Choosing Fruit Trees
By Dr. Leonard Perry,
Extension Professor, University of Vermont
Winter is the time to order fruit trees from
catalogs (to be shipped in the spring “bare root”—no soil on the roots), and
spring the time to find them in large pots at local nursery outlets.
In addition to choosing them for their fruit, whether you’re planning to
incorporate them into landscapes or to plant a mini-orchard, you should know a
few facts about the main types of fruit trees to best choose ones matching your
site and your expectations.
Order the Fruit You Like to Eat
The very first step is to only order or buy trees of fruits you’ll like to eat, but
make sure they are hardy in your area. Beware in national chain stores of ones
selected for a large geographic region, ones which may not grow in your
particular area. There can be differences among cultivars (cultivated varieties)
too, usually with not all growing best in all regions. Even if a tree will survive
in an area, it may fruit poorly if at all. Some tree fruit cultivars will have buds
killed by frosts, so no fruit, if they bloom too early. Catalogs, and trained
nursery professionals, should be able to help in cultivar selection.
Make Sure You Have Room
How much space do you have, or are willing to plant and maintain? This will
determine the number of plants, based on their width and spacing. Keep in
mind there are dwarf, and semi-dwarf selections of many tree fruits, which of
course take less space than standard-size trees. Being lower, they are easier to
maintain and harvest too.
Related to size, as well as other traits such as disease resistance, soil
adaptability, hardiness, and vigor, are rootstocks. Rootstock refers to the plant
onto which the cultivar is grafted. You’ll often see these listed, going by letters
such as for apples the B9 dwarf or M111 semi-dwarf, or Lovell for peaches. Just
be aware of this if you see these letters, but unless you want a particular one for
specific traits or want to get involved with your own grafting, there is no need
to study up on these.
Spread Out Your Harvest
Expected yield may impact how many you want, or need, of each fruit type.
Keep in mind that many can be stored in various ways, or processed into jams
and fruit leathers for instance. If planting more than a couple cultivars, choose
ones that fruit at different times if you want to spread out your harvest season.
Although some tree fruits are listed as “self-fertile”, with no cross pollination
needed, even these often bear more heavily with two or more cultivars. Make
sure the ones you choose will flower at the same time. And when planting,
make sure these are close enough (often within 50 feet), so the bees can find
Apple Trees a Favorite
Apples are perhaps the main tree fruit most think of, especially in the north.
Their hardiness varies from USDA zones 3 (-30 to -40F average annual
minimum temperature) to 9 (20 to 30 degrees F), depending on cultivar. While
standard apple trees grow 20 to 30 feet tall, semi-dwarf grow 12 to 15 feet and
dwarf cultivars grow 7 to 10 feet. Respectively, they should be spaced 25 to 35
feet apart, 15 to 20 feet, or 7 to 10 feet.
Years to bearing from planting apple trees, and yield, for mature standard trees
is 5 to 8 years and 8 to 18 bushels, for semi-dwarf 3 to 5 years and 4 to 10
bushels, and for dwarf trees 2 to 4 years and one to 6 bushels. The variation in
these is due to cultivar, climate, and particular growing conditions.
Peaches Popular Too
Peaches are perhaps the main tree fruit that comes to mind with southern
gardeners. Closely related are the nectarines (basically smooth-skinned
peaches) and apricots. Although there are a few more hardy peaches, most
peaches and nectarines grow in zones 5 (-20 to -10 degrees F) to 9, while apricots
generally grow in zones 5 to 8 (10 to 20 degrees F). Madison, Red Haven, and
Reliance are peaches that may grow into zone 4. Standard peach trees reach 10
to 15 feet tall, dwarf ones 5 to 7 feet tall. Space these, respectively, 18 to 20 feet
and 7 to 8 feet apart. Crimson Rocket is an upright, columnar peach tree.
Although most peaches are self-fertile, so you can get by with one tree, most
bear more heavily with a partner nearby. Peaches are less tolerant than other
fruits of extremes in soils and climate. Expect fruit starting for standard trees in
2 to 4 years, 2 to 3 years for dwarfs. Mature trees, respectively, may yield 4 to 6
bushels or one to 2 for dwarf peaches.
Pears and Plum Fruit Trees
Pears, depending on cultivar, grow in zones 5 (sometimes 4) to 8. Luscious,
Parker, and Patten are a few of the more hardy cultivars. Standard trees reach
15 to 30 feet tall, 6 to 8 feet for dwarfs. Space these, respectively, 15 to 20 feet or
8 to 10 feet apart. Expect fruits in 4 to 6 years for standard trees, with 2 to 8
bushels when mature. For dwarfs, fruiting begins in 3 to 5 years with one to 2
bushels per mature tree.
Plums come in one of three main groupings—European (hardiness zones 5 to
9), Japanese (zones 6 to 9), and American hybrids (zones 4, maybe 3, to 8). Make
sure you have two of the same group for cross pollination. Standard trees reach
12 to 25 feet, semi-dwarf 12 to 15 feet, and dwarf 5 to 8 feet. Space them,
respectively, 18 to 20 feet, 10 to 15 feet, and 6 to 8 feet.
Be careful about bloom time when choosing, as early bloomers can be injured
by frosts. Expect yields in 4 to 6 years for standard trees, and 3 to 5 years for
semi-dwarf and dwarf ones. Standard and semi-dwarf, when mature, usually
yield 2 to 6 bushels per tree, with 1 to 2 bushels for dwarf plums.
Cherries: Sweet or Sour
Cherries come in two main groups, sweet and sour (or tart). Hardiness varies
with cultivar, but generally for sweet is zones 5 to 8, and for sour zones 4 to 7.
Standard sweet cherries often reach 20 to 30 feet, 15 to 20 feet for sour. Space
them, respectively, 20 to 25 feet, and 15 to 20 feet apart.
Sweet cherries generally need cross pollination, sour cherries usually don’t
need this to fruit. Expect yields in 5 to 7 years for sweet cherries, 3 to 5 for
sour. Both, when mature, yield one to 3 bushels or 60 to 80 quarts. Keep in
mind that, when growing cherries, bird netting or control is usually needed
unless you’re willing to share with the birds.