Fruit in your future? Start with small fruits, not tree fruits

Small fruits give you lots to eat,
Tree fruits often spell defeat.

I am 100% pro-fruit! I would love to see more fruit plants of all types grown across Maryland. But it saddens me to see gardeners become frustrated and disenchanted with fruit growing because their first attempt was with apples or peaches.

A National Gardening Association survey showed that 41% of U.S. households grew edibles in 2021, a 24% increase since the start of the COVID pandemic. Many new vegetable gardeners naturally see fruits as their “next frontier.” Most vegetable crops are annual plants while all fruit plants are perennials, living year-to-year in the same garden space for years and requiring year-round attention. You need to up your game for fruit growing.

My advice for the fruit-curious gardener is to start off with some of the small fruits that are well-adapted to Maryland’s climate and soils. Strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, grape, and currants get their generic “small fruits” name because the plants and their fruits are small relative to tree fruits. Apple, European pear, peach, cherry, plum, and apricot are all popular tree fruits in the Rosaceae (rose) family. They also grow well in Maryland and many people plant or inherit them without fully understanding their requirements and challenges. As a result, we get a ton of tree fruit problem questions every growing season through Ask Extension.

If you had your heart set on planting apple and peach trees this year, please put down the mail-order catalog or close the browser window showing an everyday gardener picking bushels of fruit from a pristine apple tree and consider this:

  • Small fruits are less expensive to buy and maintain and take up less garden space. Even dwarf apple fruit trees can take up 75 sq. ft. of space. 
  • Small fruit plants are easier to incorporate into a home landscape. They are also easier to prune and manage and to remove if they don’t work out or eventually succumb to old age or disease. (Mature grape plants with their massive root systems are the exception). Removal of a fruit tree can be costly.
  • It’s easy to overcrowd a part of your yard with fruit trees by planting them too close to each other, to structures, or to other trees in the landscape. Shading leads to poor growth, pest and disease issues, and low yields.
  • Fruit trees need to be trained and pruned in a careful and timely manner, especially in the first 3-4 years. Small fruits tend to be more forgiving regarding training and pruning. 
  • Yes, small fruits have plenty of potential pests and diseases but they can be grown organically with very good success. Some problems can be tolerated, like the fuzzy gray mold fungus that attacks strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry fruits in wet weather. Others can be prevented or managed through good gardening practices (like proper spacing and pruning) or applying an organic pesticide (like spraying lime sulfur in early spring to reduce disease pressure).
  • Tree fruits, conversely, have more insect pests and diseases that are more difficult to prevent and manage without synthetic pesticides. Trees must be monitored more closely for signs and symptoms of problems. Even if you spray effective pesticides at the correct time, you can end up with poor control if your sprayer is not capable of covering the entire tree including the tops and bottoms of the leaves. Multiple applications are usually needed to control the major pests and diseases.
peaches with brown rot symptoms
Brown rot is a severe fungal disease infecting the “stone fruits”- peach, nectarine, cherry, plum, and apricot. Resistant varieties are not available. Photo: Ask Extension
symptoms of cedar apple rust disease on leaves
Cedar-apple rust is a major defoliating apple disease in Maryland. Photo: Ask Extension
  • Fruit tree pest and disease problems are much greater in areas where there is commercial fruit production and/or significant backyard fruit production. You may be lucky for a number of years after planting in avoiding pest problems, especially if there are few fruit trees growing in your area. But some of the major pests and diseases will find your trees eventually.
Large peach tree loaded with flawless fruit in Poppleton, a Baltimore neighborhood.
  • Birds, squirrels, deer, and other wildlife love fruit. Protecting small fruit plants is usually easier and less expensive than protecting tree fruits.
  • Not surprisingly, growing your own tree fruits at home may cost more than buying fruit from area growers. A good strategy is to grow some small fruits at home and buy the tree fruits from Maryland producers at Maryland’s Best.

Other tree fruit options

If you love the idea of growing tree fruits without battling lots of pests and diseases, consider planting figs, Asian pears, Asian persimmon, or hardy pomegranate. Fruit plants native to Maryland include pawpaw, elderberry, serviceberry, chokeberry, and beach plum (Native to U.S. Atlantic Coast). Native plants are the foundation of our local ecosystems and add beauty and interest to our landscapes. These native and non-native fruit trees and shrubs are NOT pest-free but can be grown without pesticides.

woman holding a bowl of figs
Terry Gustafson, a UME Master Gardener (Harford Co.), showing off her fig harvest
pawpaw tree growing in full sun
Attractive and fruitful pawpaw trees growing in full sun at the University of Maryland Extension, Washington County office

Tips for gardeners with the room, time, and desire, for the challenging tree fruits

  • Select disease-resistant varieties when possible. Apple examples are ‘Crimson Crisp,’ ‘Crimson Gold,’ ‘Goldrush,’ and ‘Enterprise’
  • Buy bare-root plants. They usually outperform container plants. 
  • Avoid fad trees like the “5-in-1” apple.
  • “Container” varieties tend to be disappointing.
  • Consult fruit cross-pollination charts. 
  • Purchase recommended disease-resistant (when possible) varieties from a reputable garden center or nursery, preferably a tree fruit nursery. Nurseries should be able to give you a choice of rootstocks or at least let you know which rootstock they are using.
container grown fruit trees at a supermarket
Low-cost container apple trees at a supermarket. Rootstock information is not available.


By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center. Read more posts by Jon.

6 thoughts on “Fruit in your future? Start with small fruits, not tree fruits

  1. Robert Nixon January 20, 2023 / 9:14 am

    Great advice! I once decided to raise our own peaches in Central Maryland. I consulted catalogs, saliva ran from the corners of my mouth as I looked at the perfect fruit. I invested in a wonderful tree and planted as directed. The tree flourished and I harvested two or three peaches the next year. The third year–boom! Brown spot hit the growing peaches–and they looked just like the ones in the photo in this posting, and in a few days they were lying on the ground. I was disappointed–totally. Since then I successful focused on small fruits–strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, all relatively pest free. Yummm! Back to growing–and harvesting–fruit again.

  2. Peg Nemoff January 20, 2023 / 5:01 pm

    I would very much like to add a Russian pomegranate tree to my garden. I was so pleased to see you mention it. I do already have raspberries, Passiflora incarnata, Asimina triloba, Amelanchier grandiflora, a vegetable garden and loads of other natives. I have been looking around/all over the net, for a good source for the pomegranate. Can you suggest some reputable nurseries where I can purchase one? Also, is it fine to plant it now, if the soil in my space is not frozen? Thanks so very much. Peg Nemoff. Baltimore City MG, class of 2019

  3. Maryland Grows January 23, 2023 / 12:45 pm

    A number of “mail-order” tree fruit nurseries carry pomegranate. Edible Landscaping in VA may have the largest selection of pomegranate varieties. Order now but plant in early spring for best plant survival.

    You could also contact local garden centers and nurseries about hardy pomegranate availability this spring.

    • Peg Nemoff January 23, 2023 / 7:48 pm

      Thanks so much for these suggestions. I checked out the Edible Landscaping site and they look like they will be great to work with.

  4. Kayla January 23, 2023 / 7:25 pm

    Any particular types of fig that do well here?

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