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Planning and Planting Fruit Bearing Gardens

Hey folks, Laura here with Raintree Nursery! This blog post is a companion to the video that I recently made titled Planning and Planting Fruit Bearing Gardens.

Click here to watch the video!

So you've decided to start a fruit bearing garden, or add some fruit bearing trees and bushes to your existing landscape - congratulations! If you're new to the subject and you're wondering what you should know before you plant your plants, or even place your order keep on reading and I'll get into exactly what you should be prepared with to be successful!

The first thing you're going to want to consider is: what plants are going to grow well in your area? To figure that out, you'll want to start by defining the climate and growing conditions in your region.

Growing Conditions

Your growing conditions are defined by a number of factors, all of which are easy enough to determine, and together paint a picture of what you need to consider when you're choosing the plants to go in your garden.

1. USDA Zone. The USDA Zone is something you're probably already familiar with. Your USDA Zone is a measurement of the average coldest temperature your plants will have to survive each winter. You USDA Zone doesn't refer to ANYTHING ELSE however - only how cold it gets. Your USDA Zone is easy to discover through the USDA Hardiness Zone Map available online and pictured here below.

2. Heat units. The opposite of the USDA Zones are what we call heat units, or growing degree days. Heat zones also inform what you include in your design as some plants require more heat than others, for more days of the year, to thrive and ripen their fruit (ex. Citrus, pomegranates, jujubes, etc.). Conversely, some plants are not tolerant of the same kind of heat that other plants desire and will suffer or even die in climates that are too hot for them (ex. currants, raspberries, honeyberries, etc.). The American Horticulture Society put together a map of these heat units a number of years ago, and while it may be a bit warmer now where you are, the map is generally still useful.

3. Chill hours. Chill hours, or chilling hours, are another critical factor in plant selection. Each year plants need to functionally sleep for a certain number of hours each year when the temperature is between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Any period colder or warmer does not contribute to chilling hour totals and if a plant doesn't get enough chill hours it may not grow or flower correctly. If you live in areas that tend to have more growing degree days and heat units, you may be lacking in chill hours needed by some varieties and will need to choose "low chill" cultivars for your planting plan. Fortunately there are chill hour maps available online like the one below, and for some regions like Texas and California, you can find even more detailed maps of your local estimated chill hours.

4. Annual Rainfall Total. Rainfall totals for your area matter for two reasons, the first and most important being that total annual precipitation, and when those rains come, will inform how much supplemental irrigation you'll need plan on providing for your plants. If you live in a dry summer area you may choose to lean towards plants that are more drought tolerant or have been grafted to rootstocks that establish deeper and make better use of subsurface water.

 5. What is easy to grown where you live? Before you go to the trouble of trying to crunch all the numbers yourself, don't forget to contact members of your local grower community for there experiences with growing fruiting plants. Master Gardener's groups, fruit clubs, or your Raintree Nursery plant ambassadors are all great resources to figure out what you can reliably grow while you're getting some experience under your belt.

6. Diseases and pests. Every part of the country has it's own collection of common diseases and pests that you'll need to know about when making your plant selections. It is always easier to plant and maintain disease resistant plants than it is to manage the diseases and pests themselves. Contact your county agricultural extension office for more information on what you're going to have to plan for in your area.


What Do You Want to Eat?

Now that you have a handle on what you can grow, it's time to ask yourself what you actually want to eat (which is the whole point of growing fruit right)? When I'm helping new growers plan out these things I always ask a few questions.

1. What do you buy when you go to the store? Are you buying apples on a regular basis for example? If so, consider planting some apple trees! If you're into berries, then you should look at what berries you can grow.

2. How much are you spending on fruit? It may seem like these plants are expensive, until you compare the cost of growing fruit to the cost of buying it - you'll be surprised at just how much your annual fruit budget actually is and how much of an advantage you'll have growing it yourself.

3. What do your kids eat? Kids love to snack and when you're planning out a fruit bearing garden those snack habits should become part of your consideration. It's no question whether or not you want your kids snacking on organic apples and raspberries from your backyard, or pre-processed and pre-packed bags of snacks from the supermarket. Ask your kids what kind of fruit they love and plant some!

4. How will you use your fruit? This is an important question! Are you going to be eating primarily fresh fruits, or are you going to want to do more? Jams, jellies, preserves, frozen treats, ice cream, apple sauce, fruit leather, cider, and more are all options for your harvest - provided you've planned ahead and there is enough of it to go around!


Site Assessment

Now that you've got your climate data download and you've decided on what you want to eat it's time to do your site assessment. Knowing what kind of space you're working with and it's various features will help you refine your plant selections and help you develop a planting plan for the future.

1. How much land do you have? The first thing you consider is how much land you have available for planting. Do you have acres? A back yard? A front yard? A patio in an apartment building? The amount of space you have will determine the size of the plants you can grow.

2. How much sun or shade do you have? You can grow a nice fruit bearing garden in full sun, or full shade, but you can't grow shade loving plants in the sun, or sun loving plants in the shade. Knowing how much of your planting zone gets at least 6-8 hours of sun each day during the growing season will inform what kind of plants you choose and where you plant them. If you are working with a lot of shade and you want to grow plants that prefer full sun ask yourself if you can change that. Can you take down a fence? Can you remove a tree? Can you make changes at all? How much you can change your environment can also effect the choices you make about what you plant and where.

3. Soil conditions. While you're considering your sun access also consider your soil conditions. Is it loamy? Heavy? Silty? What is the pH? A soil test is the easiest way to determine what kind of soil you're working with and if the conditions that it provides will be supportive to the plants you've chosen. Fortunately in most cases soil is much easier to change than opening up more sun exposure, but it's easier still to match your plants with your soil conditions during the planning stage.

4. Water access. Finally ask yourself, how easy will it be to get water to all the places I am planting these trees and bushes? New plants, even those that are drought tolerant, need water. They need it during the planting process and after, to get established and become more independent later on, which can be difficult if you have sited your plants too far away from your water source.

5. Where else can you plant? If you don't have any land to work with, because you live in an apartment building, or a rental home, and can't plant in the ground think about where else you can plant. Densely planted containers can provide a surprisingly large yield of fruit, or perhaps you can partner with a local P-Patch or even a neighbor to install and care for some food bearing plants. Share the space and share the harvest! It's a win-win!


Assess Your Skills

1. Have you ever grown a fruit tree before? A bush? A groundcover? Maybe you helping maintain or care of one for a friend or relative. Assess your familiarity with growing these kinds of plants. Fruiting plants differ in several significant ways from ornamental plants and houseplants.

2. Were you successful? How was the harvest? Did things go as well as you expected, or was the outcome not quite what you had hoped for? Assess how well your care of the plant was and what did and didn't work like you thought it would.

3. Do you know how to prune? Pruning is a critical skill in growing most fruiting plants be they apple trees or blueberry bushes. Assessing the health of a plant and how to prune will have a huge impact on the longevity of your plants and how much fruit they bear.

4. Use the Internet. Everyone starts at the beginning, even me! It's okay not to know how to prune a tree or how much to water a berry bush when you have the internet. I started growing over 30 years ago and there is so much more information out there now thanks to the internet to grow your knowledge and your skills! Use it!

5. Volunteer your time to grow your skills. Speaking of the internet, beyond videos, articles, and blog posts (like this one) you can use the internet to find places to volunteer and learn how these plants are grown and cared for. Seek our your local fruit clubs, master gardener programs, and local non-profits. Volunteer your time and passion to make new friends and get the skills you need to shine!


Start Now!

The best time to start planning and preparing our your fruit bearing garden is RIGHT NOW - long before your plants are ready to ship or be picked up!

1. Start with a drawing of your planting plan. Use some graph paper to drawn everything to scale, or do what I do I cut out some circles to move around and see how the spacing will work out. Spacing is critical when planning where to plant your plants so they have enough air flow and light penetration.

2. Start prepping your soil. It's inexpensive, and easier, to improve the soil where you're planning to plant than it is to try and improve all the soil in your area. Grab some composted manure, rotting hay, or even kitchen scraps and allow them to compost in place right where you're going to plant your trees! The best soil is under the compost pile!

3. Prepare your site. You can now spend the rest of the year preparing your site. Pre-dig your holes, plan out your paths, get your hoses maintained or replaced, and generally get ready so when your plants arrive you can soak them and plant them right away. 

Thanks for joining me today and reading through this blog post. Trust me, there is nothing like caring for trees and watching them grow. If you're anything like me, you'll both grow together. This is Laura with Raintree Nursery signing off.

Keep on Growing!


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