Fruit Trees

Growing fruit in your garden is becoming increasingly popular – and no wonder. Many fruit trees are easy to grow, and unlike vegetables they don’t need re-planting every year. Instead, once planted, they grow larger, and produce more fruit for you each year. The health benefits of fruit are well known. Children love to eat fruit much more than vegetables, and you can make great bake goods, desserts and preserves with your own harvest, at very low cost. Deciding what to grow can be a little confusing, so let’s go through all the different fruit trees you can grow, so you can decide what suits you best, for climate, garden area, and your needs.

Does All Fruit Grow on Trees?

No, it doesn’t, and this is an important thing to understand. Almost all the fruits we know as ‘berries’ grow on perennial plants or shrubby bushes, not on large trees. These are usually called ‘Soft Fruits’ and growing them is very different from growing ‘Tree Fruits’. Well-known Soft Fruits include strawberries, which are unique, because they grow as low perennial plants, forming a clump of leaves and blooms on the ground. Other Soft Fruits, like raspberries, and blackberries, grow on short shrubs, which usually need to be attached to wires or a fence, and are pruned extensively each year. Others, like blueberries, cranberries, and Goji berries, grow on shrubs that can be over 6 feet tall, and are grown much like other garden shrubs. In fact, they can easily be fitted into your landscaping, among flowering shrubs and evergreens.

Then there are some other fruits, such as the kiwi fruit, that are different again This popular and easy to grow fruit is a long, trailing vine, that is usually grown along a fence or stretched wire. If you live in a frost-free area you can also grow fruit like pineapples, which are a big clump of leaves on the ground, or bananas, which form in large clusters from a tropical-looking plant with large leaves.

What Are the Main Types of Fruit Trees?

Most Tree Fruits can be placed in one of three groups:

Pome Fruits – these are the apples and pears, as well as less well-known (but delicious) fruits like the quince and loquat. We can see that these are related because they all have an unusual base, at the end opposite the stalk, which is a cavity where the petals grew out, edged with little triangular parts that once surrounded the flower. Each fruit contains many seeds, in chambers in the center of the fruit.

Stone Fruits – these are all part of the big plant group called Prunus, and they include cherries, plums, apricots, peaches and nectarines. All of them have a large central stone, which contains the seed inside it. That seed contains varying amounts of hydrocyanic acid, also called prussic acid or cyanide. This is a deadly poison if consumed in sufficient quantity, although in small quantities it gives an interesting ‘bitter’ flavor to things like almonds, which are the seed of a stone fruit like an apricot. This is the only seed among these plants that can be safely eaten in any quantity. 

There are many other stone fruits in Prunus. Some are native to America, and these were often important food for the pioneers. Some were used by early plant breeders to create hardy fruits for the prairies, like the Hanska plum. There are also hybrids between some of these fruits, creating the peachcot, cherrycot and plumcot. These are hybrids of the apricot with the peach, cherry or plum, as the names tell us. Although not widely grown, many are delicious – and why only grow what you can buy at the store?

There are other stone fruits too, unrelated to plums. The most important are the olive, which most of us wouldn’t consider a ‘fruit’, but it is. Olives must be cured in salt to remove most of the bitter elements, and to soften them, before the can be eaten. The avocado is also a type of stone fruit, and everyone knows the big, round stone in the center of that soft green flesh.

Citrus Fruits – these are the well-known lemon and orange, as well as grapefruit, pomelos, limes, mandarins and tangerines. All these fruits grow on trees with large, green, evergreen leaves. These trees are sensitive to cold. Most of them will be damaged or die if they are exposed to temperatures below freezing (32 degrees), but a few can take brief periods – a few hours – of temperatures as low as 25 degrees. This means they can only be grown in the ground in zones 9 and 10. In other parts of the country they are often grown in big pots, and brought into a cool, bright place for the winter months.

Other Fruit Trees

Some fruits don’t fit into these categories. The most common is the fig, which grows on a tree with handsome lobed leaves. This fruit is a very unusual ‘inside out’ cluster of many tiny flowers, on a fleshy base that becomes the main part of the fruit.

Another popular fruit is the Japanese Persimmon (Diosypros) which comes in two kinds. These fruits usually contain a very astringent element that only disappears when the fruit has ripened completely, to a soft mush. There are other varieties, though, that are sweet when still firm – the one you grow depends on your personal preferences. This fruit is sometimes called ‘Sharon Fruit’.

What Can I Grow in My Zone?

Choosing the right trees for where you live is important. If you have frost after the flowers open, you won’t get a crop, and fruit trees flower at different times, and the buds have different degrees of winter hardiness. 

Apples – the most popular of all fruit trees, and no wonder. Many can be stored for months, so no waste, and if you choose the right varieties you can grow them successfully all the way from zone 3 to zone 9. Don’t choose trees recommended for colder zones if you live in a warmer one. An important factor is that many fruit trees need a certain number of days of cold weather, and the ones for cold zones simply won’t get enough. Hot-zone trees have been developed to not need much winter chilling.

Pears – all pears are a bit tricky, and you should have some fruit growing experience first. Normally eating varieties need at least zone 5 to do well.

Soft Fruit – most soft fruit, such as blackberries, will grow well in cold zones, and they are great choices for those areas. Some, like blueberries, come in different kinds for cold and warm areas – make sure you choose the right type for your zone.

Sour Cherries – this type of cherry, which is excellent for baking and preserves, often grow well in cold zones, down to zone 3, and you only need one as they are self-pollinating (see this section). 

Sweet Cherries – these are for eating fresh, and they cannot be grown successfully below zone 5.

Apricots and plums – there are several varieties suitable for very cold zones (3 & 4) and almost all grow well in zones 5 and 6. Some grow in zones 7 and 8 – choose carefully, and you will have bumper crops.

Peaches and nectarines – these are fruits for warmer zones, at least zone 5, and preferably warmer, right into zone 9. In zones 5 and 6, it is best to grow them against a south-facing wall – perhaps on your house? – and spread out the branches so every fruit gets lots of sun. This espalier method is great for any fruit tree, but for those that need lots of heat, it works wonders.

Fig trees – there are varieties, like ‘Brown Turkey’, that can be grown in zone 5, but figs do best in warm zones, on a wall, or in a pot, brought inside in winter.

Citrus Trees – as already mentioned, these can only be grown outdoors all year round in zone 9, so for everyone else, grow them in pots. They are beautiful, evergreen, and the flowers smell delicious too.

What About Pollination?

Some plants, including many of our fruit trees, have flowers that cannot fertilize themselves. That is, although the flowers produce both pollen and seeds, the seeds need pollen from a different variety of the same type of tree (e.g. a red apple with a green apple), to develop into a fruit. This is called cross-pollination. Not understanding it can cause a lot of frustration, so always consider it when you are choosing fruit trees. 

So which fruits need cross-pollination, and which don’t (called self-pollination)? Most varieties of apricots, peaches, nectarines and sour cherries are self-pollinating. On the other hand, most varieties apples, pears, plums and sweet cherries need cross-pollination. Among the many varieties of these fruits there are almost always some varieties that can pollinate themselves, at least partially, so if you only have room for one tree, then always choose one of those. Remember that it is no good planting two trees of the same variety – it must be the same fruit, but a different variety.

On the other hand, most soft-fruits are self-pollinating, and that is another reason they are popular with home gardeners. Citrus trees too are self-pollinating, so just one tree will give fruit – in fact, with lemons, it is better if they are not cross-pollinated by accident, as this can cause the fruit to be full of seeds. However, there must be bees around, for all self-pollinating fruits, so if your citrus flower indoors, they won’t set fruit unless you take a soft artist’s brush and spread pollen from one flower to another with it.

Aren’t Fruit Trees a Lot of Work?

It is true that fruit trees are not ‘plant and forget’ trees, and if you don’t give them some care you probably won’t get much, if any, useable fruit. But the work is not hard, and it is interesting, and the rewards are enormous, so if you have a little time you can put aside at certain times of year, don’t be afraid to grow fruit trees. 

Most fruit trees need:

  • Attention to watering, especially when newly planted, and during the fruit development period, when moisture is needed to swell the fruits.
  • Some pest controls. This doesn’t mean nasty chemical sprays, but depending on what you grow, using oil, or lime-sulfur, in winter and spring, goes a long way to protecting from diseases.
  • Pruning. Not all types of fruit trees need regular pruning, but most of the well-known ones do. Pruning is usually done in winter or early spring, and sometimes in summer, and the purpose is to develop a tree that is open to the sun, so that fruit can ripen properly. As well, pruning brings trees into fruit bearing earlier, and keeps them bearing well, longer. Some trees need very little fancy pruning, others, like apples and peaches, benefit greatly from careful training and pruning. 
  • Fruit Thinning. When your tree is full of tiny baby apples or peaches, it is exciting, and you start looking forward to a giant harvest. But be reasonable – that small tree can’t work miracles. To get good sized fruit, that is not all core or stone, you often need to remove excess baby fruit, leaving just one fruit every few inches along the branches. Really, it is worth it, and once you bite the bullet, you won’t regret it.

Time to Start Growing

Now you have some idea of what’s what with fruit trees, you are ready to start choosing what to grow, and what varieties to choose. Plan carefully and success will be yours – fruit trees are not something to buy on impulse.