In gardening, fruit trees yield an excellent return on investment. A semi-dwarf apple tree with a harvest life of 15 to 20 years can yield up to 500 apples per growing season. If you average production costs for homegrown apples over 10 years, the apples cost roughly a penny apiece – a definite discount over organic store-bought apples. Plant different fruit trees with different harvest seasons, and you can feast on fresh or preserved fruit year-round.
To determine which specific type of fruit tree is best for you, your best bet is to contact your local cooperative extension service. They know which tree types and varieties do well in your area. And before you plant any type, consider these basic facts about growing fruit trees.
Most fruit trees are available in three sizes: dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard. The thing to realize is that the rootstocks used to produce semi-dwarf trees don’t strongly control tree size, but contribute more to the tree in terms of adaptation to soil or climate (especially winter hardiness), pest or disease resistance, or bearing age. Sizes noted below indicate unpruned tree size. It’s best to prune trees to a size that allows you to reach branches easily – for picking, pruning and spraying – while standing on the ground or on a short stool or ladder.
Dwarf: Small trees (7 to 10 feet tall) suited to an 8-foot-diameter space. Shorter trees are easy to prune, spray, thin and harvest. Fruit is normal size; trees start bearing in 3 to 5 years. Dwarf trees have the shortest life spans.
Semi-dwarf: Medium-size trees (10 to 16 feet tall) need a 15-foot-diameter space. Annual pruning is vital to maintain height and shape. This tree size yields hundreds of fruits per season. Trees start bearing in 3 to 5 years.
Standard: Large fruit trees grow 25 to 30 feet tall and require a 15- to 30-foot-diameter space, depending on fruit type. Large size makes pruning, spraying and harvesting trickier. Trees begin bearing after 3 to 5 years and live long enough that your great-grandchildren can harvest fruit.
Multi-Grafted trees: Trees contain one or more types or varieties of fruit growing on the same trunk and are ideal for small spaces. Fruits typically ripen in sequence, providing a good yield for fresh eating.
As you select tree size, don’t overlook yard maintenance. Shorter trees require ducking beneath branches to mow or mulch.
Proper pruning of deciduous fruit trees ensures good fruit size and quality. Pruning also can be used to control tree size and make a specimen fit into more traditional landscape roles, such as fruiting hedges. However, different fruit trees need different types of pruning to remain productive. Your cooperative extension or a good book on fruit growing is the best source of pruning information. The most important thing to remember is that, as the tree’s owner, you can choose a size and not let the tree get bigger. Pruning can help you achieve those goals.
Sun: Fruit trees crave full sun with some shelter from wind. Without wind protection, trees tend to grow more slowly and need more water.
Soil: Test soil before planting – and learn what soil type your desired fruit tree needs. Citrus like acidic soil; pears prefer silt or clay loams with a neutral pH. Soil must drain well, except for plums, which prefer damp soil.
Terrain: Avoid planting fruit trees at the base of a hill or in a low spot, where cold air collects. In early spring, late frosts frequently kill blossoms on trees planted in low spots.
Proximity: Place trees near a water source. Trees planted near a house might discourage deer and other pests, but consider planting far enough away that sprays don’t create issues. Ripening fruit attracts wildlife, including birds, which leave droppings. Cherry trees beside a patio will likely result in spotted outdoor furnishings. Fallen fruit attracts yellow jackets, which can also present problems.
Pollination: Some fruit trees are self-pollinating; others require specific pollination partners in order to bear fruit. Even self-pollinating trees set more fruit when cross-pollinated. Generally, planting two or more varieties of the same tree type is the best way to ensure crops, but make sure bloom periods overlap. An early-flowering plum can’t cross-pollinate a late-blooming one. Sometimes an ornamental crabapple can cross-pollinate a traditional fruit-bearing apple. Ask your local cooperative extension office about pollination partners.