First time with fruit trees? Try our tips!

Many gardeners think of fruit trees as workhorses destined for a corner of the kitchen garden. But fruit trees are beautiful as well as useful, with blooms, foliage, and fruit that provide beauty in at least three seasons. A well-pruned tree can add winter interest, too.

Fall is the perfect time to plant fruit trees. In all but the coldest regions, you can plant about a six weeks before the first killing frost, which gives the tree time to establish roots but eliminates the danger of a warm spell that could fool the tree into thinking it's spring.

Once spring arrives, the tree will be ready for vigorous growth. Here's how to choose fruit trees that are perfect for your garden.

Choose your size

Dwarf fruit trees (8 to 12 feet tall) are perfect for small spaces or large pots. Their fruit is normal size, but the yield is smaller, and they may not live as long as larger trees.

Semi-dwarf trees (12 to 18 feet tall) are productive and fairly easy to prune and harvest, so they're ideal if you want a large crop but don't want to scale tall heights to prune and pick.

Columnar trees, which can even be grown in pots, are the smallest fruit trees on the market for home gardeners. See our story in the March/April 2014 issue of Gardening How-To (pgs. 48 to 52).

Standard-size trees (20 to 30 feet tall) make good heritage trees that last through generations, but they're more difficult to prune and harvest. Semi-dwarf and standard fruit trees double as shade trees, helping reduce the cooling load on your house.

Pairs and spares

When planning the type and number of fruit trees you want in your yard, bear in mind that some fruit trees need a companion—another cultivar to cross-pollinate—while others will bear fruit on their own or when planted with the same cultivar. Most apples, plums, pears, and sweet cherries aren't self-fruitful and need another cultivar to cross-pollinate.

On the other hand, peaches, tart cherries, nectarines, and some plums are self-fruitful. Before buying the tree, do some research on cross-pollination and space requirements for each variety and size you want to plant.

You can extend the harvest season by planting early, mid-season, and late cultivars, but bloom times for cross-pollination need to coincide closely in order for either tree to bear fruit.

As to which cultivar to choose, it's a good idea to choose cultivars that were developed in your region or a region with a similar climate. Ask your county extension agent or a local nursery for suggestions on fruit trees that do well in your area.

Select your site

Fruit trees love fertile soil with good drainage. Higher areas of elevation and slopes are easier on fruit trees than low pockets, where they're more susceptible to frost damage and too much moisture in the soil.

Most fruit trees need six to eight hours of sunlight daily in order to thrive. But as with water, too much sun can be too much of a good thing. Southern gardeners should consider a north-facing slope to protect trees from the extreme heat of the summer sun.

A north slope is also for a good spot for your fruit tree if you live in a climate with late spring frosts. Though the tree will be slower to bloom, it might avoid a surprise frost and bear fruit when earlier-blooming trees on the south side are subject to a killing frost.

Prepare and plant

Good fruit begins with healthy soil. Test your soil with a soil testing kit, or pack up a sample and send it to your county extension office. If necessary, use lime or sulphur to adjust the soil pH to the preferences of the fruit tree you wish to grow, and amend clay or sandy soil with compost.

Dig a hole no deeper than the rootball and two to five times wider than the tree grew at the nursery. Plant trees so the root flare (where the roots begin to flare out from the trunk) is at or slightly above the level of the ground. If your tree is bareroot, mound a small amount of soil in the center of the hole. Set the tree in the hole and spread the roots out around the mound.

Trim any extra-long roots and fill the hole with soil, keeping the tree upright. If you're planting in a windy area, tip the tree into the wind about 5 degrees. It will grow upright over time. Make sure the bud union (where the scion and rootstock join together) is above ground, or the scion may take root and produce a much bigger tree than you wanted (or the wrong fruit).

Fertilize fruit trees with nitrate fertilizer in early spring after they're established and growth begins. Follow package instructions to determine how much to apply. A good rule of thumb is to scatter fertilizer starting about 2 feet out from the trunk and extending just beyond the tips of the branches. Be careful not to apply too much nitrogen, though, as this will promote leaf growth over fruit development.

Prune and preen

Smart pruning will keep your fruit trees healthy, in good shape, and able to bear larger loads of fruit. After planting your tree, prune it to establish its basic shape.

Apples, cherries, and pears need a strong central leader; plums and peaches should have an open center with the leader pruned below the side branches. Trim off branches close to the ground, and choose three or four strong branches to form the canopy of the tree. Prune all the others, especially branches that rise up at a narrow angle.

Branches that extend at a 45- to 90-degree angle are best for fruit-bearing. Each year, maintain the basic shape by pruning off narrow-angled branches, suckers, water sprouts, and branches that shade the tree's center.

If you have limited space in your yard, consider pruning your fruit tree into a two-dimensional pattern against a wall or fence. Apples, pears, and figs are well-suited to this technique, which is called espalier. An espalier may bear less fruit, but its design creates an attractive focal point in your garden.

Disease-resistant cultivars

There's nothing more frustrating than seeing the fruit of your labor ravaged by a disease. Instead of spending time and money fighting fruit-tree diseases, plant cultivars that are bred to be resistant to those diseases.

Apple cultivars resistant to apple scab:

‘Liberty'

‘Freedom'

‘Nova Easygro'

‘Redfree'

‘William's Pride'

Pear cultivars resistant to fire blight:

‘Seckel'

‘Starking Delicious'

Peach cultivars resistant to peach leaf curl and brown rot:

‘Red Bird'

‘Sunbeam'

Where to buy

Burnt Ridge Nursery & Orchards, burntridgenursery.com

Fedco Trees, fedcoseeds.com

Orange Pippin Fruit Trees, orangepippintrees.com

Raintree Nursery, raintreenursery.com

Stark Bro's, starkbros.com

Trees of Antiquity, treesofantiquity.com