Q: I’d like to eventually grow some of my own fruit. What’s a good starting point and what do I need to consider?
A: It’s fun to try growing your own food, though fruit trees require the greatest amount of commitment and patience to be rewarding. Ill-prepared first attempts can easily end in failure. We suggest inexperienced gardeners or anyone short on time try small-fruit (berry) cultivation first before diving into fruit trees — they’re much simpler to grow, need little to no spraying, and take up less space — but if you do enough research to know what to expect, you can certainly start small so it’s not overwhelming.
Easier crops for a novice grower to start with include fig, persimmon, and some of the more esoteric fruits like jujube, serviceberry, and pawpaw. Ironically, the most popular fruits — apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry — are the hardest to grow well in our Mid-Atlantic conditions. This is not due to temperature hardiness but rather disease and pest pressures.
Plan as much as possible first: where do you have enough space and the best conditions? How will they be cared for year-round? What problems should you anticipate, and how will you process the perishable harvest? Even when grown organically, there’s a lot of intervention and preventive treatments that will typically be needed to produce a useful harvest and to keep the tree healthy. After a problem arises, curative options are few, so knowing ahead of time what to look for and when is important in avoiding plant damage or a ruined crop for that year.
“Location, location, location” applies in gardening too. Fruit-bearing plants usually require full sun (six plus hours daily in summer) and well-drained soil to perform well. A site with good air circulation reduces disease, and proper pruning and training will make harvesting easier. Choose an area where you have enough space to avoid crowding and competition between plants. Different varieties mature at different sizes, and training style will also impact how much room trees use.
Most fruit trees are propagated by grafting. That means the variety you want is joined to a rootstock of a related variety for the purposes of improving hardiness, disease resistance, and/or dwarfing the plant’s stature for ease of maintenance and harvest. Terms like semi-dwarf, dwarf, and miniature refer to the overall growth habit compared to a full-size tree, not the fruit size itself.
Check which varieties need cross-pollination to fruit well, as some will not produce fruit if planted alone. Self-fruitful groups include figs, peaches, nectarines, and apricots, plus some varieties of apple, cherry, pear, persimmon, and plum. Keep like with like when you can, because cross-compatibility may not occur; for instance, don’t rely on pollination between an Asian and a European pear, or an early-blooming apple with a late-blooming apple. Web-based suppliers sometimes provide cross-pollination charts to illustrate compatible pairings.
Avoid multi-graft plants (trees with several varieties grafted onto a shared trunk) unless you’re quite experienced because they run the risk of increased maintenance headaches or the loss of an entire variety’s crop.
Good inherent disease resistance goes a long way to reducing pesticide use and lowering the risk of bad outbreaks. No varieties are immune to problems, but those with noted resistance aid your efforts tremendously. It may surprise you to learn that some of the most popular varieties found at supermarkets are not the more disease-resistant options or even easy to grow overall. Ideally, narrow your options down by resistance traits first, desired flavor and other traits second.
Our website has a lot of information about fruit growing, so you can search for either the specific fruit type or see our sitemap for the full range of topics.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.