Yard and Garden: Growing Fruit Trees

February 27, 2014, 4:27 pm | Richard Jauron, Willy Klein

Organic ApplesAMES, Iowa – With a little planning, homeowners who enjoy picking ripe, juicy fruit from their own trees can successfully grow fruit trees, such as apples, pears, plums and cherries – even homeowners with only small yard space. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulture specialists share information about selecting pear, plum and apricot varieties.

What would be a good planting site for fruit trees? 

Selecting the proper planting site is critical when planting fruit trees in the home landscape. While fruit trees can be grown on a wide variety of soils, good soil drainage is imperative. Apples and other fruit trees do not tolerate wet soils. Fruit trees planted in poorly drained soils often die within a few years of planting. Most fruit trees grow well in fertile soils with a pH of 6.0 to 7.5. Because of space restrictions, planting sites are often limited in the home landscape. Fruit trees require full sun. Select a site that receives at least six hours of direct sun each day.  Avoid shady sites near large trees.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees? 

Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees are produced by grafting or budding the desired variety (cultivar) onto a dwarfing rootstock. Most standard-size fruit trees eventually get 25 to 30 feet tall. Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees are much smaller. Fruit trees grown on dwarfing rootstocks typically grow 10 to 15 feet tall.  

Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees are easier to maintain (prune, spray, harvest, etc.), fit better into small home landscapes and produce fruit sooner after planting than standard-size trees. However, some dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees have poor root anchorage, so they may need to be supported with a stake or trellis. 

How soon will a newly planted fruit tree begin to bear fruit? 

Fruit trees purchased from nurseries and garden centers are usually 1- to 2-year-old plants. The length of time from planting to fruit bearing varies with the species of fruit, the cultivar and whether the tree is dwarf or standard.  

Apple and pear trees grown on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks will come into bearing at a much earlier age than trees grown on standard-size rootstocks. Rootstocks have little effect on the bearing age of other fruit trees.  

The average bearing age of fruit trees is

  • Apple – 4 to 5 years
  • Pear – 4 to 6 years
  • Plum – 3 to 5 years
  • Sour or tart cherry – 3 to 5 years 

Which fruit trees can be successfully grown in the state? 

Apples and pears possess excellent winter hardiness and can be successfully grown throughout Iowa. Hardy sour (tart) cherry, plum and apricot cultivars can be grown throughout the state. Sweet cherries and peaches perform best in southern Iowa as they are not reliably hardy in northern and central portions of the state. A publication listing recommended fruit cultivars for Iowa is available from the Extension Online Store or downloaded here, Fruit Cultivars for Iowa.

When planting fruit trees do I need to plant more than one variety to obtain fruit? 

In regards to fruit trees, there are two types of pollination. Self-pollination occurs when the pollen is transferred from the anther to the stigma on the same flower, from another flower on the same tree or from a flower on another tree of the same cultivar. Self-pollinated trees are said to be self-fruitful. Many trees cannot produce fruit from their own pollen and are considered self-unfruitful. These trees require cross-pollination for fruit set. Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen from one tree to the flower of a genetically different tree or cultivar.  

To ensure a good crop, two or more cultivars (of the same type of tree) must be planted when planting self-unfruitful trees. Only a single tree needs to be planted when planting self-fruitful fruit trees.  

Apples and pears are self-unfruitful. Most European plums are self-fruitful. However, hybrid plums are self-unfruitful and require another hybrid cultivar for cross-pollination. Sour (tart) cherries are self-fruitful. Most sweet cherries are self-unfruitful. Peaches are self-fruitful. The apricot cultivars ‘Moongold’ and ‘Sungold’ are self-unfruitful. Plant at least one of each to ensure a good crop.  


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