Friday, April 4, 2014

Choosing Fruit Trees for Your Garden

Spring and fall are the best time to plant fruit trees in a garden. They're also a great time to find fruit trees on sale at your local nursery. If you're ordering from a catalog, you will most likely need to order in spring, as most fruit trees only ship in spring.

First, you'll need to know your zone. This is essential for choosing a fruit tree that will grow well in your garden.

After determining your zone, you'll need to ask yourself a few more questions:

Cold Hardiness: If you live in a place where it freezes and winters are cold, "hardiness" is something that will matter in your decision. Trees that are not hardy for where you live will be killed by freezing temperatures. When choosing a tree, look to see if it is hardy to your cold winter (for example, "hardy to -25ºF", "hardy to -40ºF", etc.). If the tree is not hardy for your area, choose a different variety. Most trees are hardy to USDA zone 5; some will go to zone 4. In colder areas, you may need to work harder to find trees that will do well in your climate. In USDA zones 3 and colder, you may find there are more berries that will grow in your area then larger fruit trees. Growing berries may be your best choice for fruits.

Chilling hours: If you live in a warm climate, making sure that your fruits get enough hours of cold to produce fruit is important. Most fruits perform best in USDA zones 7 and below; however, there are some trees, such as citrus, that prefer it to not freeze at all (citrus can handle a few hours of below freezing, but do not do well when temperatures are below 28º for more than a few hours and will suffer significant branch loss at that point; if temperatures turn colder, the tree can die).

Chilling hours are the number of hours between 32-45ºF that you receive in the winter. Temperatures that are colder than that do not count towards chilling hours. Temperatures slightly above that each count as a half chilling hour, and warmer temperatures count as negative chilling hours. Trees are usually labeled low chill, medium chill, and high chill, though they will sometimes list actual chilling hours.

The actual hours are especially helpful when you want to have to trees of the same fruit that are ripe at different times. I grow two different peaches: Desert Gold and Early Elberta. Desert Gold is a low-chill tree that ripens for me in May. Early Elberta is a mid-chill variety that ripens in July. (The regular Elberta tree is high-chill and is not the best choice for our climate, as it has higher chilling hours. That tree usually ripens in August or September, depending on your region).

I did the same things with apricot trees. I grow a Royal Apricot in my back yard. It is self-fertile and ripens in May. My father-in-law has an apricot tree that ripens 3-4 weeks earlier than ours. With some research, I learned that there are two other apricot trees that ripen that early. One of them is called Katy. I went to a different nursery to purchase this tree so that we could enjoy fresh apricots twice a year, a few weeks apart. I planted Katy in the front yard last year; it has 15 apricots on it this year, and it should be ripe soon. It only requires 150 chilling hours, so it was the second tree in my garden to blossom. It flowered the first week of February.

Throughout a city, there are several microclimates. This means that your area may not be just one specific zone. Higher and lower elevations will affect your property and can change the zone dramatically. For example, the Las Vegas valley where I live can be anywhere from a zone 8b to a zone 10a. I am actually a zone 9a (though the general hardiness zone map I linked to above puts me at an 8b; a more specific map puts me more accurately in a zone 9a, which has first frost dates of November 15th and last frost dates of February 15th; our frost usually falls the first or second week of December, and we might get another frost in January--which could even make us zone 9b or 10a).

You can also have microclimates within your property--even if you live on a small lot. How much shade or sun an area receives in winter can make one place warmer and another place colder. Keep this in mind when choosing a place to plant your fruit trees. I grow a few moderate and high chill fruits in areas that are shaded from the walls during the winter. This makes it more likely that those trees will fruit for me.

Spacing is another important choice. Full-size fruit trees take up a large amount of space and take longer to fruit than semi-dwarf and dwarf trees. Most of the trees I grow are semi-dwarf types. They fruit a year or two earlier than full-size trees, but more importantly, I can grow 10 semi-dwarf trees in the space needed by one full-size tree. This is how I am able to have 42 fruit trees on a .24 acre lot. In addition, I can reach the fruit more easily.

When choosing an individual fruit tree, look for one with a straight trunk. This is one of the nice things about choosing at a local nursery that isn't possible when purchasing online.

Fruit trees can be planted in the ground, but also in pots. As a tree's growth is limited by the size its roots can grow, choose as large a pot as possible to grow potted fruit trees. Dwarf and shorter trees are good choices for pots for this reason. I grow oranges and pomegranates in pots, and I am looking to add hazelnuts in pots in the future. If you are renting, growing a fruit tree in a pot means you can take it with you. I love that I can put pots on my patio and add to my growing space.

Pollination is a very important part of choosing a fruit tree. If you want to only grow one tree of a certain type (one apple, one plum, one cherry, one peach, etc.) it must be self-fertile. If it is not, you will never get any fruit from that tree. Most of the trees I grow in my garden are self-fertile, as I have a large variety of fruit, chosen specifically to have something ripe each month over 7 months.

If the tree you want is not self-fertile, you must determine what type of tree will pollinate it. Nursery tags and catalogs are helpful with this; they usually tell you what other tree you must plant in order to pollinate your tree. This other tree must be planted nearby (usually within 25 feet). For most trees, this is fairly simple. Apples, however, are much more complex, as they have trees that are sterile (cannot pollinate themselves or other trees), are mixes (and cannot be pollinated by either type of parent tree), and flower at different times (apples can ripen June through February, depending on the variety!) If you want to grow a number of different apple trees, do your research before choosing any that are not self-fertile to ensure that you have the proper pollinator.

I prefer, whenever possible, to buy fruit trees from my local nursery. This helps me in several ways:

1. The trees are less-expensive.

While the cost of trees has gone up $5 at my local nursery since I purchased the bulk of my fruit trees, they are still much less costly than ordering online. In spring and fall, there are usually sales as well. Regular price here is currently $24.88 a tree, and they go on sale for $19.88 (citrus trees are $5 more).

2. I get a potted tree that I can see is growing

My personal experience has been much more successful with potted trees over bare-root trees. The trees have a strong root system and grow bigger and stronger than bare-root trees. I look for healthy branches and growing buds to make sure they are living.

3. I get taller trees

The choices at the nursery are much bigger than catalog choices. I always purchase a 5 gallon tree that is 3 to 4 feet tall. (Our nursery also sell much larger trees for $100 if you don't want to wait for fruit and are willing to pay a lot more). These trees are older and will bear fruit a year or two sooner than a smaller tree.

Of course, you may not have access to a local nursery, or your local nursery doesn't have the type of tree that you want. In that case, ordering online may be your only option. It is important that you plant bareroot trees before the last frost in your area. They need to be planted when they are dormant. Our last frost date is February 14th; most companies do not ship that early, which means I am more likely to have trees die. If your last frost date is May 15th, however, you can still order bareroot trees to put in the ground now.

For a complete list of the fruit trees that I am growing in my garden, check out the column on the right-hand side of my Kitchen Garden page.

Are you adding any fruit trees to your garden this year? So far this year I've added another Meyer lemon and another Stella cherry tree.


  1. My plan is to plant at least 3 fruit or nut trees each year. We have a local nursery that sells amazing trees and Mother's Day weekend they are 25% off the tagged price. I have many trees planted already, I am not sure exactly how many total. There are apple, pear, plum, cherry, peach, apricot, and mulberry. I also have planted butternut, chestnut, almonds, and hazelnuts. I want to plant a few black walnuts, but I won't have to buy those since I can dig them up from a friends place. I have planted peaches from seed that do quite well. I also have cherry shrubs that I planted only once that come up from seed now. They are a small tart cherry, not great for eating out of hand, but they make a nice jam.

    I am thinking I want to plant more cherries this year. We have two oak trees in our front yard that I think need cut and I would love to plant cherries there. My husband likes these trees, but I think I have convinced him that they will just become a problem as they grow taller, so maybe he will cut them down soon. I will also probably plant another apple tree, even though I have at least a dozen because there really is no such thing as enough apples. Right?!?!

    1. After learning from other readers that black walnuts make it impossible to grow other things (as they change the soil) I would be hesitant to plant them--and it is great that you can get them from someone else!

      If you cut your oaks, they will be great firewood in a year.

      I think cherries would be beautiful in your front yard; they are so pretty when they bloom.

      If you can eat more apples, then by all means, plant more! Especially if you are making sauce and more so if you have a press to make your own juice/cider.

      I would love the space for lots of nut trees. Almonds do well here but are huge trees.

      I also found out last year that pistachios do really well here. If I had known that when I planted my garden I would have put some in. It's hard to dedicate the space to a male tree that doesn't produce fruit, so I would have to have at least 2 female trees :) I don't know how I could fit them on my property unless they were in pots on the driveway!

    2. I can plant the black walnuts along the pasture field so they won't affect any garden plants. But if you only have a small space they would not be a good choice.

      We have been clearing one five acre pasture for about 15 years. It was actually all a very thick woods, so we fenced in the perimeter and starting cutting firewood from it. We have a fireplace, a wood cookstove and a wood furnace so we use a lot of wood. The wood from the oak trees would be good for the cookstove, although the main trunk might make a nice saw log. That might help me convince him to cut it actually! lol

      I can a lot of applesauce, apple slices, spiced apple rings, make apple butter, and when we get enough of all of that we do make cider. We also store apples in the fruit cellar to eat later, although they don't keep more than a few months.

      I am always inspired by you Brandy. You do so much with the space you have. I am sure you have probably read Path to Freedom, you remind me of them!

    3. Also for your oaks, if you like mushrooms, you can use the newly cut logs to grow shiitake or oyster mushrooms using plugs.

  2. I'm in the city on a small lot 0.15 acres and we are making it a priority to put in edible landscaping. We just bought the house in the fall, so we are really starting from scratch with a very neglected yard. We put in fig, 2 banana, 2 apple, peach, nectarine, and a 4-in-1 pear and a pomegranate. I did a lot of research and read on local gardening blogs that the local Home Depot were not a good source as they sold many trees and berries that need more chill hours than we get here. I found that to be true, plus many trees were mismarked. The local nursery I used to go to has closed. I ordered online from Bay Laurel Nursery in California for the trees. They were shipped bare root in January. I ordered in December to make sure I got what I wanted. I got miniature and semi-dwarf trees.

    Ordering online was the best option for me since I needed so many trees I didn't mind paying the shipping and I was able to take my time at home and figure out what I wanted and do some research.

    The bananas and fig I ordered from Wellspring Gardens in Lakeland Florida and was very happy with them also.

    I will be getting citrus next winter. We need to cut down one tree in our backyard to make room for an orange tree and Meyer Lemon will go in a pot on our koi pond deck. The arborist that came and looked at the other trees we had removed to make room for our fruit trees told us to wait on putting in citrus as there was some kind of disease that came from China that was killing the citrus trees here. He said after that runs it's course, then put in citrus. That will give us time to make room for them anyway. The citrus I will buy at the local Home Depot.

    Thank you for putting together the information about the trees. I rely on you and your readers in planning my garden.

    1. Debbie, Bay Laurel Nursery is where I got my trees (listed in my comment below). But, I drove to get them as they are only 30 minute drive from where I live! Small world. They have a great website and a very helpful staff. I've gotten 6 trees from them now.

    2. Debbie, I have found the same problem at Home Depot; they carry a lot of high-chill fruits. Plus, both Lowe's and Home Depot charge even more for their trees and vegetables than our local nursery ($10 more per tree the last time I looked). That would still be cheaper for citrus than ordering online, though.

      Our last house had a yard your size and we tore out the previous landscaping (rocks and pine trees) and put fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers.

      I did get a Stark brothers catalog in the mail this last week; it appears that they are bareroot trees too, but they had prices half what I have seen elsewhere for trees, and I know several people who were happy with them (all in colder climates, though).

      I am constantly amazed at how much I can fit in my garden. I have a smaller front yard at this house than I did at my last house, but I have more trees out there because I planned it that way. With espaliered trees I can add even more trees, though I get more fruit from grapes in the same amount of space (grapes need to be full sun, while some of the fruit can take afternoon shade).

      You can probably do mangoes there too, and some fruiting vines, including papaya and passionfruit. If you are growing them on something that would give you even more food and you can use any vertical surfaces.

      I found a place this week called Easy to Grow Bulbs that has caper bushes and bay laurel trees. My order came in 3 days (standard shipping). They have bulbs that are good for hot climates and decent prices.

      I checked out your nursery. They post chilling hours; very nice. I smiled at the Descanso lilacs. I have been to Decanso many times and I have seen their lilacs. It is one of my favorite gardens. My husband proposed to me there.

    3. Christie - It sure is a small world! I recommend Bay Laurel to everyone I know here.

      Brandy - I debated about Mango but decided against it. They are huge trees and produce a lot of fruit. So much that many people around here just let it drop and the rats get them, so I am hoping to glean some.

      Passion fruit is on my list after we redo some of the fencing around the yard and I can grow them vertically there. We had several neglected arbors, but I cleaned them up and fixed them and have started several grape vines.

      I forgot, too, that I have 6 coffee plants/shrubs in pots. They were a freebie when I ordered from Wellspring. I'm not sure where they will go permanently as I think they are more a novelty than actually producing food. Maybe close to the street where no one will pick the fruit. Of course maybe someday I will be glad to be able to grow my own coffee!

      We also put in blueberry bushes across the front of the carport. It will look like a shrub from the street. We don't have an HOA but I still want the house to look nice.

      You are right, I am amazed how much we have put in and constantly thinking of new places to add more!

  3. I added a Sundowner apple and a Babcock peach to our backyard this year

  4. I planted two dwarf apple trees last year. They are both beginning to leaf. I am going to plant blueberry bushes in my front yard. The soil is acidic, and I have friends and co workers that say the bushes will do well.

    1. Blueberries do need acidic soil. What a blessing for you! You can also add strawberries there; they make an excellent ground cover. How exciting to add fruit to your front yard!

  5. Hi Brandy. Great article about fruit trees. Living in the north, I have never really had to consider "child hours". We live in the country but also have space challenges as we have a lot of trees/woods on our property and also livestock. This year I am looking to plant a semi dwarf carmine cherry tree. I have 5 Nanking cherry bushes (have not produced yet) but hopefully this year. I am also looking to plant another semi dwarf plum (again, I have one that has not fruited, it is it's third year this year, self pollinating), possibly another semi dwarf pear. We also currently have 2 apple, 2 pear and 3 peaches (squirrels got all my flat peaches on one tree but two, so we will have to do something about that) in addition to the plum and cherries. All of our trees are semi dwarf and self pollinating when possible. I purchased most of them through Stark with good success. They give recommendations on pollinators for each tree that needs one, which is helpful. We also have blackberries, raspberries and strawberries which have done well also. Almost forgot I am purchasing a Meyer Lemon also but it will have to be a potted plant to come indoors in our cold winters. It is so nice to be able to pick fresh fruit right in your own backyard.

    1. Since your tree is three years old, you will probably see fruit this year on your plum.

      I really looked at those beautiful cherry bushes but I could not figure out where to plant them in our garden. They are really interesting. I have only seen them in catalogs.

      I'm glad to know that you liked Stark; their prices seemed fair and I am glad to have some recommendations for readers from other readers.

  6. I am so amazed by all of this and how creative you all are with limited space. It's impressive. There are some advantages to your situations too...we have plenty of space, but we also have to fight against the wind, deer, cedar rust (more for apple trees), and it's an issue to get water way out to our trees. So, there are pluses and minus in both situations. I'm so grateful to have our situation, but I'm so impressed with people who have limited space and make such a good use of it. God is so good to us!

    We had two peach trees and we were having a hard time getting them to produce much fruit. Then we finally cut down a bush that seemed be blocking out some of the afternoon sun. Meanwhile my husband got a clearance email from some on-line catalogue selling peach trees for $8.99. He bought two and we put them closer to the house and not in our "orchard." Then one of our apricot trees died. It turns out that it was grafted to a peach tree for the trees stronger roots. Last summer we had FIVE peach trees produce pretty well. It was fabulous. We still have some dried peaches and peach sauce and peach salsa. So, we went from about 13 peaches a year to hundreds. So hang in there, anyone, who might be discouraged. Some of our fruit has taken years to establish. Also, I finally learned to use what I thought was useless fruit...crabapples. It made great jelly and other things.

    1. Your crabapples are also great pollinators for other apples.

      We have really bad wind here; at out last house, we lost half of two peach trees (one each year) to wind. We are better at pruning here so that we do not lose branches to wind. We carefully consider the shape of the tree and take off branches when it makes the tree too heavy on one side. We also thin the fruit, which helps to keep the wind problems down (heavy branches laden with fruit are more likely to break). The wind naturally does a lot of thinning for us (we had 4 days of heavy winds this week; I just got outside yesterday to work in the garden; we lost a good number of grape vines in the wind and the plums received a good thinning).

      Sun is so important. I had a pomegranate that produced well for years until to years ago, when it became shaded from the growth of other trees. I dug it up in January and moved it to a pot on our patio. It has leafed out and is now in full sun, where it will do so much better.

      When you prune your trees, make sure to open up the center of the tree. You should be able to pass a football through it. That will make it possible for air and light to reach your fruit.

    2. Thank you, Brandy, for the helpful hints. I didn't think wind would be such a problem there...I guess I thought since you were in the city it wouldn't be...hmm...I'm going to do more research about the pruning. I want to learn. I did take off about half of the peaches when they were tiny (painful!) but I finally learned that it really does help. I want to learn more about pruning before working on our little cherry tree. Air and light. I'm going to keep that in mind. Thanks! Liz

    3. We get 50 mph winds here. My sister-in-law has shingles rated to 120mph that blow off all the time (she's had damage to her pool and more) and her windows had to be reinforced inside with steel because the wind blows so hard it makes her windows curve in. She has much worse wind than we do and she's only a few miles away. She grows a lemon tree that is quite large; it is next to two walls, which helps it tremendously.

      We have had bad winds all week; I lost several branches off our grape vines this week (at least 15 bunches of grapes that we won't have).

      I heard something interesting about wind today and I was thinking about your comment. It was about young trees growing in the wind; the wind forces them to quickly put forth more roots and thicken their trunks so that they can become strong and withstand the wind.

      Thinning is painful; I tell the people at my garden tour that every time. I thinned just one apricot at the last tour and one woman visibly flinched! It is hard to do, but it is important.

      Cherry trees don't seem to need as much pruning as peaches; they don't put forth the number of branches that peaches do.

      You need to prune when the trees are dormant; a month before your last frost is best. Cut any dead branches (and everything you cut should be flush to the trunk or branch), cut branches that criss cross, and make sure you can reach the fruit (so shorten the tree if necessary). Remember that most trees make fruit on last year's growth. (apples, pears, pomegranates, and figs being exceptions to that; apples and pears make fruit on fruiting spurs, pomegranates make fruit on this year's growth, and figs are last year;s growth and then this year's growth, but only Mission figs (that crop twice); all others are last year's growth.

    4. Okay, so the cherry tree I will leave alone until next winter. It's already budding out...a lot. Wow, so much to learn...thanks for all of the tips and about last years' growth. I am certainly paying a lot more attention now. Thanks. p.s. I guess when I think about it logically the winds there are not so surprising and they sound really strong there. That is one thing we did do last year with the peach trees...we took off around half of the little baby peaches. It nearly killed me to do it, but I knew it had to be done. (They are young trees.) Anyway, a friend brought itty bitty peaches to church later when it was time to harvest them. So, I told her to take a lot of them off and she is planning on this year.) Thanks for all of the help, Brandy!

  7. Many thanks for your very informative article. I live in South Florida - Zone 10. Last year, my area sustained an infestation of whitefly that affected the coconut palms. It is my understanding the University of Florida is currently studying the problem and searching for a natural predator. Since the whitefly droppings were damaging other plantings, I had all coconut palms removed from my property. Afterwards, I planted one navel orange tree, one fig tree, and one papaya tree. The navel orange and papaya are already bearing fruit !. I am inspired by your fruit tree garden and plan to add a Meyer lemon tree and two potted kumquat trees this year.

    1. PS, your yard/garden is lovely, so lovely it almost makes me wish I was an outdoor sort of person.

  8. How much trouble are your espaliered fruit trees? I've been thinking about doing some, but with nearly an acre of yard, an extensive garden and 6 young kids, I'm trying to decide how much effort I want to put into espaliered trees. I love the look. I want more fruit trees (we have 11), but I want to understand what I'm getting myself into.

    1. Espaliered trees are pretty simple to maintain, as they are much smaller than regular trees. You don't get nearly as many as you have fewer branches than you do on a semi-dwarf tree, but they make great fences and even arbors. They do need to be pruned but as they are smaller they take less time to prune over larger trees.

  9. We didn't add more trees this year but we did expand our grapes. Our area is prone to late unexpected frosts that kill the blooms right off of the trees. We also had a problem with cedar rust on our apple tree. The peach tree didn't make it through the tough winter last year. That's what happens in the middle of Missouri!

    1. Every area has its challenges. Peach trees are not as long lived as apples. Are you going to replace your peach with a late blooming variety that is more hardy? That would give you peaches again for many years.

    2. We will replace it if our local nursery has one for our area. We have made many mistakes by purchasing trees and plants from large box stores and they are not suited for our area. I love the information tags your trees have, ours are not as detailed and they don't give us enough information about the variety of tree and it's needs. That goes for veggie starts as well. I have finally learned to only get starts from our local nursery. Unfortunately, the economy has shut many down and we may have only one in our area:(

    3. Those tags are at our local nursery. They are very helpful in making choices.

  10. Do pecan trees grow where you live? We have an acre of pecan trees in our front yard that my daddy planted almost 50 years ago. They produce far more than our family can use so we share with friends by allowing them to pick up on the halves, so many ground is still covered from last winter's harvest. All from some skinny sticks planted 50 years ago. We also have 2 pear trees but no one likes pears so these usually are wasted.

    1. How sad that so many of those pecans are wasted...could you advertise locally for people to come for the free gleanings off the ground ....I would LOVE some but am way too far from you being the other side of the world:) for pears , try to eat them greener like an apple.
      Alexa from Sydney Australia
      Enjoying my blogging adventure at

    2. Hi Brandy , what an informative post. You have given people so much one stop shopping/gleaning for fruit tree growing. ....and the side bar is inspirational.
      I bought 5 citrus trees that I'm mainly growing for the greening of an area and hopefully tough . I know they need to be fed well to keep pests at bay and constantly rotating the plant food.
      Love the blossoms on the nursery plants as well as your well set out garden.
      Many thanks from Alexa in Australia

  11. I'm not adding anything new to my garden this year, but I do have to replace my tomatoes. They never really go dormant here in Southern California, so this year they grew to enormous sizes, produced billions of tomatoes, and promptly died. I was sad, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. We have a banana tree, a peach tree, a lemon guava tree, and a tangerine tree that are doing well, along with a little lemon. They're all in pots on my front porch, since military housing won't let you plant trees in the tiny dirt strip surrounding our patio.

  12. I'm working on figuring out dwarf varieties to plant in half barrels. I have four along the sidewalk in my front yard that had Spanish lavender in it, but I'm aiming for all edible landscaping except for a couple of half barrels that my preschooler planted flowers in. We have heavy clay soil and it's a pain in the neck to dig, so I try to keep things above ground when possible (we're in zone 8 so I can do quite a bit in pots). Yesterday I planted a bare-root fig tree in a barrel. Looking forward to that fruiting in a couple of years! I also have an olive tree but I think I may have lost it this winter - we had a much colder spell than we usually do. We have a wonderful apple tree that was here when we moved in. I don't know what variety it is but the apples are HUGE (up to eight inches across) and it makes wonderful sauce.

  13. Thanks for the was such perfect timing.....we live in an apartment in Florida now, and I follow your blog and was just beginning to research edible landscaping and dwarf trees in I have some guidelines to use when I shop in the next couple weeks...!


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