Figs. Persimmons. Apples. Lemons. Avocados. Loquats. Mulberries. Guavas. Limes… Is your mouth watering yet? Yeah, mine too. These are just a few of the types of fruit trees that we have in our yard. Or as we prefer to think of it – our food forest. In just six years on this homestead, we have planted over 20 trees! While you may not be able to grow all of the same types of fruit trees in your location, you will surely be able to grow some – including varieties that we cannot! Ornamental trees are also welcome additions to any homestead, as they provide shelter and habitat for wildlife. Also, privacy from neighbors.
Let’s dig into some of the factors you’ll want to consider when choosing the best trees for your garden! This article will explore common tree growing requirements, concepts such as chill hours and cross-pollination, and examples of cold-hardy and heat-loving tree varieties. I will also provide recommendations for growing trees in containers, and where to source them from!
For tips on how to properly plant new trees, check out this article!
HOW TO CHOOSE A TREE FOR YOUR SPACE
Edible or Ornamental?
I am always a proponent of planting edibles! Growing fruit trees is an excellent way to augment your supply of homegrown food beyond a traditional vegetable garden, and usually easier to manage! Even more, you can choose an array of fruit tree types that bear fruit at different times of year, further extending your harvests. As your fruit trees mature and provide a larger bounty, you can enjoy preserved homegrown fruit in many ways – dried, jams, fruit butters, frozen, fermented (apple cider vinegar, anyone?) or in beverages such as kombucha. And that isn’t even getting into the potential to grow nuts at home.
You may love your fruit, but so will the local wildlife! Keep in mind that fruit trees can sometimes be a little more work than ornamentals, especially if you have squirrels, birds, rats, and other “pests” to contend with. You may find the need to get creative and protect your tree, such as netting or bagging the ripening fruit. Or, if you have plenty to spare, feel free to share it with your local wild friends.
Fruit trees will enjoy more routine organic fertilizer and compost than ornamentals as well.
Speaking of wildlife, ornamental trees are also extremely important in this regard! They play a critical role in a thriving local ecosystem, particularly native trees. Our California Sycamore is a prime example, as a preferred habitat for both hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. They are in it all the time! I highly suggest you seek out trees that are known to support local wildlife. To learn more about creating a wildlife-friendly garden, and even becoming a Certified Wildlife Habitat like our little non-rural property is, check out this article!
Ornamental trees can also be very attractive for those seeking privacy. They can oftentimes be quicker-growing, larger, and more evergreen than many fruit trees. We have planted large ornamental trees, like a California Pepper Tree, as a way to quickly block out a neighbor’s house that loomed over our front yard. Similar to the Sycamore, the Pepper tree is another happening hummingbird hang out.
While ornamentals may not feed you directly, many of them produce blooms that feed pollinators – always a wonderful thing, in my book! Some of their blooms are irresistible to humans too. When our dwarf Magnolia is in bloom, I can’t keep my face out of it! If you’re interesting in helping to boost your local pollinator population, check out our list of Top 23 Plants for Pollinators.
Edible or ornamental, this world needs and will appreciate more trees. You can’t go wrong.
TREE GROWING CONDITIONS
When you’re in the market for trees, you’ll want to keep several things in mind. One is pretty obvious: What are the growing requirements of the tree you are interested in? Do some research before making a purchase. Does the tree need full sun, or protection from wind or frost? Ample or modest water? Warm conditions to bear fruit?
Check to see if that particular tree will be happy growing in your hardiness zone. For example, we are located on the border of USDA zone 9b -10a. The description or tag of the tree should specify the zones it is best suited for. If you aren’t sure what hardiness zone you are located in, enter your zip code here for a quick and easy answer! Also, take a look around your neighborhood. What types of trees do you see growing? That will give you an idea of what grows well in your area.
Beyond the suitable growing zones, which sort of broadly lump similar climates together, many fruit trees will also have more specific “chill hours” requirements
Fruit Trees & Chill Hours
It is probably common sense that heat will influence a fruit trees productivity. Certain types of fruit trees crave heat and cannot tolerate harsh freezing weather, such as citrus, bananas, and mangoes. On the other hand, did you know that a lot of fruit trees need cold weather to bear fruit too? Without the right amount of exposure to cold temperatures, also known as chilling hours, the trees blossom development is altered and can lead to shoddy crops.
What are chill hours exactly?
UC Master Gardeners and Bay Laurel Nursery, on chill hours
Trees listen for the signal that winter has arrived. They rely on “chill hours”, or vernalization, to break dormancy. Chill hours occur when the temperature stays between 32°-45°F. The hormone responsible for dormancy breaks down in this range, allowing buds to develop into flowers or foliage when the weather warms up in late winter. These hours are cumulative and need not be continuous. Interestingly, temperatures below 32°F are ineffective and do not count. Daytime temperatures above sixty degrees during this period may be subtracted and negatively affect the cumulative total.
Nut trees and stone fruit (plums, apricots, nectarines and peaches) are classic examples of trees that usually have high chill hour requirements. Yet if you live in a temperate location with few chill hours, don’t lose hope! There are many varieties within a type of fruit tree that require less, also known as “low chill” varieties. For example, the “Sunshine” variety of blueberries we grow require the least amount of chill hours of all blueberry types, so we’re able to grow them here successfully in our virtually frost-free climate! Blueberries grow on bushes as opposed to trees, but the same idea applies.
Here is a list of low-chill (less than 300 hours) fruit trees:
- Apples – Anna, Low Chill multi-graft, Dorsett and Sundowner
- Apricots – Gold Kist or Katy
- Plums – Methley, Burgundy, Satsuma or Mariposa
- Pluot – Dapple Supreme
- Cherry – Royal Lee, Minnie Royal and Royal Crimson
- Peach – Red Baron, Low Chill multi-graft, Saturn, Babcock, Sauzee Swirl, Mid-Pride and Eva’s Pride
- Nectarine – Spice Zee Nectaplum, Double Delight or Snow Queen
- Pears – most require over 300 chill hours. Asian pears require the lowest chill hours of all pears.
- Figs, Pomegranates, Quince, Persimmons – all require 300 or less chill hours
- Special Hybrids – Spice Zee Nectaplum or Flavor Delight Aprium
List courtesy of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
If you’re in a colder climate, you’re in luck! Because a majority of fruit and nut trees require more than 300 chill hours – some up to 1,000 hours! Others, such as figs, only require 100 chill hours during the cool season. Tropical fruit plants and trees require no chill hours. As you can see, there are endless cultivars within each category of fruit tree, so no matter where you live, there is a perfect fruit tree waiting for you out there!
How to determine your locations chill hours
Determining how many average chill hours you receive at home can be a little trickier than figuring out your USDA hardiness zone. There are a number of websites, like “Chill Hours” by Mississippi State University, that claim to be able to take your local weather station code (look that up here) and then give you the chill hours. I had issues with getting results for our area, but maybe yours will be different! Note that I have also heard it can take a while to load.
To give you a general idea, here is a chill hours map – but do note that this shows sweeping averages and doesn’t take microclimates into account.
For my fellow Californians, I found this handy list from UC Davis that breaks down chill hours into more detail by county and some cities.
If you are dying for an accurate answer, the best way to figure out the real chill hours your area experiences is by contacting your county agriculture department or local Master Gardeners program.
Heat and Cold Tolerant Trees
The most cold-hardy edible trees include: apples, pears, plums, black walnut, elderberry, pecans, and hazelnuts. They are rated to grow all the way down into Zone 3! As you move up into Zone 4, you can add persimmons, apricots, cherries, carpathian walnut to that list. In Zone 5, tack on peaches, paw paws, mulberries, and almonds. Zone 6 can grow all of the same.
Zones 7 and 8 are walking a fine middle line. Gardeners there can grow everything the colder zones can, and will also be able to venture into some more temperate-climate trees – depending on the variety of course! For example, most fig trees prefer zones 8 and up, but the “Hardy Chicago” and “Brown Turkey” cultivars are rated down to zone 5. Certain types of olives, pomegranates, bananas, as well as pineapple guava (feijoa) may be possible in zone 7 or 8, particularly if extra measures are taken to keep them protected in the winter – such as covering them with frost blankets.
And then there are heat-loving trees. These ones aren’t happy in the cold, risk death if they’re exposed to freezing conditions, and provide the most bountiful fruit in warm conditions. Fruit trees rated for zones 9-11 include: loquats, avocado, citrus, lychee, and tropical guava. The most picky heat-lovers of them all are mangoes, bananas, papayas, and cashews – who are happiest in zones 10b-11. Many of the fruit trees listed for colder zones can potentially be grown in higher zones too, as long as any chill requirements are met.
Choosing Trees for Containers
Providing adequate chill hours isn’t something you can fake. But protecting a cold-sensitive tree from freezing weather is something you may be able to do! Growing trees in mobile containers is a great solution for northern gardeners who want a taste of the Tropics or Mediterranean, but can’t provide that climate. Potted trees can be brought indoors during the winter months for protection from the cold.
Planting trees in containers is also an excellent option for folks with limited outdoor space! Similarly, for those who are not in a permanent living situation – as potted trees can be moved with you. You could even keep some potted trees indoors all the time, such as if you live in an apartment.
What trees grow well in pots?
Popular tree choices for containers include: fig trees, bay laurel, boxwood, and citrus trees including lemon, lime, kumquats, and even small oranges. Opt for petite species, or semi-dwarf or dwarf tree varieties. In general, trees that are naturally on the smaller side will be more content when contained.
Virtually any type of fruit tree can be found in a dwarf form, so feel free to experiment beyond those few listed above! We have a grafted semi-dwarf espalier Fuji apple tree growing in a large wood box on wheels. It isn’t nearly as fruitful as our in-ground Anna, but it is a beautiful and welcome addition to our patio garden. I have even seen banana trees living in containers!
If you have the choice, most trees are going to be happiest and healthiest when they’re planted in the ground. That is their jam. But with the right tree selection, a nice large container, and good routine care, potted trees can thrive as well! I will dive into tips and tricks for growing trees in containers in a forthcoming post – one that will be focused on physically planting and caring for trees.
In addition to the general climate that a tree will enjoy, you have to ask yourself: Will you enjoy this tree? Meaning, will it live up to your expectations, and suit your space well?
Deciduous or Evergreen
Many edible trees are deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves and look a bit bare in the winter time. This includes apples, stone fruit, and nuts. You may be like, “Who cares? Everything looks dead in the winter here anyways…”. On the other hand, maybe some of you are hoping to have a great evergreen tree that also serves as a privacy screen, or blocks something unsightly. This is something we always take into consideration, especially when choosing where to plant what in our garden.
Examples of evergreen fruit trees include avocado, loquat, citrus, pineapple guava, tropical guava, papaya, lychee, and olive trees. Bay Laurels are also evergreen, as are both ornamental and edible. We have two in large ceramic pots on our patio! Fresh bay leaves in soup, rice, or beans is ridiculously delicious.
On the flip side, some gardeners welcome naked trees in the winter. At a time when sunlight is already sparse, bare trees can let more light through to other areas in need!
Does your new tree want a buddy? When you’re tree shopping and doing your homework, take note if the tree of interest is described as “self-fertile” or not! This is also referred to as “self-fruitful”. Self-fertile trees pollinate themselves, and therefore do just fine when planted solo.
However, certain trees will need a partner of the same (or different) tree variety to cross-pollinate and successfully set fruit. Others may fall somewhere in between – they don’t necessarily need a partner tree, but they’ll be much more productive if they have one!
Which types of fruit trees are self-fertile?
Apricots, peaches, pomegranates, figs, citrus, papaya, tropical guava, loquat and nearly all persimmon trees are self-fruitful. Some plums need a partner, but the popular Santa Rosa Plum is known to be self-fertile. Several quality apple tree varieties, including Anna, Golden Delicious, Gala, and Fuji are also self-pollinating and very productive when grown on their own! Other varieties of plum or apple may need a pollinator partner, so be sure to check.
Most pear trees are considered partially self-fertile, but perform best with a friend. Nearly all nut trees should be planted with a second tree for cross-pollination, with the exception of pecans – who are self-pollinated by the wind. Elderberry, blueberries, cherries, and pineapple guava also like to have friends around for pollination.
Avocados are funny and unique trees! We have several growing. Not only because – DUH – who wouldn’t want tons of avocados?! But also because they do best with a cross-pollinator. Avocado varieties are split into two groups: Type A and Type B. Each group’s male and female flower parts open at different times of day. Studies show that avocado fruit set increased by 40 to 150 percent when A-type and B-type varieties were grown close together! Type A avocados include the most popular – Hass- along with Mexicola and Stewart. In contrast, Fuerte, Bacon, SurPrize, and Zutano fall into Type B. We have two from each group!
Do you live in a neighborhood with other trees, or maybe even have a farm or orchard nearby? Bees, birds, other pollinators, or even the wind can carry pollen several blocks. It is often said that if one of your close neighbors has the type of fruit tree you need for cross-pollination, that could do the trick for you!
Another thing to consider is: What will this tree look like in 10 years? How about 20 years? 30 years from now? If you plan to be in your home for a while (which I assume may be true, if you’re here thinking about planting some roots!) then you need to ask yourself these questions. What is the average size of the variety you’re scoping out? How fast will it grow? Will it potentially shade out your yard, blocking the sun for your garden? How about it’s root system? Are they super invasive, risking damage to nearby structures or water lines? Additionally, does it tend to sprawl and spread, or stay more tight and upright?
Thankfully, most trees take well to pruning. Yet that begs the question: Are you prepared to maintain and manage a large tree? If a large canopy, shade, and maintenance don’t sound ideal to you, look into naturally smaller trees, slow-growing trees, or dwarf varieties.
On the other hand, maybe a big fat tree is just what you’re looking for! When we chose our California Pepper tree, we did so specifically because it would grow large, and fast. It was the replacement for a privacy screen that had died on our property, leaving a big gaping hole between us and our two-story neighbor. Folks with large, open properties won’t need to worry about this as much. Plant yourself an orchard!
To avoid casting too much shade on the rest of your garden locate large trees carefully. If you live in the northern hemisphere, planting them on the north side of your yard will ensure they cast as little shade as possible, as the sun sinks lower on the southern horizon much of the year. This is called a “south-facing” orientation. Keeping smaller trees in the middle of a yard and larger ones closer to walls, fences, or other tall perimeter objects also accomplishes the same goal.
Think outside the box
I have named some pretty common types of edible trees so far, but there are even more unique types out there! For example, trees can come multi-grafted, with many varieties of one kind of fruit growing from the same main trunk. You can embark on training your tree, such as into a flat espalier shape to grow in rows or against a wall. We purchased our apple espalier already trained. If you have space to play, look into what type of rare and exotic fruits could grow well in your area.
So, after reading all of that… do you have the perfect tree in mind? Right on! Now you may be wondering: Where should I get my tree?
WHERE TO SOURCE FRUIT OR ORNAMENTAL TREES
We are fortunate to live near a few awesome local nurseries, so we always buy our trees in person. The benefit of shopping with a local nursery (aside from supporting a local business!) is that they will carry trees that grow well in your area. I still suggest doing your homework to verify, but any good nursery should follow this practice. However, don’t feel limited to what the nursery has in stock! There have been numerous times that our favorite garden centers didn’t readily carry a type of tree we wanted, or one the size we hoped for, so they special-ordered it for us. Don’t be shy to ask questions! Some even offer delivery services.
To clarify, I am talking about small, locally-owned operations, not Big Box garden centers – though that is a totally valid option, if you don’t have access to others.
When you’re at the nursery, keep an eye out for a tree that has good shape, structure, and generally looks healthy. Also look for signs of pest or disease issues. Slightly sad trees may bounce back after being planted, watered, and pampered a bit, but be leery of the really questionable ones.
I will admit it. I am really impatient, especially when it comes to trees growing in – to either fill out an ugly space, or to provide us food. Therefore, we usually go for larger, more established trees in 15 gallon pots. However, bigger isn’t always better! If a large tree is kept in a small pot too long, it will become root bound and stunted. Look for bulging, tight pots with roots poking out the bottom. In that scenario, which is a signal of root-binding, I would opt for the smaller, healthier tree in a 5-gallon pot instead. If you’re on a budget (or more patient than me) stick to the smaller ones too. They’ll catch up!
In lieu of physically picking out your tree, there are many reputable online nurseries who sell trees. Commonly, these trees are sold as small “whips” (stick-like) or bare root due to shipping, but that isn’t a bad thing! Because I don’t have experience in this arena, I can’t say too much else on the subject. Have you purchased a tree online? Please share your experience in the comments!
Whenever I am doing research on tree varieties, I always come across these online nurseries:
- Bay Laurel Nursery
- Four Winds Growers
- Peaceful Valley
- Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards
- Fast Growing Trees
- Raintree Nursery
Can I grow my tree from seed?
Sure, you can. Or at least, you can try… But let’s clarify a few things before you start down that road. Unfortunately, the seed and resulting seedling from a given tree doesn’t always “breed true”. Meaning, it won’t necessarily have all of the same characteristics of the adult tree the seed came from. They may grow very differently, and some may not bear fruit at all! Others will be more or less susceptible to disease than the parent. This is typically a result of cross-pollination. The seed offspring is a hybrid.
So how so they do it at nurseries then? Well, they start with a strong root stock (possibly disease-resistant) and graft a cutting from the desired variety on top. An experienced gardener may do the grafting themselves. But that is beyond what we’re talking about today.
When growing from seed, time is also a huge factor. You know that cute sprouting avocado pit you have suspended in water in your kitchen window? I hate to burst your bubble… but it will be 10 to 15 years until that thing produces any fruit! And again, it may be quite different from the parent tree you were lusting after. Personally, I find buying an established and reliable baby tree well worth the investment.
However, others like Moringa trees or certain ornamentals can grow swiftly and successfully from seed! I sound like a broken record, but do some research on the seed you’re hoping to grow.
And now you know the factors to consider when choosing trees for your garden.
What do you think? Do you feel armed and ready to go tree shopping? As you can see, there are TONS of options out there! Surely there is a perfect choice for your home.
After you make an educated decision and bring a new tree one home, be sure to check out this follow-up article: how to plant a tree! It covers the best practices of tree planting along with some tips we’ve learned over the years, like how to protect trees from gophers.
Stay tuned, and happy tree shopping!