How to Choose Fruit Trees for Your Garden

Picking a type of fruit to grow is only the first step.

father and daughter harvesting pears from tree in backyard

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When choosing fruit trees for your garden, the type of fruit you select is only one of many things to consider. You might begin by deciding, for example, whether you will grow apples, pears, plums, or peaches, but you must also look beyond which fruits typically grow well in your particular area. These considerations include planning for your site and your own needs and preferences as a gardener. Here's where to start.

Choose Which Types of Fruit Trees to Grow

Gardeners' minds will turn immediately to the most common options when deciding which fruit trees to grow. We should always think about the environmental needs of different trees and the conditions that we can provide. We should also bear in mind our own particular preferences and needs. But depending on the specifics of your location and your personal preferences, it can sometimes make sense to look beyond the basics and consider alternatives.

It's helpful to look at native fruit trees in your area, rather than relying solely on the most commonly cultivated varieties. Native species will usually grow and yield well in challenging settings where common fruit tree types struggle to thrive. 

Here where I live in Scotland, crab apples, wild cherries, elderberry, blackthorn, and rowan are some native fruit tree options. In the U.S., Amelanchier subspecies (aka shadbush), American elderberries, and wild plums may be some options.

 basket of freshly picked plums

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On Grafting and Choosing the Right Root Stock

When growing cultivated fruit trees, you will typically purchase grafted trees. Most fruit trees available for sale are "Frankenstein" plants. They are made up of a lower section with roots (the rootstock) and the scion which is joined onto this rootstock. The two sections meld together forming one tree. The rootstock determines the size and vigor of the tree, while the scion determines the fruit and its characteristics.

Sometimes you can choose fruit trees which bear more than one fruit, and are potentially a great idea for small-space gardeners.

One key thing to determine when choosing a fruit tree is how large that tree will ultimately grow. To determine this, you need to know which rootstock is used. This will determine whether a tree will be a dwarf one, semi-dwarfing, or standard size, and how quickly and vigorously it will grow.

Choosing the Right Fruit Tree Cultivar 

You also need to think about the particular cultivar (short for "cultivated varieties") you want. Even when you have narrowed down your choice to a particular type of fruit, there can still be huge variety between different cultivars of that type of fruit tree. 

It is important to purchase fruit trees as locally as possible, since local plant nurseries are likely to hold options suited to the conditions where you live.

But beyond the suitability of a particular cultivar for your garden, you also need to think about other things.

For example, you should consider the characteristics of the fruit, and whether those mesh with your flavor preferences and how you wish to use the fruit. Are you looking for a type that you can eat fresh, or will you process the fruits or preserve them for later use? How easy will the fruits be to store?

Consider, too, when the various fruit tree cultivars will be ready to harvest. Will it be beneficial to have a bounty of fruit at that particular time of year? How will it fit in time- and work-wise to your gardening year?

Another thing to think about is the shape of the fruit tree you choose, and if you plan to train it into a particular form to make the most of your space. Deciding whether to opt for columnar, fan, pyramid, bush, standard, pleached, or espalier trees, for example, is another part of the puzzle. 

As you can see, there is a lot to consider—far more than just choosing a type of fruit. But if you put in the time and research upfront, you'll have a more successful and enjoyable experience with growing fruit trees.