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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:

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
Cedar-apple rust is a major defoliating apple disease in Maryland. Photo: Ask Extension
Large peach tree loaded with flawless fruit in Poppleton, a Baltimore neighborhood.

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.

Terry Gustafson, a UME Master Gardener (Harford Co.), showing off her fig harvest
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

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.

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