Too few gardeners look beyond the typical summer vegetable garden. This is a shame because fruits and nuts can easily and cheaply be incorporated into any garden plan. There are several reasons to do so beyond the excellent taste of the food you’ll grow. Fruits and nuts are often the most expensive foods you can buy at the store or farmers market. You can save greatly by growing them yourself. Fruits and nuts are nutritional powerhouses loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, live enzymes and so much more. They’re also great snacking foods and are fun to munch while working in the garden. What’s more, they’re just a lot of fun to grow.
Diving into fruit and nut growing though can be expensive and discouraging if you don’t know a few essential secrets. Here are my top 10 do’s and don’ts you need to know to succeed at growing your own fruit and nuts for both better health and to save money.
#1 – Know Your Climate
When it comes to gardening, you climate is everything. You may love peaches but unless you’ve got a heated greenhouse, you’re not going to be able to grow them very successfully in cold climates like New England and Canada. The harsh winters will kill your trees. You might have better luck with nectarines or apricots. Similarly, you might like pecans. They will grow well in southern states like Arkansas and Alabama but fail in colder northern zones. Meanwhile, hazelnuts and chestnuts will do well in northern zones, as will apples, many berry varieties, and chestnuts.
Don’t completely despair if your zone isn’t hospitable to your favorite fruit or nut variety. Some fruits and nuts that would die during cold winters can still be grown with care, particularly in containers that can be brought indoors during winter. Polytunnels can also allow you to grow varieties not suited to your climate if it is too wet or too dry there because you can better control those things in a polytunnel.
Similarly, you need to know how long your growing season is, which is measured from last frost date to first frost date. You’ll have more growing options in a longer growing season than a shorter one. If you’ve only got 110 days but your plant needs 140 to mature to harvest, you won’t be able to successfully grow it – not short of shelling out money for greenhouses that may make it monetarily unfeasible.
The bottom line: You need to know how cold or hot your weather gets, how wet or dry, and select fruits and nuts that will grow well there.
#2 – Timelines
Most of us are used to an annual garden – planting seeds or starts and harvesting that year. Fruit and nut gardens don’t usually have the same quick turnaround from planting to harvest as the yearly vegetable garden. Most fruits and nuts take years to bear fruit. Pecans can take 20 years, hazelnuts 3 to 5 years, and apple trees around 5-7 years to fruit, with yields increasing each year after that. If you don’t have that kind of time or patience, go with varieties that mature relatively quickly.
For instance, strawberries are easy to grow in most places and produce fruit the first year. They are productive for about 3 years and you can transplant leaders from the main plants to endlessly refresh your supply. Raspberries are relatively quick in that you can start harvesting fruit in their second year. They too propagate easily. Blackberries are the same.
When it comes to nuts, peanuts (technically a legume) produce the year they are planted but are annuals that need replanting. Hazelnuts and chestnuts are trees that will start yielding nuts in 3-5 years and live for decades so a little patience on the front end will yield harvests for a lifetime.
The bottom line: Think about how long you are willing to wait or invest time until your first harvest and choose your fruit and nut plants accordingly.
#3 – Start From Seed
The cheapest way to grow your fruit and nut garden is to plant from seed but of course this will take longer than buying established plants or trees. This is best tried with species that mature relatively quickly in 1-5 years. The cost differences is massive. Buying a several year old hazelnut tree typically starts at $60 to easily $90 (plus shipping if you buy online). Meanwhile, you can generally buy 5 hazelnuts for $3 and grow them yourself. You can also sometimes just buy raw hazelnuts at a farmers market and get far more nuts to plant at relatively little cost. Peanuts are cheap to buy as well.
Berries can be easily grown from seed for cheap or just by picking up a pint from a local farmers market and saving the seeds. If you’re hoping to grow a lot of plants, this is far cheaper than buying them individually as more mature plants.
For most fruits other than strawberries, I don’t really recommend growing from seeds, though nuts might be worth it. It depends on how much time you want to invest. That and growing from seed comes with a few caveats discussed below.
#4 – True to Type
If you’re growing your food from seed, especially fruit, you need to understand how modern fruit is grown. For instance, if you decide to grow your apples or pears from seed, you’re sure to be highly disappointed. Most apples and pears – 2 of the most popular fruit trees to grow for the backyard gardener – are often grown as grafted trees, meaning they combine at least 2 different apple varieties or 2 different pears in their genetics. The seeds, invariable, wind up as crab apples or wild pears and not the variety that you saved the seeds from.
Additionally, when you plant seeds from store bought fruit, you rarely know the varieties you’re buying or if they are hybrids. Hybrid seeds will produce offspring that may express the genes of any of its parents and not necessarily replicate the fruit size and flavor of the one you bought.
That said, berries are fairly easy to grow from seed and produce edible varieties you’ll probably enjoy growing and eating. Even so, most fruits and nuts are better bought a year or two old rather than grown from seed.
The bottom line: Research whether you can grow the seeds/nuts of your chosen plant from seed and it will mature true to type, i.e. the mature fruit/nut looks and tastes like the fruit/nut you originally harvested the seeds from. Otherwise, you could spend 7 years growing seeds from a gala or Macintosh apple only to produce disgusting crab apples.
#5 – Buy Young Plants
The cheapest, easiest and most reliable way to grow fruit and nuts is to buy young plants between 1 to 3 years old. You can commonly buy fruit and nut bushes/trees between $6 to $13 dollars each. I’ve bought fig, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, grape, and chestnut trees/shrubs that were all between 1 year and 2 years old for between $5.99 to $11 each at places like Tractor Supply and Home Depot.
This saves time and doesn’t break the bank. A 3 year old blueberry bush, for example, is roughly $25 at Home Depot versus a 2 year old berry bush at $11. That second year old berry bush is already bearing fruit too, if more modestly so why not buy 2 for the price of that third year berry bush?
You can also save money on your plant costs by buying later in the season. For instance, many fruit trees and shrubs become available in February and March at full price but become discounted in May and June depending on where you live. You can save 30% getting them then.
#6 – You Can’t Buy Just One
If you want fruit and nuts, you rarely can buy just one tree/bush or plant just one seed. Most fruit and nut species need at least one other plant so that they pollinate and produce fruit. If you only have one apple tree, it won’t pollinate itself. This is also true for raspberries and pears. Hazelnuts and other nut trees need at least one other nut tree for their species to pollinate. Plums and a few others are the exception. They are self-pollinating (but always check to make sure).
This is important to understand in terms of not just producing fruit but saving money. If you buy a several years old $50 apple tree, that $50 tree will produce pretty blossoms but no fruit. You’ll have to spend at least $100 and buy 2 trees. That’s a big investment for many frugal gardeners. After all, how long will it take you to recoup your $100 investment in apples? Do you eat $100 worth of apples in 5 years? What about the cost of maintaining those trees in terms of fertilizer, mulch, pest control, etc?
Additionally, fruit and nut trees often fail when we transplant them. If you plunk down $100 for 2 apple trees and one or both die, you’ve lost money and time – and gotten no apples.
My rule of thumb is to buy 3 of each type of fruit or nut tree when they are between 1-2 years old. This increases my odds of success while not costing an arm and a leg if they all fail. Usually at least one will die very quickly within the 1st year so this way I will be left with 2 for pollination purposes. Additionally, not only will they pollinate each other, I can grow more of them for free by either taking cuttings, rooting leaders, or harvesting seeds/nuts for later planting.
Bottom line: Young plants are safer bets cost-wise. In many cases, you need several for pollination and often at least one will die so you should buy more than 2 unless you buy a self-pollinating variety.
#7 – Yields
Nut and fruit trees/shrubs produce varying amounts at maturity. A mature apple or pear tree can yield more fruit than one family can eat while one raspberry plant won’t provide much more than a few bites every few days and depending on the variety, only produces for a few weeks. Blueberries produce a small crop in their second year of a couple of handfuls but can have much higher yields every year after that. If you have 12-16 mature blueberry plants, you’ll have gallons and gallons – so many you’ll be giving them away.
Understanding yield, therefor, is essential to knowing how many of a species to grow.
#8 – Season
In vegetable gardens, plants might produce vegetables for months. Bean plants can go for a long time, as can zucchini or tomatoes. Fruit and nut trees have different life cycles that you will have to research.
For instance, my black cap raspberries start producing fruit at the end of June but in 2-3 weeks have stopped production. A couple of weeks following that, my other raspberry varieties start producing. Some can produce for months. Similarly, blueberries will produce at different times depending on the variety. Some are early and some are later in the season. Some crop twice. Apple varieties can vary over months as to when they will produce fruit.
This is important to know for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you may want to select varieties that are ever-bearing versus only bearing fruit once for a short time. Secondly, you may want to stagger fruit production and therefore buy different varieties that crop at different times so that you always have some fruits or nuts in season or are not overwhelmed with one massive crop needing harvesting, eating, storing and preserving at the same time. Thirdly, pollination needs mean that you must have at least 2 of the same variety or risk pollination failure. So even while you might have 3 apple trees, if they are blossoming at different times, you won’t get a crop unlike with having 3 different apple tree varieties that blossom at the same time and can cross-pollinate.
#9 – Propagate
Almost any fruit or nut tree/shrub that you grow can easily be propagated from a rooting, cutting, or by grafting to create additional free plants. This is especially useful and money-saving for quick maturing species like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, figs, grapes, hazelnuts and chestnuts. You can easily cut and root prunings off these variety for endless planting and be eating the results in a year to 3 years.
Longer maturing plants like apples and pears can be propagated from cuttings. You can even graft cuttings onto existing plants. For instance, you can graft a Macintosh, gala and pink lady onto one root stock to harvest 3 types of apples from one tree rather than buy more of each variety.
Bottom line: Propagation through transplanting leaders, rooting, taking cuttings or using grafts can save you tons of money over buying expensive older plants. If you are in this for the long-term, this is the way to go.
#10 – Space
Lastly, it’s important to understand spacing needs for your new fruit and nut plants. How tall or wide will the plant grow? Can you grow it in a container or must it be grown in ground? How easy will it be for you to harvest the crop?
For example, growing a walnut tree that is 50-75 feet tall at maturity is very different than growing hazelnuts that only reach 8-16 feet. Similarly, varieties can come dwarf or full grown. For instance, high bush blueberries can tower around 12 ft while dwarf blueberry bushes might only reach a few feet tall and sit nicely on your porch or balcony. Some berries are invasive. Raspberries will take over your yard if you let them. Others work quite well in containers. Some need room while others can be crowded.
Another space consideration follows from this in terms of manageability. How will you harvest? Your method and ability will be very different for a 30 foot or taller tree with a 30 foot canopy versus a 3 foot shrub with only a 2 foot diameter. You’ll also have to tend your plants, which often includes pruning. This all makes space and height considerations important to understand at the outset.
Bottom line: Do your research on spacing needs. Even among each type of fruit or nut family, you can find wide-ranging variations. Usually this is helpful in that you can select varieties that best meet your space and needs but if not taken into consideration, will waste money and time and lead to regret and disappointment.
Know Before You Grow
Growing your own fruit and nuts can be a very rewarding, as well as tasty and healthy, endeavor. To be successful and not waste tons of money, do your research and make plans that suit your climate, space, palette, time horizon and budget. You will doubtlessly find the perfect crops to grow in your garden. Keep these 10 do’s and don’ts in mind and you’re sure to have success without breaking the bank. You may even save a ton of money in the long run by growing your own. Who doesn’t love that?
Like this article? Please share it so that others can learn these secrets and start living their best lives now.