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Great Gardening: Growing fruit in our yards is getting a little easier

Wouldn’t it be delightful on a summer morning to pick raspberries in your own backyard for your breakfast waffles? Would you like to collect apples from your own tree for your child’s lunch box? Gardeners and homeowners have always wanted to grow fruit, but many of us have had the impression that it isn’t easy: Weather, pests and maintenance chores all sound formidable.

That was also my belief until I learned about easier choices now available for home gardeners. Disease-resistant cultivars, hardier varieties, dwarf plants, increased production, new kinds of fruit and much better knowledge – all mean that you can grow fruit at home. Not all fruits are easy but some will probably be perfect for your lifestyle and your site.

Level of difficulty

Like all gardening, fruit growing involves some effort. Consider the time and tasks involved and your level of commitment. See which level of difficulty sounds right for you, starting with the least effort:

• No maintenance: Don’t garden and do shop at the farmers market. Take the kids to a U-Pick farm.

• Minimal effort and time on the deck: Grow a few of the new dwarf blueberries or raspberries in pots and hang a few strawberry baskets.

• Almost no tending once planted in the yard: Plant some fruiting shrubs such as elderberries, currants, serviceberries or a mulberry tree.

• A few hours each month: Growing a quantity of berries of any kind involves site prep for many feet of planting beds, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and pruning throughout three seasons, but it’s within the ability of most people with average energy and strength – and well worth it. Consider raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, goji berries and other newer “super fruits.”

• Easiest of the tree fruits: Growing pears is quite simple if you can plan on a bit of seasonal pruning and you choose trees small enough for you to get to the fruit. Plums can be carefree, too.

• More tending and pruning: Traditionally considered difficult for home gardeners, apple growing led many into heavy pesticide spraying routines or some complicated organic management practices. But some wonderful newer cultivars and products have eased many of the frustrations. If tree size makes pruning and harvesting apples too daunting, try the new columnar small-space trees.

• May be particular: Cherries, peaches, apricots and figs have specific requirements, but improved cultivars (hardiness, disease and pest resistance) have made these more doable at home, given the right care and attention.

• More complicated? You might enjoy a grapevine climbing a trellis for the birds and to give you an occasional bunch to pick, but serious grape growing requires space, knowledge and effort. Choose the cultivars carefully and learn the trellising and pruning routines – fun but not necessarily easy.

Site is essential

Many garden and landscape plants are OK in less-than-perfect sites, even if the flowering isn’t optimal. But if you want fruit, you want fruit – and it’s only possible if you put the plants in the right sites. Analyze your home grounds realistically and match the sites with the right fruit plants.

Soil pH is absolutely critical if you’re considering blueberry production. Blueberries require very acidic soil – below 5.0. That occurs naturally in parts of southern Erie County (where the blueberry farms are), but in most of our territory we must acidify the soil. If the soil is above 7.0 (quite common), you probably can’t get it or keep it low enough to grow blueberries. Blackberries, raspberries and elderberries are among the fruits that do best in pH below 6.5.

Sunlight determines production for most fruits. Plant all the grapes, berries and fruit trees in sunny locations if possible. Blueberry plants grow fine in partial shade and have become popular as landscape or foundation plants because they offer great fall color. Just don’t expect many blueberries. Fruiting shrubs such as serviceberries, currants and elderberries often grow naturally as understory plants (at the edge of woods), so they will do fine with some shade.

Temperatures and weather extremes limit what fruit we can grow and the kind of protection we must provide during weather events. Good grape production requires about 150 frost-free days (sometimes a challenge here), so a cold summer simply means a poor harvest. Drought limits production in grapes and many fruit trees. Severe frosts and freezing in spring, especially when it happens suddenly, can kill fruit tree buds. Peaches and apricots have traditionally grown best near Lake Ontario where lake temperatures cause a moderate climate. You can grow figs in microclimates in Buffalo, but they must have some winter root protection. Strawberries should be mulched in early autumn when the temperature start falling below 20 degrees (or at least before the first significant snowfall); un-mulch them in early spring to let the soil warm up. In late spring and early summer the amount of rain, humidity and sunlight greatly affect the success with this crop and many others. Assess your climatic conditions as well as the micro-climates in your yard before planning your fruit crop.

Animals and neighbors are real site factors in your decision about what’s worth trying to grow.

If the birds, deer, rabbits or those kids eat everything, you might not bother – or maybe you’ll enjoy seeing them taking advantage of your harvest. All children should pick berries outside sometime, and birds give us pleasure and provide garden pest patrol in exchange for some serviceberries and mulberries. Depending on the crop, figure out early if you need netting or repellents or scare tactics.

To grow or not to grow

I hope I have not discouraged you from growing some fruit in your yard. These qualifiers are intended to help you experience success by making smart choices. Read plant tags carefully. Every homeowner can grow some traditional fruits, as well as some newer ones on the market – goji berries, honey berries, lingonberries, fruiting quince. Fruit from our yards – yes! It’s magical, satisfying and delicious. And if you’re planning on it, get to a garden center since fruit planting time is upon us.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.