The old adage is that the best time to have planted a fruit tree was ten years ago. This, of course, is because growing trees is something altogether different than growing vegetables in a garden. Rather than weeks or months to bear fruit as with annual garden plants, trees take years. If there is another best time of note, perhaps that is as soon as possible.
In other words, the sooner trees are in the ground, the sooner fruit will be on the kitchen counter, in freshly baked pies, or filling up the freezer. And, for those into producing their own food, the upside to waiting a few years for that first harvest is that trees yield far more than vegetable plants, and they do so every year.
Basically, the best of both worlds — quick productivity and high perennial yields — are those fruit trees that’ll bear within the first three years. And, the best way of getting those is to buy one or two-year-old saplings, giving your garden a head start. With those considerations, here are a few choices for getting the home fruit production up and running this spring.
There are too many to list them all, but limes, lemons, mandarins, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit should all start producing at around three years old. The big issue with these trees is that, for the most part, they’ll need a warm climate that rarely dips into freezing temperatures. Tangerines and mandarins are better choices for colder climates as they can tolerate freezes into the low 20s. Otherwise, citrus growers should choose potted dwarf varieties that can be moved inside during the winter.
Fresh figs, something many aren’t fortunate enough to enjoy because they perish quickly, are an absolute delight, and fig trees are one of the faster-producing species. Figs do like lengthy, hot summers, but there are varieties, such as the Chicago Cold-Hardy, that’ll withstand frosty temps. They are low-maintenance trees that’ll work in any well-draining soil, need minimal pruning, and require very little fertilization beyond a bit of organic matter.
Mulberries are tough, highly productive fruit trees that’ll bring a lot of wildlife into the garden, as birds will snack on them. The berries do have a reputation for staining concrete, as well as fingers, but they are absolutely delicious and easy to grow. There will be some variety to work throughout most of the US. For a bonus yield, the leaves can be harvested in early spring before they get tough, and they can be used (must be cooked) similarly to grape leaves.
Technically, nectarines are just a strain of peaches that don’t have the fuzzy exterior, so the planting rules for these absolutely tasty fruits is the same. They can withstand winters up into USDA Zone 5, but they won’t do as well in environments with lots of spring frost. The big tip for choosing nectarines and peaches is differentiating between clingstone and freestone fruits. Clingstone have pits that stick to the fruit and are better suited for cooking whereas freestone pits detach easily and are the choice for eating fresh.
Not so different from peaches, apricots are another fantastic addition to the quick-producing food forest. Apricots will grow well through most of the continental US, but they have a certain number of “chill hours” (700-1000) for which they must be below 45 degrees. These trees do yearn for a splash of more nutrients, but they’ll provide a very delicious add-on — fresh and dehydrated — to the fruit bowl.
Pomegranate fruits have the reputation of being packed with valuable nutrients. Like citrus plants, pomegranates are going to prefer the warmer regions (Zone 7 and higher), but they can be grown as potted plants. These are very drought-tolerant.
Finally, there is the majestic apple, from which we can harvest and store bushels of fruit. Dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties will supply quicker yields than full-sized trees. Plus, it’s a good idea to plant more than one type of apple because it’ll improve the pollination, so two smaller trees are better suited for most gardens (and they leave room for growing other fruit.) A sapling can fruit as early as a couple of years after being planted, but getting those results might require a little finesse.
Undoubtedly, this type of cultivation requires more patience than growing a vegetable patch, but the rewards are enormous. Over a lifetime, these trees will provide hundreds, some of them thousands, of pounds of food. That’s time well invested!
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