Picky Now, Pick Later: Selecting the Right Fruit Tree for Your Garden

April 6, 2019


What fruit trees are recommended for my area?

- Karena, Dulce, NM


Last week, I offered tips for protecting existing fruit trees with bursting buds and open flowers from late frosts. Visit Desert Blooms and search “frost”.

Image of jujube fruit
Jujube fruit from different cultivars on display for the annual Jujube Tasting Workshop held in Alcalde each September. Some cultivars are sweeter and others are tangier. Photo credit S. Yao

In commercial fruit production systems, growers can justify the costs of running serious equipment to keep the bud tissues from freezing, like wind machines or a sprinkler system that showers the canopies through the night, but these options only work when temperatures are expected to stay just below freezing. Colder spells may make matters worse!

The actual best thing you can do to protect those buds and maximize yields is select trees carefully before you buy.

Getting a reliable crop from many popular fruit trees can be tough in New Mexico. This is especially true of the earlier-blooming ones like almond, apricot, Japanese plum, and sweet cherry. Other species, like European plums, nectarines, peaches, and sour cherries, are more likely to produce a crop each year because they tend to bloom later. Apples, quince, and pears even more so. Within each species, some cultivars have earlier or later blooming tendencies. We all know that there are different varieties or cultivars of apples (‘Granny Smith’ vs. ‘Pink Lady’). Well, the same is true for peaches, plums, jujubes, pomegranates, pecans, etc. Some cultivars are grown for flavor, others for rooting vigor, disease resistance, or… bloom time.

The real late bloomers (e.g., persimmon, pomegranate, fig, jujube) have a much lower likelihood of flower damage and fruit loss, but the branches and roots might not be cold hardy at higher elevations. Plus, in the case of persimmons and pomegranates, they ripen so late they may not have time to develop mature fruit before the first frost date in the fall if you live in a colder area of the state. Be sure to take bloom time, harvest time, and cold hardiness all into consideration when selecting a fruit tree for your yard.

Image of red cherries on the tree
Cherries ripening at the end of May 2018 at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. Photo credit M. Thompson

Even though they’re late bloomers, some jujube (Ziziphus jujube) cultivars are cold hardy to USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 5, which happens to be the zone for some parts of Rio Arriba County. There are hundreds of jujube cultivars available in China—they’re native to East Asia—but only a few dozen are commercially available in the U.S. Research on introducing cultivars to the Southwest and finding the best cultivars for New Mexico has been ongoing for the past decade at several of the NMSU Agricultural Science Centers across the state, including Alcalde, Los Lunas, and Las Cruces. For more information, visit Jujubes and check out the NMSU Extension Guide H-330: Jujube: Chinese Date in New Mexico.

Several other NMSU Extension publications on fruit and nut tree varieties and cultivation are available, including Guide H-310: Fruits and Nuts for New Mexico Orchards and Guide H-308: Why Fruit Trees Fail to Bear and Guide H-327: Pruning the Home Orchard. Check out the full list of Publications.

In a Valencia County Extension Master Gardener continuing education presentation last month, apple farmer and beekeeper Ken Hayes said he has one apricot tree in his front yard that he treats as an ornamental because it has produced fruit once in twenty-two years.

The five different cultivars of apricot growing here at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas since 2007 have produced fruit exactly zero times. The trouble is that they are in full bloom by the first week of March, so they’re sure to be bitten by multiple freezes, not just a rouge “late freeze.”

Now that you know you’re searching for late bloomers, take that tip with you when you’re looking at cultivars for sale. Ask nursery staff for their recommendations on which are best for your specific area. Sometimes details about expected bloom time, harvest time, and cold hardiness are printed on the label, but if they aren’t, just Google that cultivar name and find out before you purchase. For a list of nurseries, info on how to identify the best possible spot to plant your carefully selected trees, and how to plant them for optimal success, visit the blog version of this column (web address above). And find the USDA Hardiness Zone for your location.

Image of persimmon on the tree
This persimmon at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, photographed on October 2, 2017, wasn't ripe enough to be picked until November 21. Photo credit M. Thompson

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: desertblooms@nmsu.edu, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu, or at the Desert Blooms Facebook page.

Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!