Planting fruit trees in your garden is a great choice. Planting any tree is great for you, and for the planet. But a fruit tree gives you even more. They provide a bountiful yield. When cared for, they can continue to do so year after year. They are great for wildlife too. Did you know that just five blossoming trees can provide as much pollen and nectar for pollinators as an acre of meadow?!
But when you choose a fruit tree for your garden, it is vital that you make the right choice. It does not matter if you are planting just one tree, or a whole orchard. Many of the decisions that you have to make in planting fruit trees will be exactly the same. In this article, we will take a look at how to choose a fruit tree for your garden (and make some suggestions about which trees you might like to try. Read on to begin the process of finding the perfect fruit tree for you.
Consider Your Location
You can’t choose a fruit tree for your garden without thinking about where you live. There are a number of different things about your location that you should know before you settle on your fruit tree options. Just knowing your planting zone when planting fruit trees is not enough.
Think About the Climate & Microclimate
Apples can be a great choice for colder climes.
You may well be very familiar already with the general climate where you live. If you are a keen gardener, you should already know the planting zone, first and last frost dates, and general weather conditions and temperatures throughout the year. If not, determining these things is a good place to start. A fruit tree can be an incredibly easy thing to grow – even if you are a novice gardener. But as a new gardener, or a seasoned one, it is always important to know details of the climate and conditions where you live.
In addition to thinking about the general climate of the region, however, it is also important to note that a garden will also have what is known as microclimate. Various factors can mean that conditions in a particular, small area can be rather different from the conditions in the area as a whole. For example, a very exposed and windy area may be much colder. There may be chilly frost pockets, or sheltered sun-traps that are much milder or warmer than the region’s norms.
Think About Sun & Shade
Peaches need a warm environment and plenty of sun.
The microclimate in your garden will be affected by surrounding buildings and vegetation. Structures and plants will also influence how much sun and shade there are in the location where you want to plant a fruit tree.
It is important to think about the light levels in the location, as this will also influence which fruit tree is best to grow. Most fruiting trees will appreciate a sunny position. However, some can cope with a level of shade. Think about how the sunlight moves through your garden each day, and how this changes throughout the year.
Consider Whether it is a Sheltered or Exposed Spot
When choosing to plant a fruit tree, it is also important to think about how wind moves across, around or through your garden. Will the fruit tree be exposed to strong winds? Is there maritime exposure? Or is this a sheltered spot that is protected from the strongest winds in your area? Think about where the wind comes from (the prevailing wind direction) and whether a shelter belt or wind-break could be useful before you plant your fruit tree or trees.
Determine the Soil Type & Soil Characteristics in Your Space
Most trees will do best in a location with fertile, relatively deep soil. Some, however, are better for certain soil types and conditions than others. Before you choose one for your garden, it is important to find out:
- What type of soil you have. (Is it predominantly clay, silt, sand, peaty, chalky or loam?)
- How deep is the topsoil? (Do you have a thick layer, or are you close to bedrock?)
- Is the soil free-draining, or prone to waterlogging?
- What is the soil pH? (Is it acidic, neutral or alkaline?)
- Is the soil fertile and rich in organic matter? (If not, you may need to do some work to improve it (perhaps with homemade compost) before planting a fruit tree.)
Working out the conditions in the area where you live will increase your ability to plant a fruit tree that will work well for you, and produce a good, high yield.
Think About How Much Space is Available for Your Fruit Tree
Some are small enough to grow in pots. Growing lemons and other citrus fruits inside over winter can allow you to grow them in cooler climes.
One final thing to consider about your location is now much space is available. They can be a wonderful option for a space of any size. Some can even be grown in containers. But it is important to make the right choices. It may sound obvious, but when choosing a fruit tree, it is vital that you think about how large the tree will become over time. It is not enough to simply consider how large it is when you buy it.
Consider Your Own Wants & Needs
Over and above the demands of the site, you should also be sure to think about the demands of you and your household. When choosing a fruit tree, it is important to:
Decide Which Fruits You Actually Enjoy Eating
You should, of course, narrow down the field to things suitable for growing in your location. But it is also a good idea to think about which fruits you actually want to eat. Will what you are considering meet the needs of your household or community? Personal preferences when it comes to taste and textures should play a role in your decisions.
Plums are one example of a fruit delicious raw, or cooked in a range of recipes.
Think About How Much Time You Have
Another important consideration is how much care it will require. Will it require more time than you really have available? Fruit trees can be a great low maintenance option for those with busy lives – but some fruit trees take a lot more work than others. Choosing the right fruit tree for the location will always reduce the workload somewhat – since nature will do much of the work for you. But if you work full time or don’t have a lot of time for gardening, it is better to choose something particularly easy to tend and care for.
Consider The Fruit Tree Harvest Time
It is not just a matter of thinking about how much time you have in general, but also how much time is available at certain times of the year. Make sure you know when you will need to harvest a particular tree. Will you have the time to harvest the fruits, process, preserve and store them during that period?
For example, if you are very busy with childcare, or other garden jobs over the summer months, opting for a tree harvested in fall might be a better choice. On the other hand, you may opt for a summer-cropping tree if more people are around during the summer. Many hands can make light work.
Consider Other Elements of Your Garden
When choosing a fruit tree, it is important to remember that no element in your garden should be considered only in isolation. A fruit tree will not stand alone. In a successful garden scheme, it will become part of the whole – a valuable addition to a complex garden ecosystem.
Think About the Impact of the Fruit Tree on Surrounding Plants
Successful gardeners understand the impact that plants have on one another. Before choosing a fruit tree, it is a good idea to consider other plants too. If you are adding a fruit tree to an existing garden scheme, think about whether it will help or hinder the other plants that are already there. Will it, for example, attract beneficial wildlife, or cast beneficial shade? On the other hand, could the options you are considering be a problem? Might they cast too much shade, or draw nutrients needed by other precious plants?
Think About Ease of Access
There are also practical issues to consider relating to your own movements between the different elements in your garden. Thinking about the overall scheme – will it impede movement or restrict access if placed in a certain location? How easy will it be to reach and harvest the fruits from your tree or trees? Ease of access could be another thing which influences your choices.
Consider the Fruit Tree’s Visual Impact
Cherry trees, for example, are famous for the beauty of their blossom in spring.
How a fruit tree looks throughout the year is not the most important thing. But it is nonetheless something that you might like to consider. Gardens can be beautiful as well as functional – you do not have to sacrifice ornamental concerns in order to grow your own food. When choosing a fruit tree for your garden, and deciding where to place it, think about how it will look throughout the year. Will it fit in with your overall garden design in terms of its colour, shape and form?
What Other Functions Could The Fruit Tree Fulfill?
Finally, ask yourself how else the fruit tree might help in your garden. Every element in a garden should fulfil as many functions as possible. Fruit trees do not just offer fruit. Think about whether the fruit tree options you are considering could also offer other things such as:
- Prunings that can be used as additional fuel for fires/ stoves in your home.
- Wood that can be used for crafting or other projects.
- Particular benefits for garden wildlife.
- Shade for seating areas, or enhancement of outdoor leisure spaces.
- A place to play. (For example, a larger, mature tree may one day support a swing, hammock or rope ladder and give kids a place to have fun.)
Understand Grafting & Rootstocks
Fruit trees are usually purchased as either pot grown or bare-root specimens. Pot grown trees, as the name suggests, come in pots. Bare-root trees are, as the name suggests, delivered out of pots, with their roots bare. But what many people fail to understand about most of the fruit trees that you can buy is that they are grafted.
Grafting is a gardening technique. It involves taking the top part of one sapling, and the bottom part of another, and joining them together so that they become one living ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ tree. This will usually already have been done for you if you buy your fruit tree through ordinary channels.
The reason for doing this is usually to put the beneficial flavours and other characteristics of one tree together with the vigour and size of another. Sometimes, characteristics like disease resistance also come into play.
The rootstock is the lower section of the grafted tree, with its roots. Rootstocks are usually the part of the tree that determines how quickly a tree will grow, how hardy it is, and how large it will eventually grow. Understanding which rootstock your fruit tree was grown on can help you determine whether or not it will be a good choice for your space.
The name given to the upper part of grafted trees is the ‘scion’. The scion is generally the part of the tree that will determine the characteristics of blossom and fruit. There are far more common scions than there are rootstocks, including a wide range of heritage varieties that it is a good thing to preserve.
Popular Fruit Trees For a Temperate Climate
Yellow Mirabelka damsons… one of many, many options.
There are, of course, a huge range of fruit trees you could consider as you plant fruit trees. Before you even begin to look at the various varieties, you will have to decide which types to try. Which will be best for where you live will depend on the factors discussed above. But to give you an idea where to look, here are some of the popular fruit trees grown in temperate climates:
- Plum, Damson or Gage
- Citrus Fruits
There are also plenty of more unusual fruits to try, including, perhaps, some wild fruits that are native to your area.
Choosing Fruit Tree Varieties
When picking out your actual fruit tree, you will have to think beyond just ‘apple’, or other type. You also need to look at the rootstock (or at least rootstock type), the characteristics of the fruit and whether or not it is trained into a certain shape (or suitable for training in a certain way).
Picking a Rootstock
Rootstocks will generally be categorised according to the size of tree they make. The root system you can get includes:
- standard (full size) root system
- semi-dwarfing (somewhat smaller, often ideal for mid-sized gardens) root system
- dwarfing (suitable for step-overs and trees grown in pots, for example) root system. Sometimes, these are used on trees marketed and sold as ‘patio trees’.
Each has a root system with a different stage of development.
Picking A Heritage Fruit Tree Variety
When choosing a fruit tree, try not to just go for the varieties that are commercially grown in your area. Consider also the wider range of interesting heritage varieties that will do well where you live. Heritage varieties can taste a lot better than ordinary store bought fruits. They may just have not been suitable for large-scale commercial use due to their being bruised easy, or not storing well, for example. It is very important that we retain as much diversity as possible in our food, and keeping heritage fruit tree varieties alive is one great way to play your part in your garden.
Choosing Tree Shape
Depending on the age of the tree that you buy, you may also want to consider tree shape when choosing your fruit tree. Standard bushy topped trees are not your only option. You can also often find trees that have been trained in a certain shape – fan shaped, pyramid shaped and espaliered (for grown against a wall) are just a few of the common options. The choice is not just important for aesthetics. Altering the growth and shape of a fruit tree can be useful if you are trying to fit as much as possible into your garden.
Growing a fruit tree can be a very rewarding business. But it is a good idea to do your research. If you are more informed both about your location and the properties of the trees you are considering, you are far more likely to make the right choices in planting fruit trees, and to enjoy a bountiful yield from your fruit tree over the years to come.
Elizabeth Waddington is a smallholder, permaculture designer and environmental consultant. When not designing food producing systems or advising growers around the world, she is to be found in her own garden. On her 1/3 of an acre patch of land she has a walled forest garden orchard (home to rescue chickens), a polyculture vegetable plot, a polytunnel, wildlife pond, wild woodland garden and more and is working every day towards greater self-sufficiency. She is passionate about sustainability and loves to inspire others about the wonderful things home gardeners can do for people and planet.