The Best Backyard Fruit: Good Fruit and Bad Fruit to Grow!
How to Realize the Fruits of Your Labor
January 8, 2024
For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
No content available.
Want to grow fruit in your home garden? Which ones should you grow? Which ones should you run from? It depends on the plant, where you live, and how much sweat, time, and heartbreak you can spare.
Apples, peaches, and other domesticated fruit are delicious additions to a healthy diet. Sadly, however, they are not good garden plants for people who can’t figure out how seeds put themselves into seed packets. Many fruits take gobs of time-sucking maintenance in the form of pruning, thinning, weeding, watering, and spraying in order to produce a reasonable harvest. Then, inevitably, on the very cusp of a strawberry, blueberry, or apple achieving its pinnacle of ripeness, a loathsome, amoral animal or hominid pilfers it in the dead of night. Does this mean that growing fruit at home is futile? No, not at all. It just isn’t the same as growing lettuce and radishes.
How to Get Started
Start by fulfilling their two essentials: full sun and well-draining soil. Next, choose fruit varieties that do well in your climate—plant disease- and pest-resistant varieties if possible. (Your local Cooperative Extension service can advise you on both.)
When you spray (and you almost certainly will), favor natural insecticides and fungicides such as Spinosad, horticultural oil, neem oil, insecticidal soap, Bacillus thuringiensis, B. subtilis, and liquid copper. And remember that practically every critter in your yard likes fruit as much as you do. Use netting to foil birds. Use anchored chicken wire to exclude turtles and rabbits. For deer, dig a moat and fill it with sharks.
Now let’s undertake a rational assessment of possible fruit for the home garden, praising the good and excoriating the bad. There’s no doubt that the latter will enrage many readers who succeed magnificently with those dissed as “bad.”
But keep in mind two things: First, I am not writing for Luther Burbank. I assume that few of you possess advanced degrees in pomology and viticulture. Second, I am not writing for rural gardeners with multi-acre orchards. Instead, I’m speaking to folks with yards of 5,000 square feet or less.
1. Blue Ribbon Blueberries
As if utter lusciousness weren’t enough, blueberries also brim with antioxidants, those magical compounds that help us to live years beyond what our astonished children expected. The two main types are northern highbush (Vaccinium corymbosum) for USDA Zones 4 to 7 and the more heat- tolerant rabbiteye (V. ashei) for Zones 8 and 9. Northern highbushes are self-pollinating, while rabbiteyes require cross-pollination from two different varieties. Plants can grow 6 feet tall and wide and, as a bonus, dazzle with scarlet fall foliage.
Although generally undemanding and productive, blueberries do require quite acidic soil with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5. Cursed with alkaline soil? Select semidwarf (3 to 4 feet tall) or dwarf (1 to 2 feet) types bred specifically for containers, such as ‘Pink Icing’, ‘Pink Sorbet’, ‘Jelly Bean’, and ‘Top Hat’. Plant these self-pollinators in commercial potting soil and feed lightly with an organic, acid-forming fertilizer. Blueberry pots are quite handsome, so add them to your garden as you would other pots. See how to grow bluberries.
2. Strawberry Shortcut
If you want fresh fruit quickly, plant strawberries. They usually bear in the first year. Folks’ first inclination when growing them is to plant a strawberry patch. That’s fine, but plants grown in the ground require weeding, mulching, and protection against practically every critter that you can name. I find it easier to grow them in containers, such that the berries never touch the earth. These vining plants make marvelous hanging baskets that are easy to move and protect from berry thieves.
Begin with certified, disease-free plants. You have three types from which to choose: June-bearing (one main crop in late spring and early summer), everbearing (one crop in spring or early summer, one in fall), and day-neutral (fruiting not determined by day length). The latter two produce long runners and are ideal for baskets. Strawberry plants naturally decline after a couple of years. When they do, replace them and the old potting soil, too. See how to grow strawberries.
3. Surprising Citrus Trees
I thought long and hard about making citrus a “bad” fruit because you can’t grow it outdoors in most of the country. Plus, homegrown citrus is often limited or banned in states with huge citrus industries, like California, Florida, and Arizona, for fear of spreading serious diseases and pests. For the rest of us, growing citrus in a pot that you bring indoors for winter is pretty cool.
Show people a ‘Meyer’ lemon picked from a tree growing in your brightly lit breakfast room, and they’ll assume that you share genes with Elon Musk.
For obvious reasons, choose a citrus tree that stays naturally small or is grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock. In addition to ‘Meyer’ lemons, consider ‘Bearss’ limes, calamondins, ‘Rangpur’ mandarins, and kumquats.
Feed trees with a citrus fertilizer according to label directions. Don’t freak out if all of the leaves suddenly drop. Citrus trees often respond to abrupt changes in growing conditions (heat, light, water) in this way. They’ll re-leaf.
Also note that the fruit take 6 to 12 months to ripen on the tree and don’t ripen after picking. While you wait, relax with some light reading. I suggest James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Forget the native American persimmon(Diospyros virginiana) that grows 60 feet tall. Eating its astringent fruit makes you look like you’ve lost your dentures. The one that you want is Japanese persimmon (D. kaki)—specifically, a non-astringent selection called ‘Fuyu’. It’s self-pollinating, grows about 25 feet tall, needs no spraying, and is seedless if no other persimmons are nearby, so you can eat the entire fruit. When ripe, the fruit is the size, shape, and color of a tomato and combines the flavors of cantaloupe, honey, and pear. Even if the tree never fruited, you’d covet it for its brilliant red fall foliage.
Other Good Fruit to Try
European pears are delicious and there are varieties for zones 4 to 8. For cross-pollination, plant two different fireblight-resistant selections.
Dwarf or semi-dwarf apples in zones with a winter chill (zones 3 to 8). Plant two different disease-resistant varieties—and not ‘Honeycrisp’, which is so fiendishly vexing to grow that even farmers hate it.
Figs grow fast and produce fruit quickly, and you only need one as they’re self-fertile. Grow outdoors in zones 8 through 11 or in a container in cooler regions.
So sorry, but grapes are a terrible choice unless you live in the country and grow them away from the house. Why? Because these vines need the support of an arbor, trellis, or pergola. In suburbia, however, such structures are typically located over a patio close to a house. Ripe, fermented, and rotten grapes inevitably draw clouds of surly yellow jackets and wasps after they’ve been squashed into a disgusting slick on the masonry below. So read this now and remember it later: When the vine is hung, you’re gonna get stung.
No “Peach in Our Time”
And now the announcement that mankind has awaited with bated breath for literally minutes: The Forbidden Fruit Award for the worst of all homegrown fruit goes to … (hushed silence) … the peach! Yes, I’m from the South, the land of peaches.
Question: Have you ever seen photos of century-old apple trees and wondered why no such peach tree photos exist? Answer: Because if you had planted a peach tree just as you read the previous sentence, it would likely be dead by now, ravaged by legions of pests and diseases that include peach tree borer, shothole borer, white peach scale, plum curculio, stinkbugs, brown rot, peach leaf curl, peach scab, powdery mildew, crown gall, canker, and Phytophthora crown and root rot. Peach trees also require considerable annual pruning to produce good fruit. Thus, if you crave sweet peach juice dribbling from your chin, procure that fruit from the farmers’ market. You have been warned.
A garden writer for nearly 40 years and author of The Grumpy Gardener (Southern Living, 2017), Steve Bender is from Hoover, Alabama.
Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprise that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann