I love fruit trees and not just because I have a major sweet tooth. There’s something fascinating about caring for fruit trees and learning about their needs. And if you do well, you get rewarded with the tasty fruits of your labor, literally. But whether you’re a first-time fruit tree buyer, or this is your 10th fruit tree, there’s always something to learn. Because of this, I wanted to make a checklist to keep in mind before adding a new fruit tree. So, I did some research to find out more. Here’s what I found.
Before buying a new fruit tree, consider checking its hardiness zone, time to fruit, pollination, growing requirements, invasiveness of the roots, and if the tree is poisonous to pets or livestock. Doing just a few minutes of searching can save a lot of time, money, and effort.
So, while do you don’t need to check EVERY aspect of the fruit tree you’re looking at buying, it’s helpful to check for the ones that are most relevant to you. For example, if you have lots of pets or livestock roaming your orchard, it’ll be good to know if the fruit or leaves are poisonous to them. But what specifically should we look for when buying fruit trees, and (when we’re ready) where are the best places to buy them? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Hardiness Zone
Before buying a new fruit tree, confirm which growing zone you’re in and then confirm the tree’s growing zone. Most trees will have a range, so likely there’s room for flexibility. If you live in a different zone, but still want to grow the fruit tree, consider growing it indoors or in a greenhouse.
When I was new to gardening, I had no idea what others were meaning when they’d say they were in zones 7a or 10b. It was basically a foreign language to me.
However, confirming the hardiness, or growing zone, of the fruit tree before buying it is the number 1 best thing you can do. While this may be obvious to more experienced gardeners, it’s sometimes forgotten (I’m definitely guilty of this).
Native Fruit Trees
If you want to take this a step further, consider growing trees that are native to your land. These plants typically will not only be ideal for your growing zone but can be extremely beneficial to the soil and the biodiversity of life around the tree.
For example, here in Texas, I found quite a native few fruiting and non-fruiting trees:
- Prickly Pear
- Chile Pequin
While the definition of “native” is pretty vague (are birds carrying seeds from other continents thousands of years ago considered native?), it’s more important to know how these plants grow in your zone and how they benefit the surrounding life.
Some species considered “invasive” can actually be present because there’s an opportunity to fix the soil that other plants aren’t meeting. In these cases, are they really invasive, or are they opportunists that are repairing a damaged system? For this reason, study the plant for a few unbiased minutes. You may find that “invasive” fruit trees are just what your land needs.
So, before you go out and buy a fruit tree, first confirm your growing zone, then check the tree’s zone, and finally—see what benefits the fruit tree might bring to your soil and its surrounding life.
Keep in mind that there’s still some flexibility here. If you’re outside of the growing zone of a specific fruit tree, but insist on growing it, know that you can sometimes successfully grow it indoors, in a greenhouse, or by creating your own microclimate.
2. Time to Fruit
Time to fruit is also sometimes forgotten and can be a huge turn-off for some. For example, most fruiting trees take 3-7 years to fruit. And in today’s age of technology, patience can be in short supply. Fortunately, there are a couple things you can do to speed up the time it takes to get fruit.
Let’s first take a look at some of the general times we can expect fruit trees to take to grow and establish a root system before we see fruit.
|Tropical Fruit||Time to Fruit*|
I made this table for a different post, but I wanted to include it here as it could help. As you can see, there’s a pretty big variety of growing times for fruit trees. While these are tropical trees, similar time frames apply for most other fruiting trees.
Side note: if you’re in a tropical or subtropical region (generally zones 9-11), and you’d like more information about fruits to grow in the tropics, you can check out my recent post that the above table is from: The 7 Best Fruits To Grow in Tropical Climates.
However, there are a few things we can do to get faster fruit on trees:
- Buy a fruit tree that’s grafted
- Increase pollination
- Meet the tree’s sun, water, and soil requirements
Generally, fruit trees that are grafted (instead of grown from seed) will bear fruit in a fraction of the time. This can usually mean a difference of 7 years to fruit if grown from seed, or 1-3 years if grown from a graft.
If you aren’t familiar with grafting, it involves taking a young tree (also called a rootstock) and fusing a branch (or scion) from a different, mature tree to it. The result is having a young root system with a mature upper half. Since the DNA of the scion has already matured, the time to fruit is much less. There are also other benefits to grafting.
Additionally, improving your fruit tree’s pollination can help increase the speed, amount, and size of the fruit. This is even true for self-pollinating trees (more on pollination later).
Lastly, it goes without saying that a fruit tree in poor conditions, such as improper sunlight, water, and nutrients, will be stressed and not bear much, if any fruit. The tree will simply be trying to ensure its survival, even if it means conserving energy and letting fruit and leaves fall off.
3. Growing Difficulty
Not all fruit trees are created equal. Some are easier to grow and care for than others. Some are also hardier to frost, pests, disease, and a lack of nutrients. For example, fruit trees such as citrus are fairly hardy and easy to grow, while some trees, like avocados, require more attention and are more sensitive to their environment.
I thought about including a table of fruit trees ranked by their growing difficulty, but the truth is that there are so many variables that it wouldn’t really be an accurate guide. There’s even a likely difference from your growing environment than your neighbor’s just a block away. However, there are still ways to gauge their difficulty.
4. Growing Requirements
Generally, we know that fruit trees won’t bear fruit if we don’t provide adequate sun, water, or nutrients, and while this is true, there are many other factors too.
Some of the key factors that contribute to how well a fruit tree grows and fruits include:
- Nutrient requirements
- Heat or cold tolerance
- Pest resistance
- Type of pollination
- Frequency and amount of watering
While over and under-watering are some of the most common reasons why fruit trees don’t grow well, there are some less common ones. For example, a slight change in the pH of the soil can make a big difference. Or maybe there’s excess chlorine in the water.
While there’s no way to know all of the ins-and-outs of a fruit tree, I generally recommend doing 30 minutes or so of research to learn the basic growing requirements of the fruit tree and see if your environment would be a good fit. If it is, go ahead and consider purchasing the tree and you’ll find most of your future knowledge will come from first-hand experience.
5. Pollination Requirements
You likely know that fruit trees can either be self-pollinating or cross-pollinating, but some fruits such as avocado can be more complex (more on this below).
Generally, fruit trees that require you to buy two or more for cross-pollination include:
- Some Citrus
- Sweet Cherries
Keep in mind that pollination changes based on variety. For example, sweet cherry trees are typically cross-pollinating, while sour cherry trees are self-pollinating.
In the case of avocado trees, while they’re technically self-pollinating, they have sets of male and female flowers which open at different times. This is a problem because pollinators like bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies can usually visit either the male or female flowers, but not both. This makes it difficult for them to transfer the pollen from male flowers and fertilize female flowers, which creates the fruit.
Because of this, avocado tree varieties are classified into two groups: Type A and Type B, with each type opening its flowers at different times. For example, Type A avocado trees might open their male flowers in the morning and female flowers in the evening. On the other hand, type B avocado trees might open their male flowers in the evening and female flowers in the morning. This staggered timing pairs the opening of males and female flowers from different trees together, greatly improving pollination, and therefore—fruiting.
For fruit trees that are potted and indoors, know that most varieties, such as citrus, are self-pollinating (which is incredibly helpful since having bees as your roommates would be tricky). However, self-pollinating fruit trees can still benefit from cross-pollination, so consider pollinating by hand when its flowers first bloom. You can do this by using a clean toothbrush, paintbrush, or q-tips and lightly brush pollen from flower to flower.
If you have multiple varieties of fruit trees, and you’re wondering if they can cross-pollinate with each other, make sure to check out my recent post: Can an Apple Tree Pollinate a Pear, Cherry, or Plum Tree?
6. Root Invasiveness
If you’re considering planting fruit trees on your property, a big factor to consider is how invasive the roots are and how far to plant them from structures such as house foundations, fences, and fire hydrants. Some fruit tree’s roots can cause significant damage to property if ignored and not spaced well.
A fruit tree’s roots are designed to seek out water, so if there’s water collected under your house’s foundation or a leaky pipe somewhere, the roots will likely find it if it’s in range.
The good news is that most fruit tree’s roots are relatively shallow. Up to 90% of the fruit tree’s roots can be found in the first 2 inches of the soil.
To be safe, do a 5-minute search to see how invasive the roots on the fruit tree you’re considering is, and how far you should plant it from the structure and other plants.
7. If It’s Poisonous to Pets or Livestock
Last is probably one of the most important ones. While it’s not a big deal if a fruit tree doesn’t exactly match your hardiness zone, it’s a bigger deal if it’s poisonous to your pets or livestock.
I once worked at a veterinarian’s office in the middle of wine country in California. There were SO many dogs that would come in after being out in the vineyard and eating fallen grapes (they all made a full recovery).
The point is, whether you have an apartment patio or a vineyard, it’s a good idea to check the compatibility of your pets and livestock with the fruit trees. This includes the fruit, leaves, stems, seeds, bark, and anything else from the tree.
Some of the most common poisonous fruit trees for pets and livestock include:
- Wild and Black Cherry
Remember that the toxicity depends on the variety of the tree. Some cherry trees can be safe, while others, such as the black cherry tree are highly toxic.
Of course, the toxicity also varies based on the type of animal, so just spend a minute online to check if your pets or livestock can be affected if they accidentally get into a part of the tree. I can tell you firsthand that even for something as small as eating a handful of grapes, a vet bill isn’t a small expense.
Where to Buy Fruit Trees
The best place to buy fruit trees is your local nursery followed by a reputable online nursery such as naturehills.com. Often, some home improvement stores don’t have good availability or quality of fruit trees, so they can be hit or miss. For this reason, stick to your local or reputable online nursery.
I bought several fruit trees over the years (Meyer lemon, Kaffir lime, avocado, fig, and more), and while they’ve done fairly well, I definitely found some sources were better than others.
Generally, the most common places to buy fruit trees are:
- Home Improvement Stores
- Local Nurseries
- Online Nurseries
While I like to shop around nurseries to see what kinds of fruit trees they have (I lucked out finding my Kaffir lime), I found that some regions don’t have a good selection.
Along the same line, some home improvement stores have a lack in availability and quality, especially post-covid.
That’s when I accidentally came across naturehills.com. I was doing some research for my recent post: How Much Do Fruit Trees Cost?, and they came up as a suggestion.
I’ve since checked out their site and products, and found that they’re one of the best places to buy fruit trees online.
So, my recommendation for buying fruit trees would be to check your local nurseries first, and if they don’t have what you’re looking for, check out naturehills.com.