Part 3: How to Select Fruit Varieties That Will Thrive in Your Garden
Selecting the right fruit varieties for your garden can make the difference between success and failure.
To increase your chance for success, do some research about the varieties that you would like to grow. If you make a mistake, you can lose several years worth of effort by the time you discover the error. Don’t let the fear of making a mistake hold you back, though! Just make the best decisions you can. You can always replace a few of the plants later on if you need to.
12 Important Factors For Selecting the Right Varieties
1) Suitability With Your Soil
Some fruit plants will thrive in sandy, well-drained soils. A few others can handle heavy, wet clay. Most, however, prefer nice, deep, loamy soil. If you will be planting your fruit garden into your existing soil (not importing new soil for raised beds), make sure you select the varieties that can handle your type of soil.
Raintree Nursery provides a chart that can help you select the best fruiting plants for your particular landscape: Landscaping Plants
2) Hardiness Zones
Make sure the fruit you choose to grow will thrive in your hardiness zone. This refers to how cold your winter temperatures normally get. It’s usually a good idea to choose plants that can tolerate at least one zone colder, just in case you experience unusually cold weather. If I lived in zone 6, I would look for varieties that can handle zone 5.
Some plants can tolerate severely cold winters and fruit heavily in the far north, but won’t fruit at all in southern states. This is because they open their blossoms at the first warm spell. In the far north, the first good warm spell doesn’t happen until spring is well-established.
In the south, we often have frequent warm spells in late winter, followed by hard freezes. So, just because a fruit can “survive” your hardiness zone, doesn’t mean it can fruit there! I don’t usually recommend that southern gardeners try growing fruit that is acclimated to the far north, unless you know of other gardeners that are successfully growing it in your region.
3) Chill Hours
Those of you that live in a climate with very mild winters will also need to think about chill hours. Many fruiting plants need to experience a certain length of time in cold temperatures (32-45 F) in order to know when it is safe to open their buds and start flowering when spring has arrived. This is known as “chill hours”. If you try to grow a plant that needs 1,000 chill hours in the deep south that only has 600 chill hours, they won’t produce well for you.
Different varieties of the same type of fruit can have widely varying requirements for chill hours. Some apple varieties require 1,000 chill hours, while others do just fine with only 400. Your local nurseries or Cooperative Extension office can help you identify low-chill varieties, or you can check this chart from Raintree Nursery: Chill Hours
4) Selecting Plants for Your Region
There is a significant difference in growing conditions, pests, and diseases in various regions – even if they have the “same” hardiness zone. A zone 8 on the U.S. west coast may have very cool, dry summers, while the same zone 8 in the southeast U.S. may be very hot and humid. It’s important to select varieties that can thrive in your unique region.
Here’s an extensive list of common and uncommon plants, and which regions they are best suited for: Regional Plants
5) Late Frosts
A major issue in my region is our variable spring weather. We often have prolonged periods of warm weather followed by sharp frosts. Many plants will open their blooms too early and get killed back by the late freezes. Whenever possible, I look for varieties that bloom later than normal, in order to avoid the late frosts.
But I have sometimes been surprised at how tolerant some blossoms are to freezing weather. Most of my blueberry bushes produce abundant crops even after their blossoms have experienced 25 degree temperatures. But I still chose one blueberry variety that blooms and ripens late, just for security.
6) Disease and Insect Resistance
I consider it particularly important to select fruit varieties that are resistant to insects and/or diseases that are common in your area, whenever it is possible. This can reduce the amount of work that’s required to keep your plants healthy. Find out which pests and diseases are common in your area before you choose which varieties to plant. Your local nursery or Cooperative Extension office can often give you this information.
One major disease of apple and pear trees in my area is fire blight. It is a bacterial disease that is difficult for homeowners to prevent or treat, and it can easily kill even full-grown trees during severe outbreaks. Choosing varieties that are resistant to it is the single best option for dealing with fire blight.
“Resistance” doesn’t mean a plant will never catch the disease, just that the disease is not likely to become severe. “Immune” means that the plant won’t catch the disease.
7) Selecting Tree Size and Rootstocks
What is a “rootstock”? Most fruit trees will not breed true from seed. A variety is saved and multiplied by grafting scionwood (small branches or buds from the top part of the tree) onto a separate root system called a rootstock. There are a variety of rootstocks, and they can be used for several purposes: to restrict the size of a fruit tree to different degrees, to tolerate different types of soil, or to resist some diseases or insect pests, and more.
There is rarely any “perfect” variety or rootstock. You will usually need to compromise between a variety or rootstock that will thrive in your type of soil, survive your winter weather, resist your common pests/diseases, dwarf the size of your tree, produce fruit in 3 years instead of 10, or need extra irrigation to survive.
If you choose to fully dwarf your trees by using summer pruning instead of depending on very dwarfing rootstock, you will have a wider variety of options of rootstock that you can use. I prefer to first focus on rootstocks that will thrive in my climate, tolerate my major diseases/pests, and start producing fruit earlier than standard trees. If a dwarfing rootstock can’t reliably survive my climate or diseases, it won’t matter if it can keep my tree small!
If you plan to use a fruit tree to create a larger espalier (perhaps 5 feet tall and 8 feet wide), I would recommend that you select a more vigorous semi-dwarfing rootstock. Very dwarfing rootstocks, such as the M27, can’t support the larger forms of espalier.
Good sources of information about different fruit tree rootstocks include:
Unfortunately, most local and mail-order nurseries do not list the names of the rootstocks that they use for their trees. They just say “standard”, “semi-dwarf”, or “dwarf” variety. This does not give you the information that you really need to decide if that rootstock is best suited for your garden.
Because my fruit trees are such a significant investment of my money, time, and energy, I usually make an effort to buy plants from sources that offer better information about what they are selling. If possible, I try to buy from either specialty nurseries or companies that also sell trees for commercial orchards. I trust their quality more than many nurseries that just sell to home gardeners.
One problem I sometimes run into is receiving a plant that ends up NOT being the variety that was sold to me. There is nothing more frustrating than spending years in carefully growing and nurturing a plant only to find out that it isn’t what you wanted and paid for. Owners of commercial orchards won’t put up with those kind of mistakes.
8) Watering Your Fruit Garden
If you cannot provide regular irrigation when needed, you are better off growing slightly larger trees on more vigorous semi-dwarf rootstock, instead of growing mini dwarf trees with weaker roots (read the section Dwarf Fruit Trees). You can still keep the trees less than 6-7 feet high by pruning the trees 2-3 times during the growing season.
9) Pruning Your Fruit Trees
If you want to keep your trees just head-high, and are not able to prune your trees on a regular schedule (usually 2-4 times a year), then you would be better off growing varieties on a mini dwarf rootstock (such as the M27 for apples) or choosing the few genetically dwarf varieties that are available. Or choose to grow fruit that naturally stays smaller and needs less pruning, such as blueberries or gooseberries.
I have struggled with this issue myself and have missed important pruning deadlines because my autoimmune disease flared up irregularly. I sometimes wasn’t able do any light pruning, no matter how badly my plants needed it done.
I have discovered from personal experience that varieties described as “vigorous” are not the best candidates for a miniature fruit garden. With both my pears and sweet cherry trees, the “vigorous” varieties are determined to grow into tall trees, and often grow new shoots 2-5 feet long after every pruning. They require a LOT of work to keep them small! The less vigorous varieties (that grow right next to them in the same bed) require much less pruning.
Also, be aware that some fruit trees that are sold as small “columnar” varieties often still need lots of pruning to keep them small.
Some fruit plants are self-fertile and can self-pollinate their own flowers. Other varieties of fruit must be cross-pollinated with a different variety to produce fruit at all, and a few plants can self-pollinate but will produce more fruit with cross-pollination.
A few varieties can’t be used to cross-pollinate other plants. Also, sometimes early varieties won’t bloom at the same time as late varieties. So it is best to do a little research to be sure that the plants you choose will get the pollination they may need to produce fruit.
Raintree Nursery offers several fruit pollination charts to help you select your varieties.
Here's another PDF file of an apple pollination chart.
11) Extending Your Harvest Season
One of the great advantages of growing a small fruit garden is being able to fit more plants in your garden so that you can harvest from early, mid-season, and late maturing varieties. This will allow you to extend your fresh harvest season for weeks or months. Just make sure that their bloom times overlap so they can still pollinate each other!
You can also grow separate varieties best suited for fresh eating, canning, or long-term cold storage. I can store one of my apple varieties (Enterprise) in an extra refrigerator or root cellar for months, thus extending my fresh apple season even longer, usually until late winter.
12) Growing in Containers
If you would like to try growing fruit in containers, check out the following resources:
Other Sources of Information
Another source of good information are your local county Cooperative Extension offices and websites. They will be able to recommend productive varieties for your region, and tell you which pests and diseases are most common in your area.
You can also browse the internet for information. One website with great details about many apple varieties is the British company: Orange Pippin Fruit Trees
If you are fascinated by fruit – especially unusual varieties – feel free to join the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX), a nonprofit organization devoted to the discovery, cultivation, and appreciation of superior varieties of fruit and nuts.
It’s a bit of work to discover which varieties are available and to decide which ones are best for your garden, but the result is well worth the effort. Like myself, you will probably make an occasional mistake in choosing the right fruit variety. When that happens, just remove that plant, replace it with a better one, and start again. It’s definitely easier to start with growing most berries and grapes than fruit trees, so you might want to start with those.
Don’t put off starting a small fruit garden because you’re afraid of making a mistake. I made my share of mistakes in selecting fruit varieties for my garden, too. I had to start over again with a few plants, but I’m thrilled with how well most of my fruits are producing. Just do the best research you can, and then get started!
Introduction: How to Grow Fruit (Even If You Have a Tiny Yard)
Part 1: Eight Reasons Why You Should Grow a Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 2: How To Design Your Own Miniature Fruit Garden
Part 3: How to Select Fruit Varieties That Will Thrive in Your Garden
Part 4: Six Steps to Planting a Successful Fruit Garden
Part 5: Growing Berries and Grapes in Your Mini Fruit Garden
Part 6: Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees in Your Mini Fruit Garden