Selecting the right fruit varieties for your garden can make the difference between success and failure, and is a bit more complicated than choosing vegetable varieties. If you make a mistake, you can lose several years worth of effort by the time you discover the error.
What to Consider in Selecting Varieties
Disease and Insect Resistance – I consider it very important to select fruit varieties that are resistant to insects and/or diseases that are common in your area, when possible. This can reduce the amount of work that will be required to keep your plants healthy.
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.
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 to restrict the size of a fruit tree to different degrees, can be selected 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 dwarf rootstock), you will have a wider variety of options of rootstock that you can use. A great source of information about different apple rootstocks is: Orange Pippin – Rootstocks for Apple Trees Another source of information about rootstocks for a variety of fruit is: Dave Wilson Rootstocks
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, and if possible, from either speciality 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.
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. You can still keep the trees less than 6-7 feet high, but you will need to prune the trees 2-3 times during the growing season.
If you want very short trees and are not able to prune your trees on a regular schedule, 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 struggle with this issue myself and have missed important pruning deadlines because my autoimmune disease flares up irregularly and I sometimes can’t even do any light pruning, no matter how badly my plants need it done. Just be aware that some fruit trees that are sold as “columnar” varieties often still need lots of pruning to keep the tree small.
Cross-pollination – 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.
Extending Your Harvest Season – One of the great advantages of growing a mini 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.
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.
Other Factors - Make sure you choose varieties that are hardy to your winter temperatures, and, if you live in an area with warm winters, that your varieties are suited for your lower chill hours. Many fruit trees need a minimum number of hours below 45 degrees to produce well. Also, if your climate has cool summer weather, you need to select varieties that can ripen without a lot of summer heat.
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.
So, What Did I Choose and Why?
I wanted to harvest a large variety of fruit over as long a time as possible, and I wanted them all to stay less than 6 feet high. My garden is in zone 6b, with moderate summer heat. I didn’t want to grow fruit that requires frequent spraying to survive or be productive. My 350 square foot mini fruit garden includes the following:
- 4 Blueberry bushes – 4 varieties (Bluecrop, Northland, Elliott, and an unknown), with harvests from early July through late August (still looking for a September-ripening late variety); my unknown variety blooms and ripens later than the others and produces awesome fruit (hint: ALWAYS immediately label your plants with permanent metal tags!)
- 2 Gooseberry bushes – July harvest; can produce in partial shade (Hinnomaki Red – great flavor, high yields, good mildew resistance; Achilles – large fruit, very sweet, ripens 2 weeks later); gooseberries aren’t supposed to do well in my warmer climate, but mine are doing OK with some afternoon shade and extra mulch
- 8 Purple Asparagus plants – not a fruit, but needed a permanent bed to grow in; can be grown to produce fresh spears in both spring and fall
- 2 Sweet Cherry trees – (Black Gold on Gisela 5 rootstock – self-fertile, late-blooming, disease resistant, semi-dwarfing rootstock; Sweetheart on Gisela 5 – self-fertile, excellent flavor, early bearing, high yields); I’m taking my chances growing sweet cherries, as they are not usually successful in my area
- 5 Purple Royalty raspberry plants – this variety produces fewer spreading suckers than other raspberries – a big advantage in a confined garden bed; fruit is large and sweet; late-blooming to avoid spring frosts; has multiple insect resistance; tolerates some drought, ripens in August
- 6 Apple trees – have three varieties (Enterprise, Liberty, William’s Pride), so that I can eat fresh apples from early August through most of the winter; all disease resistant – some on semi-dwarf Geneva rootstock (resistant to fire blight) for medium-size espalier trees, others on mini dwarf M27 rootstock (these need much less pruning, but need more irrigation and are susceptible to fire blight)
- 2 Pear trees – two varieties (Potomac, Blake’s Pride), chosen for exquisite flavor and resistance to fire blight; Blake’s Pride ripens in mid-August here; Potomac in late September and can be stored in refrigerator for 8-10 weeks; both on OhxF333 semi-dwarfing rootstock, which is resistant to fire blight, early bearing, very productive.
- 50 Strawberry plants – A type of everbearing strawberry called “day-neutral”, Tristar produces excellent flavored fruit from late May to mid-September
- 4 Grapevines – two seedless varieties (Reliance, Vanessa), both with good disease resistance; Reliance can be stored up to 3 months; Vanessa has excellent flavor and stores well; still waiting to find out if they are well-suited for my area
Other Sources of Information
Raintree Nursery, based in Washington state, provides great online resources for gardeners across the country to use in making planting decisions. It includes pollination and ripening charts, hardiness zone maps, winter chill maps, and much more. I highly recommend that you read through most of their Plant Care and Plant Varieties information: http://www.raintreenursery.com/growers_info.html
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 this one: http://www.orangepippin.com/apples
It’s a bit of work to learn about what varieties are available and 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.
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