Whether you love making jam or just want fruit picked fresh off the tree, adding a fruit tree to your homestead is a great way to stock up on natural arboreal treats. A single fruit tree can produce over a hundred pounds of fruit per harvest season.
The benefit of adding a fruit tree or trees, as the case may be, to your farm or homestead goes beyond its fruitful bounty. Planting and picking your own fruit gives you more control over the pesticides that are used on them, which is a particular problem with commercially grown fruit. The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list of the produce with the most pesticides includes nectarines, apples, peaches, cherries and pears among its ranks.
Fruit trees can add beauty and utility to your yard, but there are a few considerations before you pick one for your homestead. Here is what you need to know.
Choosing a fruit tree
The first step is the choose the type of fruit tree that is best for your land. Orange trees, for example, tend to thrive in tropical and subtropical areas in the southernmost tips of the United States, whereas sour cherry trees thrive in colder areas up north.
“The main challenge is to pick the appropriate fruit for that site that you live at,” Erick Smith, small fruits extensionist at University of Georgia Tifton Campus, said. “If any grower is planning on buying a tree, they should look at the hardiness zone that the tree would thrive best in and pick cultivar based on hardiness zone.”
Renae Moran, tree fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said certain fruit trees do better in Maine than others. Moran said to consider the winter hardiness of the fruit trees, as well as the length of their growing season. Trees with shorter growing seasons are more likely to thrive in Maine, whereas fruits that ripen in November, like pink lady apples, are unlikely to flourish.
“Apples are widely adapted to all the coldest regions of Maine,” Moran said. “Sour cherries also seem to do well.”
Some popular fruit trees, particularly apples, can be more challenging to grow in a backyard if you are not willing to use pesticides.
“To protect the fruit from pests is a little more challenging,” Moran said. Commercial fruit-growing enterprises, she said, are likely to spray their trees liberally in order to keep bugs and blights at bay.
“Usually when you do it in the backyard, the fruit quality is not the same because of all the insects,” Moran said. “Peaches and pears do better than an unsprayed orchard. Those are usually fruits that I recommend for somebody who wants to do it in their backyard.”
Regardless of the type of fruit tree you choose, Moran said, “I usually recommend that they select varieties with the best disease resistance.”
Moran and Smith both agreed that you should contact your local nursery to get more information on the best fruit trees for your area.
“I really stress going to a reputable nursery,” Smith said. “The big-box stores are fine if you know what you’re purchasing, but if you have questions they’ll help you out.”
“Do some research on the many different varieties available and the nurseries that sell them,” Moran added. “They have a lot of good information on how to grow fruit trees and the different types that are available.” In Maine, speciality nurseries like Fedco are a good place to start.
Timing also matters when it comes to shopping for fruit trees.
“Buy it early,” Moran said. “If you can’t order it through a specialty nursery, then go to the garden store in late April or early May. It’s hard to find a nursery that’s going to sell trees in the fall.”
When it comes to cost, Smith said the price of fruit trees can range quite a bit.
“Some trees can be $15 and others, depending if you’re buying something grafted, can be $40 to $50,” Smith said. “It’s going to be variable depending on demand in the area, but you should be able to find a lot of those trees for under $100 a tree, and mostly under $50.”
Planting your fruit tree
Smith said that growers in warmer climates with longer growing seasons and milder winters will want to plant in the fall before the last potential for freeze, but Moran said that growers in colder climates like Maine would be better off planting in the early spring so the trees can properly establish themselves before freezing temperatures arrive.
“The first week of May is probably the best time of year to be planting fruit trees,” Moran explained. “It just gives the tree a chance to establish a good root system before summertime.”
Depending on whether the tree is self-pollinating, you may need to get more than one and space them. Apples, pears and sweet cherries, Smith said, are not self-fertile. They need two different sources of pollen, so you will need at least two different trees that produce different varieties of the same fruit for successful pollination. For self-pollinating trees like peaches, sour cherries and apricots, on the other hand, you only need one tree.
Once you have your tree (or trees), you have to pick the perfect spot on your land.
“You don’t want them right up next to the house,” Smith said. “A lot of these trees can grow rather large depending on the root stocks.”
Make sure the soil in the area where you are planting is aerated and well-drained.
“You don’t want heavy clay soil,” Moran said. “If the soil stays saturated with water throughout the season you should consider planting something else.”
Smith and Moran agree that your local cooperative extension is the best resource to help you determine what exactly you need to help trees thrive on your land.
“Anybody that wants to do any sort of cultivating on your property go to your local extension service,” Smith said. “They are going to give you the best information.”
Threats to fruit trees
All fruit trees are vulnerable to hungry deer and other wildlife, which makes them a little challenging to establish.
“It’s hard to get them established if the deer eat the shoots every year,” Moran said. “I’ve had porcupines ruin a pear tree of mine.”
Moran said to consider protecting the tree from wildlife using a small fence, cage or repellant, such as heavily scented bars of soap hung from the branches.
There certain kinds of pests that you want to look out for, too. Aphids, mites and grasshoppers all love chewing on fruit tree leaves, and there are many different kinds of fruit flies that will plague your ripening fruit. Diseases like fire blight and powdery mildew can also infect different kinds of fruit trees.
Barring the use of intensive chemicals, Smith said that there are “not a lot of homeowner type measures” for ensuring protection against such diseases and pests, except purchasing pest tolerant or resistant varieties of trees.
In the same vein, Moran thinks you should manage your expectations when it comes to the longevity fruit trees.
“One of the expectations is that a fruit tree is supposed to live forever, and that’s simply not true,” Moran said. “A lot of people haven’t made that leap to the idea that fruit trees also need to be replanted when they die. People get discouraged.”
When it works out, though, it presents a new challenge: what are you going to do with all that fresh, tasty fruit?
“You can end up with a lot of fruit real quickly, and utilizing all that fruit every year might be a challenge,” Smith said.
Different fruit trees will be ready to harvest at different times depending on when they ripen. Generally, fruit is ready to pick when normal, unblemished fruits naturally fall to the ground. Make sure to have a number of recipes on hand and be prepared to can or preserve your fruit so you can have tasty treats all year round.