University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

 Winter News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Winter is the time to order fruit trees from catalogs (to be shipped in the spring “bare root”—no soil on the roots), and spring the time to find them in large pots at local nursery outlets.  In addition to choosing them for their fruit, whether you’re planning to incorporate them into landscapes or to plant a mini-orchard, you should know a few facts about the main types of fruit trees to best choose ones matching your site and your expectations.

The very first step is to only order or buy trees of fruits you’ll like to eat, but make sure they are hardy in your area.  Beware in national chain stores of ones selected for a large geographic region, ones which may not grow in your particular area.  There can be differences among cultivars (cultivated varieties) too, usually with not all growing best in all regions. Even if a tree will survive in an area, it may fruit poorly if at all.  Some tree fruit cultivars will have buds killed by frosts, so no fruit, if they bloom too early.  Catalogs, and trained nursery professionals, should be able to help in cultivar selection.

How much space do you have, or are willing to plant and maintain?  This will determine the number of plants, based on their width and spacing.  Keep in mind there are dwarf, and semi-dwarf selections of many tree fruits, which of course take less space than standard-size trees.  Being lower, they are easier to maintain and harvest too.

Related to size, as well as other traits such as disease resistance, soil adaptability, hardiness, and vigor, are rootstocks.  Rootstock refers to the plant onto which the cultivar is grafted.  You’ll often see these listed, going by letters such as for apples the B9 dwarf or M111 semi-dwarf, or Lovell for peaches.  Just be aware of this if you see these letters, but unless you want a particular one for specific traits or want to get involved with your own grafting, there is no need to study up on these.

Expected yield may impact how many you want, or need, of each fruit type.  Keep in mind that many can be stored in various ways, or processed into jams and fruit leathers for instance.  If planting more than a couple cultivars, choose ones that fruit at different times if you want to spread out your harvest season.

Although some tree fruits are listed as “self-fertile”, with no cross pollination needed, even these often bear more heavily with two or more cultivars.  Make sure the ones you choose will flower at the same time.  And when planting, make sure these are close enough (often within 50 feet), so the bees can find both plants.

Apples are perhaps the main tree fruit most think of, especially in the north.  Their hardiness varies from USDA zones 3 (-30 to -40F average annual minimum temperature) to 9 (20 to 30 degrees F), depending on cultivar.  While standard apple trees grow 20 to 30 feet tall, semi-dwarf grow 12 to 15 feet and dwarf cultivars grow 7 to 10 feet.  Respectively, they should be spaced 25 to 35 feet apart, 15 to 20 feet, or 7 to 10 feet.

Years to bearing from planting apple trees, and yield, for mature standard trees is 5 to 8 years and 8 to 18 bushels, for semi-dwarf 3 to 5 years and 4 to 10 bushels, and for dwarf trees 2 to 4 years and one to 6 bushels.  The variation in these is due to cultivar, climate, and particular growing conditions.

Peaches are perhaps the main tree fruit that comes to mind with southern gardeners.  Closely related are the nectarines (basically smooth-skinned peaches) and apricots.  Although there are a few more hardy peaches, most peaches and nectarines grow in zones 5 (-20 to -10 degrees F) to 9, while apricots generally grow in zones 5 to 8 (10 to 20 degrees F).  Madison, Red Haven, and Reliance are peaches that may grow into zone 4.  Standard peach trees reach 10 to 15 feet tall, dwarf ones 5 to 7 feet tall.  Space these, respectively, 18 to 20 feet and 7 to 8 feet apart. Crimson Rocket is an upright, columnar peach tree. 

Although most peaches are self-fertile, so you can get by with one tree, most bear more heavily with a partner nearby.  Peaches are less tolerant than other fruits of extremes in soils and climate.  Expect fruit starting for standard trees in 2 to 4 years, 2 to 3 years for dwarfs.  Mature trees, respectively, may yield 4 to 6 bushels or one to 2 for dwarf peaches.

Pears, depending on cultivar, grow in zones 5 (sometimes 4) to 8.  Luscious, Parker, and Patten are a few of the more hardy cultivars.  Standard trees reach 15 to 30 feet tall, 6 to 8 feet for dwarfs.  Space these, respectively, 15 to 20 feet or 8 to 10 feet apart.  Expect fruits in 4 to 6 years for standard trees, with 2 to 8 bushels when mature.  For dwarfs, fruiting begins in 3 to 5 years with one to 2 bushels per mature tree. 

Plums come in one of three main groupings—European (hardiness zones 5 to 9), Japanese (zones 6 to 9), and American hybrids (zones 4, maybe 3, to 8).  Make sure you have two of the same group for cross pollination.  Standard trees reach 12 to 25 feet, semi-dwarf 12 to 15 feet, and dwarf 5 to 8 feet.  Space them, respectively, 18 to 20 feet, 10 to 15 feet, and 6 to 8 feet.

Be careful about bloom time when choosing, as early bloomers can be injured by frosts.  Expect yields in 4 to 6 years for standard trees, and 3 to 5 years for semi-dwarf and dwarf ones.  Standard and semi-dwarf, when mature, usually yield 2 to 6 bushels per tree, with 1 to 2 bushels for dwarf plums.

Cherries come in two main groups, sweet and sour (or tart).  Hardiness varies with cultivar, but generally for sweet is zones 5 to 8, and for sour zones 4 to 7.  Standard sweet cherries often reach 20 to 30 feet, 15 to 20 feet for sour.  Space them, respectively, 20 to 25 feet, and 15 to 20 feet apart. 

Sweet cherries generally need cross pollination, sour cherries usually don’t need this to fruit.  Expect yields in 5 to 7 years for sweet cherries, 3 to 5 for sour.  Both, when mature, yield one to 3 bushels or 60 to 80 quarts. Keep in mind that, when growing cherries, bird netting or control is usually needed unless you’re willing to share with the birds. 

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