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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Description of tree fruit pests on the Home and Garden Information Center website
- Fruit Production for the Home Gardener, from Penn State University
- Virginia Tech Pest Management Guide (refer to the Home Fruits section)
By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center. Read more posts by Jon.