Watch for Road Blocks
If you’re considering growing fruits, good idea. You’re probably dreaming about, in a few years, being able to reach for a ripe red apple, a peach, a cherry, or a plum from a fruit laden branch. To a large degree depending on where you garden, you could be paving the way for disappointment. Insect and disease pests, and specific pruning needs, are potential road blocks for many of the more common fruits.
Yet, luscious fruits plucked from a backyard plants are such a delicacy. What else but a fruit could have tempted Adam and Eve? Fortunately, many fruits need only a minimum amount of care. What follows are easy-to-grow fruit plants, grouped into three categories, from the very easiest to the “hardest easiest.”
The first category includes plants that you merely set in the ground, then come back in a couple of years for the first of many years of harvest. Well, almost nothing else to do. You may recognize in this category some plants commonly grown as ornamentals. Their flavorful fruits have too often been overlooked.
Quite a few bushes fall into this category, including elderberry, beach plum, highbush cranberry, and nannyberry viburnum. All roses bear edible fruits if their flowers are not cut. Amongst rose species, Rosa rugosa (considered invasive in certain regions)and R. pomifera bear largest fruits, called hips, with sizes somewhere between that of marbles and golf balls.
Another sometimes-planted ornamental, oft-overlooked for its fruit, is Nanking cherry. Pinkish-white blossoms adorn the bare reddish stems in very early spring and the small, scarlet, delectable cherries ripen in early summer. One of my favorite plants and fruit, Nanking cherries also are quick to come into bearing.
Juneberry (also called serviceberry, shadbush, shadblow, and amelanchier) species are either bushes or small trees. The plants are clouds of white blossoms in the spring and then bear small, blue fruits resembling blueberries but only in appearance. Taste the fruit and you’ll find it has the sweet, rich flavor of sweet cherry, with a hint of almond aftertaste. Juneberry is a relative of apple and shares some of its pest problems. Despite my love of the fruits, my site is poor for fruit growing so I can’t grow juneberries here. But I can harvest them from better situated ornamental plantings nearby.
Cornelian cherry is another small tree, a dogwood relative whose creamy yellow blossoms welcome in the first days of spring and then are followed in summer by scarlet “cherries.” The fruits are tart but tasty to many people (60 percent of tasters by my seat-of-the-pants surveys), and good for tarts, jams, and sorbets. Other tree fruits in this easiest-to-grow category include mulberries, pawpaws, and American persimmons. Almost everyone is familiar with mulberry, and the only caution here is not to plant it near walkways where the fruits will be carried on the bottoms of shoes to carpets indoors.
Pawpaw fruits are custardy, with banana-like flavor. Here is a plant with many tropical aspirations: large, lush green leaves; fruit developing in clusters like bananas; and kinship with the mostly tropical custard apple family.
If I were to describe a persimmon fruit, I’d ask you to imagine a dried apricot that’s been soaked in water, dipped in honey, and given a dash of spice. This tree is pretty all summer long and especially in fall when the persimmon orange fruits poke out from behind the leaves.
Not your average grocery store fare, persimmon or pawpaw, but both are very easy to grow. Selected varieties of persimmons (I grow Szukis and Mohler) and pawpaws have been developed that bear better fruit than seedling trees.
Pruning, but Easy
My second category of easy-to-grow fruits includes those that require planting (of course), plus annual pruning. Plantings of bramble fruits — red, yellow, and black raspberries, and blackberries, — too often become unmanageable, unproductive tangles of prickles or thorns. This condition is easily avoided with annual pruning which, in contrast to the melding of art and science required for apple pruning, is a no-brainer.
It’s hard to imagine that strawberry plants could eventually shade each other into unproductivity. But they do, and hence need annual pruning, in the form of thinning out of surplus plants.
Gooseberries and currants also are much more pleasant to harvest, in addition to being more productive, when annually pruned.
Hardy kiwi is a cold-hardy, fuzzless relative of the grocery-store kiwi, green, grape-sized, and with a similar, but sweeter and richer, flavor. Just pop them in your mouth, smooth skin and all, like grapes. Two species are the ones usually grown for their fruits. You can get by with little pruning on the more sedate growing, midsummer bearing Actinidia kolomikta. A. arguta, the other species will send out many 10-foot-long stems; it’s fruit ripen late summer or early fall — and you have to prune it or it will tear down whatever arbor or fence you’re letting it climb on.
(Hardy kiwi has been accused of being an invasive plant. After decades of growing this plant and speaking to, and looking at plantings of, others who grow it, I strongly disagree with this accusation.)
Perhaps a Pest, Perhaps Not
My third category includes fruits that require, in addition to planting and annual pruning, a minimum amount of pest control. Such fruits still are easy-to-grow. This category includes grapes, pears, and blueberries. In a given season, pests may or may not be a problem, but be prepared to control them if they arise: a couple of diseases on grapes, perhaps one or two insects or diseases on pears, and birds on blueberries.
Varieties amongst fruits in this latter category vary in their susceptibility to pests. Magness, Moonglow, Maxine, and Seckel, for instance, are pear varieties resistant to fireblight. I grow Magness, Seckel, and many other pear varieties and am happy to report no pest problems worth addressing in most seasons. Blackrot of grapes is less serious on grape varieties such as Delaware, Elvira, and Fredonia. I grow Brianna, Somerset Seedless, Alpenglow, Wapanuka, and Bluebell grape and keep pests at bay by enclosing a number of bunches in bakery bags.
Birds are the main threat to blueberries, although they do leave my lowbush blueberry fruits more or less alone. In addition to lowbush blueberries, I grow highbush blueberries, which birds love. So my blueberries grow in my Blueberry Temple which has permanent sides of birdproof netting, with additional netting draped over the top when fruits are ripening. Problem solved.
Now is the time to plan for fruit plants, not grow them. So do make these plans, but plan according to the effort you are willing to invest in caring for the plants.
(I cover the cultivation, adaptability, and potential pests of most of these fruits in my book Landscaping with Fruit.)