Fruit Trees
Topic: pollinators, edibles
Location(s): Outdoor
branches of fruit trees
Growing Guide
While it takes several years from planting time for most fruit trees to begin bearing a substantial harvest, they will produce fruit for many years, even decades, if given proper care.

Fun Facts

  • Commercial cherry growers hire helicopters to hover over their orchards after a heavy rain and “blow dry” the trees. This keeps the ripe fruit from softening and allows pickers back in as soon as possible. Maybe you can use a drone for your backyard trees!
  • John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, took advantage of a frontier law that allowed someone who planted 50 apple trees to claim land as a permanent homestead. He planted trees in what is now Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois, claimed the land, and then later sold it (along with its apple trees) to incoming settlers. When Chapman died in 1845 he still owned over 1200 acres of land.
  • The city of Gaffney, South Carolina, boasts a water tower shaped like a peach and known as the Peachoid. It stands 135 feet tall, weighs more than 10,000 pounds, and holds one million gallons of water.
  • We may say that something is “as American as apple pie,” but a few species of crabapples are the only apples native to North America. Ancestors of most of our cultivated apples originally came from central Asia.

Fruit Trees - Growing Guide

Adding fruit trees to your school or home garden can be a rewarding, educational, and delicious experience. Besides a sweet and nutritious harvest, fruit tree growing adds beauty to your landscape and provides a host of opportunities for learning about pollination and the importance of pollinators, tree growth and care, and healthful eating.

However, fruit trees are a long-term investment in time, garden space, and resources. While it takes several years from planting time for most fruit trees to begin bearing a substantial harvest, they will produce fruit for many years, even decades, if given proper care. To continue to thrive, fruit trees need regular pruning and pest and disease monitoring and control. So it’s important to consider both the needs of the trees and the on-going capabilities for care of your school garden program (or your home gardening enthusiasm) before you set your trees in the ground.

One of the delights of fruit tree gardening is the range of plants to choose from. Depending on your available space and climate you can choose among many different varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and nectarines.  In warmer parts of the country citrus, figs, pomegranates, and guavas are possibilities.

Within the scope of this article, we can’t give you all the information you’ll need to choose and grow the fruit trees that will meet your specific needs. What we can do is provide you with an overview of the kinds of things that are important to consider if you’re thinking about planting fruit trees at your school or home — a road map to help you navigate your way to the best selections for your site.

  • Fruiting Season The time of year when a tree bears fruit is an important consideration mainly for school or youth garden programs whose participants are not active in the summer. There are few things more delicious than a ripe peach, but only if someone is there to harvest it! Fall-ripening apples and pears fit in well with many school calendars, but late-bearing varieties of other fruits may be ready for harvest at summer’s end into early fall as well.
  • fruit trees apple
  • Tree Size Fruit trees may be slender saplings at planting time, but they will grow! Make sure there is enough room at your planting site for these long-lived garden residents to reach their full size.Most temperate-zone fruit trees, such as apples, pears, peaches, and cherries, are not grown from seed. Instead they are “constructed” of different parts that are grafted or joined together — a rootstock on the bottom and a scion or bud of a fruiting variety that will grow to form the top of the tree and bear fruit. Grafting ensures that the tree produces fruits that are true to a particular variety, for example ‘McIntosh’ apples or ‘Bing’ cherries. The type of rootstock used controls the mature size of the tree, and can also influence other traits such as disease resistance, adaptability to soil types, and cold hardiness.Depending on the rootstock used, a fruit tree’s mature size may be standard, semi-dwarf or dwarf. For example, a standard apple tree will reach about 20 feet tall and need an area about 35 feet in diameter at maturity; a semi-dwarf apple will get about 12-15 feet high and 15 feet wide, while a dwarf apple will only reach about 10 feet tall and wide. Be sure to check the tag or catalog information for the trees you select to learn their mature height and spread.  Semi-dwarf and dwarf trees are generally the best choices for most school and home gardens.
    fruit trees peach
  • Climate Considerations Selecting the kinds and varieties of fruit trees that are adapted to your climate is an important step. Check out the USDA winter hardiness zone rating for the species and variety you are considering (this info should be in the catalog description or on the tree’s tag). The hardiness zone rating is based on the average minimum winter temperature in your area. Choosing a tree with an appropriate hardiness zone rating will help ensure that your tree makes it through the winter without cold damage.Gardeners in warmer climates need to pay attention to the chilling requirements of fruit trees.  As a way to prevent their buds from beginning to grow in a mid-winter warm spell, only to be injured when cold temperatures return, temperate-zone fruit trees have evolved the need for exposure to a certain number of hours of temperatures below 45°F before growth can begin. Many apple varieties need 1000-1500 hours of chilling. Plant breeders have helped gardeners in milder areas by developing low-chill varieties of many fruits. Low-chill apples may need only 200-800 hours and low-chill peaches as little as 200-400 hours. If you live in a mild winter area like the Deep South, warm Southwest, or southern California, be sure to select fruit tree varieties with chilling requirements that are adapted to your climate.
  • Pollination Requirements Be sure to check out the pollination needs of the fruit tree varieties you’re considering before planting. Some require cross-pollination, where the pollen of one variety is carried by a pollinator, usually a bee, to the flower of a different variety in order for fruit to form. What this means in practical terms is that if you select a fruit tree that needs cross-pollination, you need to plant trees of a least two different varieties with overlapping bloom times within about 50 feet of each other in order to get fruit to form. (Remember that fruit trees are produced by grafting. This means that the top or fruiting part of one McIntosh apple tree, for example, is genetically identical to another McIntosh tree. So two McIntosh trees will not provide cross-pollination; a different variety, say a Gravenstein, is needed as a pollen provider.) Most varieties of apples, pears, plums, and sweet cherries need cross-pollination. Also, not all varieties of pears and sweet cherries have compatible pollen, so be sure to check out the pollination requirements of specific varieties of these fruits.Most varieties of peaches, nectarines, sour cherries, and apricots are self-pollinating, so fruit will form even if only a single variety or tree is planted; however, cross-pollination often produces larger yields.  (There are also a few varieties of apple and sweet cherry that are self-fruitful.)
  • Site and Soil As a general rule, fruit trees need full sun and reasonably fertile, well-drained soil with a pH in the 6.0-7.0 range. If you don’t have a spot with suitable soil, fruit trees can be grown in 10-15 gallon containers. Dwarf trees are generally the best choices for container growing. In cold winter areas, choose varieties of trees that are rated for a couple of zones colder than the one you’re in, if possible, and be prepared to provide some type of winter protection, perhaps moving containers to an unheated garage or shed.
  • Pruning Fruit trees need regular pruning, both to develop a good structure in their formative years and to keep trees fruitful as they age. This is not a time-consuming task, but it is one that should not be neglected. It is also not difficult to do, once you learn the basic principles. Pruning young trees helps them develop a good basic form with a central leader, modified leader, or open center. The tree’s natural growth habit dictates which form to choose; central leader for most apples, open center for peaches and nectarines, modified leader for pears, cherries, and plums. Once a tree begins bearing, pruning helps maintain the tree’s shape, opens up the interior to sunlight and air, and removes suckers, waterspouts, and broken, crossing, or diseased branches. For detailed pruning instructions, check out the many online resources available from sources such as state Extension Services and fruit tree nurseries.
  • Pest and Disease Control There are many creatures, ranging in size from nibbling deer to minute microorganisms, that are as eager to feed on your fruit trees as you are. Insects, mites, disease-causing fungi, bacteria, and viruses, along with deer, rabbits, mice, voles, and birds, are all potential headaches for fruit tree growers. This isn’t meant to be discouraging; but it is important to recognize that some level of pest and disease control is needed in most cases in order to produce a usable crop of tree fruit. The specific pest and disease problems you may face will depend on the type of fruit you are growing, where in the country you are gardening, and the specific conditions of your site. Your state Extension Service website is a good place to start to learning about the problems that are common in your area and how you can address them.It’s a good idea to give some thought to what sorts of pest and disease control strategies fit best in your garden and program before you begin planting. Many school and youth garden programs prefer to use only organic pest controls. This option is certainly doable, but it does require a commitment to learning about pest and disease identification, life cycles, and organic control strategies and timing, rather than simply spraying trees on a preventative schedule with insecticides and fungicides.  For example, if you are planting apples you can select varieties such as Liberty and Freedom that have been bred to have resistance to some of the common apple diseases. If deer are common in your area, planting trees in a fenced-in area can head off damage from these browsers. Practicing good orchard sanitation by promptly gathering up and disposing of fallen fruits will help reduce many insect and disease problems. Individual clusters of developing fruits can be covered with homemade or commercial specialty bags that ward off many insect and disease problems.  If you do decide to treat trees with materials approved for organic growing, such as insecticidal soap and horticultural oil, make sure you know which pests these materials target and when and how to apply them for the most effective control.

Create a Fruit Tree Scrapbook

Because fruit trees are long-lived plants, it’s a good idea to start a fruit tree “scrapbook” at planting time that can be passed along and referred to from year to year.  This is especially helpful for school and community garden plantings, where tree caretakers may change with time. Scrapbooks may be on paper or digital and can include text, photos, and diagrams.  Start by listing the specific fruit tree varieties planted, as well as the date of planting, the trees’ location, and planting methods used. In the following seasons include notes on when and how the trees are pruned; the kinds and timing of pest and disease problems encountered, how they are treated, and what worked and what didn’t; the weather conditions, both during the growing season and over the winter; if and when trees are fertilized; how much fruit is produced and when it is ready for harvest. You will be creating an invaluable resource that can help you and future gardeners refine tree care practices and ensure a bountiful harvest for years to come.

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