries. Going with a standard rootstock size variety may also be to your long term advantage. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees tend to have shorter life spans with dwarf trees having a life span of only 10 to 15 years. Semi-dwarf trees live approximately 15- 20 years, while standard-size trees can live for decades.
But in a TEOTWAWKI, you can always propagate your own rootstock by taking cuttings of suckers, growing your own rootstock and grafting scion wood, and replacing the dwarf or semi-dwarf trees years from now with a new tree you grafted yourself.
MULTI-GRAFT TREES OR SINGLE VARIETY: Space and variety
For people who want a variety of plums, a variety of apples and a variety of peaches to mature through the Summer and Fall, but only have room for three fruit trees, you can meet your goals by buying a pre-grafted combo tree.
For example, a grower will choose a rootstock that is popular for your region and graft on three, four or up to five different varieties of apple (or plum, or pear, or peach) onto one rootstock. The rootstock is grown like a whip, and then the different varieties are grafted along the trunk, with the leader of the rootstock cut off. The grafts have been growing for at least one growing season and are fairly sturdy. The grower will choose varieties that will complement each other and help with pollination. They often have combo trees for apples, pears (European and Asian), cherries, peaches/nectarines, even pluots (apricot/plum hybrid crosses).
With the right selection of combo trees, you can have a constant harvest of ripening fruit, starting in May/June with apricots, all the way up to Thanksgiving with apples and persimmons in the Fall.
If you have several acres and plan on stocking up your cellar for hard times and feeding many, then I recommend planting a single variety of trees. Just understand that a full-grown apple tree can produce hundreds of pounds of fruit each year, once it has reached production age. When are trees of production age? Dwarf trees will be ready to harvest for production in two or three years after planting. Semi-dwarf trees take three to five years before they reach the age when you can start harvesting fruit from the trees. Standard size trees are more in the five to seven-year range before they really start producing fruit. In those years while you wait for them to reach production age, cut the fruit off, once it has set and the blossom petals have fallen off. You want all the energy of the tree into building strong roots and a canopy, not into producing fruit, which takes energy away from the tree for growing. You may want to have some fruit the year you plant, but don’t let the fruit ripen. You’ll be rewarded with a healthier tree that will produce more fruit if you wait until your tree is ready to bear fruit for harvest.
Also, if have the land and can plant lots of single variety trees, you stagger your fruit tree selection with early bloomers, mid-season bloomers, and late-season bloomers, so if you are hit with a late-season frost that might kill off the fruit set by early and mid-season bloomers, your late-season blooming fruit trees will help assure a harvest later that year.
There is the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It may seem like you’ll never live long enough to enjoy that fruit, but your patience will be rewarded with a bounty of fruit for the rest of your life and your children and grandchildren’s lives by waiting until your tree is fully established before growing fruit for harvest.
WHERE TO PLANT
Fruit trees require sun and lots of it. An east, south or west-facing slope are all good, though south-facing is best. Make sure wherever you plant has at least eight hours of full sun.
Fruit trees spread, so make sure you leave plenty of space for each tree to spread branches. Apple trees do not bear on vertical branches, only horizontal branches. So you’ll be pruning your apple trees to maximize horizontal growth for maximum fruit production. Go to one of those U-Pick fruit orchards and notice the wide spacing. You need space between the trees to allow for sun and airflow to prevent mildew and fungal growth. Without proper air circulation, if it rains and your fruit gets wet from Spring and Summer rains and your trees are crowded into one another, you’ll be fighting diseases that will kill your tree and rot your fruit.
Can you plant a fruit tree in a pot? Yes, they have dwarf patio sized trees. The bonus is, if you have to bug out, you can take a food source with you. It won’t produce nearly as much as a full-sized orchard tree, but if you are living in an apartment, you can take the tree with you when you move.
Once your fruit trees are mature and producing fruit, you may notice some years you have bumper crops and the next year, small crops. This is normal. Many fruit trees will cycle every other year, with one heavy crop, and the next year with a light crop. This is no fault of your own. It’s merely the tree catching its breath by taking it easy one year. Remember, fruit packs a lot of energy and calories. The tree has to produce those calories by taking water and nutrients from the soil and with photosynthesis, converting all that into food, which will provide nutrients and energy for you to eat. You may want to stagger your plantings over two years just in case. Plant half of your planned apple, pear, cherries, peaches, and figs one year and the other half the next year. I don’t know if this technique will mitigate small crop years, but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has tried this and what the result was.
This needs to be said if you don’t know this already, but plant the tree at the same level as when it was grown. Do not bury the trunk deeper than the level at which the tree was grown. Make sure the area where the tree was grafted remains ABOVE the soil line. Burying your tree deeper than at which it was grown will not help your tree, and in fact, hinder it. If you must mulch, place the mulch at least one foot away from the tree. This goes for established trees as well. Mulch can harbor pests and diseases that may attack your tree. It may also encourage suckering of the rootstock – don’t forget to cut those rootstock suckers off unless you intend to graft more scion wood onto them. You want to graft when they are about little larger than a pencil in diameter – otherwise, cut them off as they’ll suck the strength out of your tree unless grafted onto.
As for the axiom of “Make a $20 hole for a $5 tree,” the problem is that you loosen the soil and create a nice soft spot for the roots to grow in, the tree may circle the bowl area in which you’ve dug and the root won’t struggle to go deeper because the $20 hole you dug makes it easier for the roots to grow in instead of exploring the harder earth below and around it. So just make the hole just large enough to spread the roots of the tree out, but let the tree struggle to dig deep root into the ground where it will find nutrients, water and can anchor itself securely against winds.
Here is a list of links to web sites that sell fruit trees or provide good information – or both. I am not affiliated with any of these companies, but they have a wide variety of fruit trees for sale, good information about each variety, and helpful information for gardeners.
Dave Wilson Nursery: This a grower who sells wholesale to nurseries. They won’t sell to you, but they have a “Find Trees with our Retailer Lookup” to help you find a retailer who can sell to you. They also have a lot of very interesting articles and charts regarding growing fruits. Their fruit harvest chart is especially helpful for planning to stagger your fruit harvest so there is always something fresh for your table.
Raintree Nursery: This is a retail nursery that in addition to the common fruits I discussed also offers some rare and unusual fruit varieties, such as edible dogwoods, medlars, mountain ash, and pawpaws. Their berry selection is also quite impressive. I read their paper catalog just for information, besides drooling over all the choices. I have ordered trees and blueberries from this nursery and they know how to properly pack a plant for shipping. Their section on rootstocks is also helpful if you’re not sure which rootstock is right for you.
Trees of Antiquity: This nursery has a lot of hard to find a rare variety of apples, common and rare fruits, and some very good articles. Some of the historical descriptions of the varieties they sell are interesting, especially learning about how old some of the variety of apples they sell. (The White Pearmain dates back to the 1200s.)
Big Horse Creek Farm: I found this nursery when I came across some rare antique apple variety listed and was curious to learn more about it. Their list of heirloom and antique apples is impressive. These guys are located in North Carolina, so if you live along the east coast, these guys may be able to ship to you faster than some of the West coast nurseries I’ve listed.
Greenmantle Nursery: Another apple farm based on the west coast, but they are certainly worth checking out if you live on the east coast. This nursery specializes in apples that were bred by Albert Etter, who bred the Sierra Beauty, Wickson crab (an edible crab apple!), Jonwin and the pink flesh variety Pink Pearl, in addition to a long list of antique and heirloom varieties. A wonderful website to visit just to read the story behind their nursery. They also sell bench grafts, which as newly grafted trees on rootstock, which are smaller for shipping and cheaper for saving money, if you have the time to invest the few extra years it will require to grow them. Their list of edible crab apples is impressive. Also, if you’re interested in growing roses for rose hips, this is a good nursery to check out.
University California Davis Fruit & Nut Chill Calculator: I know most of you who read this article do not live in California, and possibly not even the United States, but if you want an idea of what information you should be looking for chill hours, this is a good place to review. They also have a vast number of research articles on agriculture and an excellent source in which to use to educate yourself. Click on the Fruit & Nut Information tab on the table of contents to get yourself started on those academic papers.