Backyard Orchards Require Planning Ahead

By Linda Naeve
​Extension Program Specialist
Iowa State University

Few things are more enjoyable for homeowners than going out their back door to pluck a ripe ripe, juicy fruit from a tree. Much to my envy, everyone I know with a home in Arizona have at least one lemon, lime and orange tree in their landscape that provide several months’ supply of fruit. It seems so easy -- the trees bloom beautifully with an intoxicating fragrance and best of all, they require little or no work during the fruit production season.

It is not quite that simple to grow fruit in home landscapes in the Midwest. The tree fruits we can grow, such as apples, pears, plums and cherries, require more work with regards to variety selection, pest management and pruning. Fortunately, with some planning, even Iowans with a small yard in the city can successfully grow fruit trees. 

Site and Soil.  For good growth and quality fruit production, most fruit trees need to be planted in a location that receives full sun.  Don’t plant them at the bottom of a slope or in a depression that will be a cold air drain on frosty spring nights. Locate the trees where there is good air circulation and where they will not warm up and bloom too early in the spring. Incorporate fruit trees in your landscape design so that they are not only functional and productive, they are ornamental.

Apple, pears, cherries and plums grow in a wide range of soil types, but prefer a sandy loam or sandy clay loam soil with a pH around 6.5. Most importantly, tree fruits require well-drained soil.

Species and Varieties.  In my opinion, tart cherries are the easiest fruit to grow in backyards in Iowa. ‘North Star,’ a cultivar developed in Minnesota, is an excellent choice because it is self-fruitful, productive, an early producer, grows only 8 to 10 feet tall, has few pest problems and is quite ornamental. 

European plums, such as ‘Stanley,’ ‘Green Gage’ and ‘Damson,’ would be my second choice for ease of production. They are also self-fruitful, hardy, fairly low maintenance and well-adapted to a backyard landscape.

Most of the other tree fruits grown in the Midwest are not self-fruitful. Japanese plums, pears and apples require at least two different cultivars of the same crop, planted in close proximity, for cross-pollination. Select cultivars that bloom at the same time in the spring. Fortunately, ornamental crabapple trees growing nearby will serve as a pollinator for other apple trees.

Some diseases are a problem on fruit trees nearly every year, so select disease-resistant cultivars. Look for apple cultivars that show resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, fire blight, and powdery mildew. A few disease-resistant apples recommended for Iowa include ‘Redfree’, ‘Freedom’ ‘Liberty’ and ‘Juliet.’ ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Delicious,’ ‘Maxine’, and ‘Moonglow’ are pear cultivars that grow well in Iowa and show good resistance to fire blight. 

Tree Size. Many fruit cultivars are grafted onto different rootstocks. The rootstock typically determines the mature size of the tree. Home fruit growers should consider planting the desired cultivar grown on either a dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstock instead of standard or full-size trees. Dwarf apple trees will grow to be about 10 feet tall, semi-dwarf apple trees will reach about 15 feet in height, while standard-size trees will reach at least 20 feet tall. 

Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are easier to manage (prune and harvest), fit better in an urban landscape, and produce fruit sooner after planting than standard-sized trees. Some dwarf fruit trees, however, have poor root anchorage, so they may need to be supported with a stake or trellis.

If you are considering turning your backyard into an edible landscape, now is the time to do your homework to select the right trees and location before ordering or purchasing trees for early spring planting. For more information on fruit cultivars and sources of plants, download Iowa State University (ISU) Extension publication, PM 453, Fruit Cultivars for Iowa.

Excellent resources for information on home fruit production in Iowa can be obtained through the online Extension publication store or from your local ISU Extension County Office.

PM 1052 Fruit Tree Pollination
PM 780 Pruning and Training Fruit Trees
PM 1078 Harvesting and Storing Apples

Linda Naeve, Entomology, (515) 294-8946,
Jean McGuire, Extension Communications and Marketing, (515) 294-7033,