As more people try their hand at edible gardening, the idea of growing fruit crops has
garnered interest. While fruiting plants can be grown at home, they can require more work than vegetables because they aren’t annual crops. Success largely depends on the type of fruit selected.
Fruit crops can be divided into two main categories: tree fruits and small fruits. As a general rule, small fruits — strawberries, blueberries and blackberries — are easier to grow than tree fruits — peaches, apples, plums and pears. Table grapes require more maintenance, while muscadines are more carefree. The degree-of-difficulty ranking is due to maintenance — annual pruning requirements and disease and insect problems. Be realistic about what level of care is needed when choosing fruits to plant. Many problems with diseases and insects can be avoided by choosing a fruit crop that is well-adapted to your yard and the level of care you are willing to provide.
Pesticides and pollination
Although any plant grown in Arkansas can be damaged by insects and diseases, many apples,
peaches and grapes are productive only with a regular pesticide-spraying program. Spraying at specific times throughout the growing season is essential. While home gardeners don’t have to produce totally blemish-free, supermarket-quality produce, some diseases and insects can virtually destroy crops. Brown rot of peaches is a prime example. For peaches, it is not about trying to stop the spread of disease once it hits, it is about preventing problems before they occur. If you don’t want to spray pesticides, you may want to avoid these crops or consider varieties that are disease-resistant or that ripen early in the season to reduce the number of sprays needed.
Requirements for pollination vary among fruit crops. The majority of apple, pear and plum
trees, as well as blueberries, require cross-pollination. Two cultivars blooming at the same time can be used for cross-pollination. But you need two different varieties; just planting two plants of the same variety cannot be used for cross-pollination. Because pollen is transferred primarily by bees, take care not to spray insecticides during bloom time when honeybees are present. Sour cherries, peaches, nectarines, grapes, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries are considered self-fruitful and will bear fruit without cross-pollination.
Space, sunlight and soil
How much space do you have to grow fruits and how much sunlight? Generally speaking, all fruit crops will do best in full sun, requiring a minimum of six to eight hours per day. Most fruit crops will tolerate a wide range of soil types as long as water and nutrients are not limiting and soil pH is adequate. Have your soil tested prior to planting to get the pH in the proper range for the fruit crop you will be growing. Avoid planting in heavy, poorly drained soils and low spots, as most fruits cannot survive if water remains standing in their root zone. Low spots may also be frost pockets, making late spring freezes more of a problem. Good air drainage, especially during early spring when late frosts can occur, is critical. Choose a higher site with a slope, if possible, so cold air will flow down away from plants and not accumulate around fruit crops. Don’t plant fruit trees close to a fence row or wooded area, as cold-air drainage will be impeded. Plus, you will make crops more accessible to animals looking for a tasty snack!
Not all fruit crops require a heavy workload. Blueberries and strawberries are fairly low-
maintenance and are often planted as an ornamental as well as fruiting plants. Blueberries are related to azaleas and need similar growing conditions — with the addition of more sunlight. They have very pretty white flowers in the spring, nice blue fruits in the summer and outstanding fall foliage. Strawberries can serve as edible groundcover. Muscadine grapes make a great vine for a trellis or arbor and produce some late-season fruit. Blackberries are not difficult to grow but do need upkeep to stop them from spreading too far into the yard.
Small fruits work easier in smaller areas if space is a limiting factor. There are also dwarf fruit trees, or espaliered apples, pears and figs, and newer varieties geared toward container plantings. While you may not harvest bushels of fruits from smaller plants, they will be ornamental, fit into small spaces and give you some fresh fruit.
How soon will you be able to harvest fruits? Small fruits usually begin bearing the season after planting, while fruit trees can take five to seven years, depending on how old trees are at planting.