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I know just about nothing about growing fruit trees, but recently bought a house with enough land to start a home orchard. I'm tempted to buy many kinds of fruit trees at once, because they take ~5 years to mature and if I can just keep them healthy and alive, I'll have a nice orchard in the shortest time period.

I'm on the line of zone 5 and zone 4 and hoping cold-tolerant fruit trees would survive. I'm on gently sloping, almost flat soil that's clay-ey. It has a tendency to hold water in spring and fall but not summer. It's full sun.

I'm looking at Contender peach, Moorpark apricot, Fuji apple, Yellow Delicious apple, Methley plum, and Bartlett pear. I'm trying to pair down my selection as, again, I know nothing about growing fruit trees and may kill a chunk of these expensive saplings. I'm thinking a minimum of 3 of whatever varieties I choose, and two varieties of apples for pollination purposes. I do already have an old, mature orchard of ~8 apple trees on the land. Not sure if this would aid apple pollination.

I would like to grow the trees as naturally/organically as possible.

Veteran fruit tree growers - am I taking on way too much for my first attempt at growing fruit trees? Will fruit trees have a chance in zone 5/4? Advice (and book recommendations) appreciated.

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  • At those temperatures ,apricot has no chance, peaches willl often loose blooms/fruit and occasionally the whole tree. There is a reason why it only had apples. Nov 17 '20 at 15:03
  • Thank you all for the really helpful information. Too bad about the trees not being cold hardy. I was hoping zone 5 hardiness was enough... you've saved me from buying too many trees and ones that simply won't flourish in my area. I'm going to focus on apples for now, and practice pruning on the existing trees.
    – Kilobyte
    Nov 17 '20 at 22:52
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As noted by @blacksmith37, apricot and peaches are not appropriate to your climate. While they may live for a year or two, you will get a severe cold snap at some point that'll kill them at least down to the roots.

An aside - I once lived in a very similar zone 4/5 situation (we were hillier than your own situation, but similar soil and sun). The first year I planted a Contender peach - it died over the winter. The second year I planted a different "hardier" variety of peach and it, too, died, but only above the graft. The rooted section produced RED foliage that stayed colorful all summer. I moved it that fall. Every winter the foliage died back to the ground and the lovely new growth sprouted every spring, usually to a height of 6 feet or more. It was really a pretty accent to the garden. But - never a bloom, so no peaches (which I assume would've been lousy anyway, since they would've been produced by the rootstock).

So, back to more relevant information...

  • Peaches and apricots - don't waste your money. They will die.

  • Bartlett Pears are not reliably hardy above zone 5b, so you'll definitely lose them if you plant them. There are hardier varieties out there, but be careful! In my zone 4/5 sojourn I planted two "hardy!" varieties whose names I don't remember that grew well for seven years - and never once flowered. Most likely, the trees were hardy but the buds weren't and froze every winter.

  • Fuji Apples are, if I remember correctly, somewhat fussy (they like the Northwest US and are not, for example, grown much if at all in Minnesota or Wisconsin (zones 3-5)). There are a ton of other varieties to choose from, however - Honeycrisp, Courtland, Liberty, Macoun... the list is quite long, so you'll have plenty of options.

  • Yellow Delicious apples are definitely appropriate for your site., but make sure you purchase them from a Northern grower, not from places that have supplying nurseries in Georgia, Ohio, or Oregon.

  • Methley Plum is rated as zone 5, and is not to my knowledge grown in the upper Midwest due to hardiness. There are other options, both purple and yellow (most probably arising from Prunus americana, which is extremely hardy and makes truly fantastic jam).

I strongly recommend that you research fruit trees hardy in zone 4 and, preferably, zone 3, while avoiding any trees native only to zone 5 and higher. This should leave you with: sour (cooking) cherries, some plums, lots of apples, some pears, and mulberries.

To help you with this research, I highly recommend The Wisconsin Garden Guide, 4th Edition by Jerry Minnich (ISBN 9781934553329). This reference contains variety recommendations for mostly zones 3 and 4 for vegetables, fruit trees, fruit-bearing shrubs, and ornamentals. The sections discuss soils, climate, etc. It also discusses organic pest control. I believe that the most recent edition was published by Trails Books in 2010, so the variety information may be a little dated, but I think you would still find the varietal information helpful; it could also be useful as a springboard for additional research. This book has been in print for at least 35 years, so I'm not alone in my review.

As for the number of varieties to grow... How much time do you want to spend pruning apple trees into the correct shape, for example? How much time mowing under the trees to prevent competition/weeds? How much time installing/maintaining controls such as sticky traps? Are you able to protect the trees from deer browse? Antler rubbing? You're correct, I think, that getting the trees into the ground ASAP is a good idea in terms of actually seeing a harvest sometime soon, but I recommend that you consider the amount of time required for maintenance into your calculations because fruit trees are the exact opposite of a "low maintenance" garden.

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  • For an odd ball if they are still made; A neighbor had a Grimes Golden . It looked like Yellow Delicious ,but when you bit it , it was like a crunchy banana . Nov 17 '20 at 16:27
  • @blacksmith37 - there are also apples like Suprise and Pink Pearl, that have pink to dark rose flesh: goodfruit.com/red-fleshed-apples. Some grow well in zone 4
    – Jurp
    Nov 17 '20 at 16:30
  • I don't see any point in growing very popular commercial varieties like Golden Delicious or Bartlett pears. You can buy them anywhere and they will be higher quality (on average) than your own crop. The UK's national fruit collection (with varieties from all over the world which will grow successfully in the UK) has more than 2000 apple varieties and more than 500 pears, so there is plenty of choice available!
    – alephzero
    Nov 17 '20 at 18:39
  • Thanks, @Jurp, I appreciate all the info! Especially your experiences growing "hardy" varieties. Deer are a menace here and I don't look forward to protecting trees from them. When I posted the question I was hoping the fruit trees were much less labor intensive than they really are... I'm narrowing my search down to focus on apples for now. Thanks for the book suggestion.
    – Kilobyte
    Nov 17 '20 at 22:48
  • You're welcome! I have an easy way to protect trees from antler rubbing & voles: Buy 3 or 4 ft tall hardware cloth (it's actually a metal fencing with a 1/4" grid). Make cylinders about 12" in diameter and put one cylinder around each tree, using wire to tie the two ends of the hardware cloth together to make the cylinder. Use 3 or 4 ground staplesto stabilize the cylinder. For small trees, I also use a stake to keep the cylinder in place.Deer will not rub anything larger than their antler spread. You can keep these in place for yrs The open mesh prevents fungus & insect issues with the trunk.
    – Jurp
    Nov 17 '20 at 22:59
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You did not say how many trees , only variety's. And more important , what are your goals ? If you want much attractive fruit ,you will need comprehensive sprays for fungicide and insecticides no matter what the organic people say. Not that without any sprays you won't get an occasion apple without a worm. Also you don't need every spray listed in a guide. I used less than half the sprays recommended by U of IL years ago; I am sure today with political correctness U of IL lists many fewer sprays. Pruning is nothing the first couple years but becomes a large job fairly soon. I grew about 15 fruit trees near Yorkville IL. but it was a time consuming hobby. On the other hand; I had a friend who planted a few hundred peach tree in N TX . He did not do a thing and got a few good peaches. He said they were mostly for cattle feed. If you want to make jelly, red currant bushes need no care for excellent results. Dolgo crab apple make beautiful fruit that can be used for jelly with essentially no care ( just a quick look at each before going into the pot ). Get your state university dept. of agriculture guides for fruit trees ; I found them to be the best source ( and cheapest).

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  • Growing up I ate a lot of feral/wild apples that hadn't been cared for in years, so if I can get quality a bit better than that, I'll be pleased. The apples from the mature trees here are not as good as other wild ones I've experienced. I made some applesauce from their fruit this fall and it wasn't very flavorful, neither sweet nor tart. I'm looking up pruning now. Thanks for the tips, and note on red currants! Low maintenance is, well, ideal.
    – Kilobyte
    Nov 17 '20 at 22:39
  • Liberty apples don't require much work, as they're resistant to most (all?) foliar diseases. Sticky traps could take care of most of the insect problems, but they are a bit of work. Another great jelly/juice crop is black currant (all modern varieties no longer vector white pine blister rust).
    – Jurp
    Nov 17 '20 at 23:03
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Answer # 2 , With 8 apple trees, you already have more to take care of than most people would want. Get yourself a chainsaw, not big 14 to 16 ", and begin pruning of these trees. I am certain they could use it. Now is the time to prune ,or as U of IL puts it " when the pruning hook is sharp". Also get compound lopers and a 3 gal pressure sprayer. You might consider a couple pears trees , but for a new gardener ,you may already have too much for a "fun" hobby. With older apple trees you can expect Johnathan, Winesap, Red Delicious, Macintosh , etc. ; they used to be just fine. As I remember Fuji advantage is that it will grow in a warmer climate ( like Japan) .

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