For every climate there are certain fruits that grow better, or may not grow at all. Even a fruit like the apple, that grows in all states, has cultivars (cultivated varieties) that grow better in certain regions. Buying from local nurseries in the spring is one of the best ways to be assured that the fruit selections are adapted to your particular area. When shopping online and through mail-order catalogs in winter and spring, make sure what you want has a chance to succeed in your garden. There are quite a few tree fruits to consider for colder climates.
Apples are arguably the most common tree fruit in cold climates, perhaps because they are the hardiest. This comes from both the cultivar and the rootstock onto which this is grafted. Unless you order from a specialty grower, you don’t need to worry about which rootstock is best as the nursery has already done this.
For cold climates, such as the northeastern states, you’ll want cultivars such as McIntosh that ripen best with warm fall days and cool nights. Some of the most hardy cultivars (USDA zone 3, or -30 to -40 degrees F average minimum winter temperature) include Honeycrisp™, Honeygold, Lodi, Northern Spy, and the relatively new Zestar!™ from the University of Minnesota. There are several other apples hardy to zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F) including Cortland, Empire, Freedom, Gold and Red Delicious, Liberty, Paula Red, Red Rome, and Spartan. Several heirloom cultivars to consider are Cox Orange Pippin, Gravenstein, Wealthy, and Yellow Transparent.
Peaches are one of the tree fruits that many gardeners want to grow, but unfortunately few are adapted to the coldest climates. Most are hardy only to USDA zone 5 (-10 to -20 degrees F) at best, nectarines (smooth skin peaches) even less hardy. Even if they grow they may not fruit, having flower buds damaged at higher temperatures than leaf buds. Flowers may be damaged by spring frosts, especially common with apricots. Even a short mid-winter thaw may cause buds to lose their hardiness. Peach trees also need a long growing season to harden off for winter, and to develop next year’s buds, something they may not get in cold climates.
An eastern exposure is best for peaches and their relatives, warming sooner on cold spring days so less prone to frost damage. Proximity to bodies of water helps moderate temperatures too. Those cultivars that may grow into zone 4 include Canadian Harmony, Contender, Glohaven, Madison, Red Haven, and Reliance– perhaps the most cold hardy and popular northern peach, an introduction from the University of New Hampshire.
Most European pears are a bit hardier (usually to zone 5) than peaches but less so than apples, so they may not all grow reliably in the coldest climates. Asian pears in particular are best in warmer climates. Among the hardiest European pears, perhaps even into zone 3, are Flemish Beauty, Luscious, Parker, and Patten.
While sweet cherries are generally only hardy to zone 5, many sour cherries grow into zone 4. If you want to try sweet cherries, those possibly fruiting into zone 4 include Kristin, Stark Gold™, and the Cornell University introduction WhiteGold™.
Sour cherries come in two types. The amarelle type includes the common pie cherry Montmorency, with fruit flattened on the ends, generally bright red or yellow inside, and producing a clear juice. The Morello sour cherries such as Marasca (from which the Italian liqueur and maraschino cherries are named), have rounded fruit, bright red inside, and produce a dark juice. Among the most hardy sour cherries to zone 3 are Meteor (amarelle) and North Star (Morello). Surefire™ (Morello) from New York state is late blooming, so better resists frosts.
While the European plums are generally hardy to zone 5, and the Japanese to zone 6, the American hybrids are hardy to zone 4 and sometimes to zone 3. For the coldest areas, also consider hybrids of cherries and plums called cherry-plums in the U.S. and chums in Canada. One of the main problems growing plums in the north is that they bloom a week or two ahead of apples, so may be damaged by spring frosts. Empress and Shropshire are cultivars that bloom later, so may miss these frosts. One of the hardiest of the European plums, Mount Royal, came from Quebec in the early 1900s. The hardiest American hybrids include Alderman, Superior, and Waneta.
In addition to hardiness, at least three main considerations apply to choosing any tree fruit. Pick ones you like to eat, and usually buy from markets. Also pick ones for your space and needs. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are popular as they take up less space, and bear sooner than standard size trees. Many cultivars of tree fruits are better suited to certain uses—eating fresh, cooking, sauces, canning or freezing, or making juice—so determine how you might like to use them. Apples for eating fresh are often called “dessert” apples.
When buying tree fruits, it’s always best to get at least two different cultivars that bloom at the same time for cross pollination. Even though some may be listed as “self-fertile” (if you have only room for one tree, look for these), they invariably fruit better with a partner nearby (within 50 to 100 feet). Peaches, however, generally don’t need such cross pollination.
More on these and fruits and culture can be found in my book, The Fruit Gardener’s Bible from Storey Publishing.
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont