University of Illinois Extension


Tree Fruit Basics

Many gardeners are interested in fruit trees, but are often unaware of which species will do well in Illinois and also the amount of work involved in growing tree fruit. Be sure to do your homework in planning a tree fruit planting, as not all tree fruits will do well in Illinois. Most of the varieties of tree fruits are grafted on dwarfing, semi-dwarf or seedling rootstocks. Trees grafted on dwarfing rootstocks require less space compared to trees grafted on seedling rootstocks. Due to the limited space in the backyards, homeowners prefer growing trees on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks as they require less space compared to trees grafted on seedling rootstocks.

Extreme winter conditions are the biggest limiting factor when considering tree fruits for the backyard. Crops such as peaches, nectarines, and sweet cherries will suffer when grown in northern Illinois but can perform well in the central and southern parts of the state. Apricots have difficulty because they bloom so early in the spring, making them very susceptible to spring frosts particularly in the northern parts of the state. The best choices for the northern Illinois home orchard are therefore best made from a list that includes apples, pears, sour cherries, and plums.

All tree fruit crops prefer full sunlight. Although they may in fact grow in partial shade, fruit quality will most likely be lower. Choose a site that has a well-drained soil and also is somewhat higher than the surrounding terrain so cool air will "drain" to avoid frost damage as much as possible. Soil pH ranges from 5.6 to 7.0 are best for tree fruit crops.

An important question to ask yourself prior to starting any fruit trees in the backyard is why they are being grown. Due to pest control and other expenses, you are not likely to save money growing your own. Backyard orchards should primarily be a hobby.

Planting & Care

Apples and other fruit trees are usually planted in the spring. Dig a hole that will accommodate all the roots. Cut dead roots, and long roots that cannot fit in the hole. Plant trees that are grafted on seedling rootstocks with graft union below the soil line or at the same depth as they were growing at the nursery. Tree fruits grafted on dwarfing or semi-dwarfing rootstocks need to be planted so that the graft union is 3-4 inches above the soil line. Trees will be more productive if the area underneath is mulched, rather than left in lawn. Do not over fertilize fruit trees, especially apples, as excess vegetative growth will occur at the expense of fruit production. Water trees during drought periods, in particular new plantings and established plantings that have set fruit.

Fruit trees need to be pruned on a regular basis to remain productive. Pruning should be done in the early spring when trees are still in dormant state. Regular pruning will assure a strong framework for the tree, so it can support a load of fruit. In addition, regular pruning keeps bearing trees productive, assure good airflow through the tree, and makes it easier to work in the tree. Start pruning and training newer plantings to develop a strong framework. The training methods used in tree fruits are central leader and open center systems. The central leader system is used commonly in apples and open center system used in stone fruits such as peaches.

Common pest problems include both diseases and insects. Apples are prone to apple scab, a fungus disease that requires fungicide use, especially early in the season. However, there are apple scab resistant cultivars that can be grown in Illinois. Insect pests such as codling moth and apple maggot become a concern as fruit starts to develop on the tree. Home gardeners growing fruit crops are encouraged to obtain the latest version of University of Illinois Extension publication C1391 Home, Yard, & Garden Pest Guide available from county Extension Offices. This publication outlines suggested pest control (insects, diseases) programs for all the backyard fruit crops.

Protect trunks of fruit trees, especially younger trees, from gnawing animals in winter. Voles or field mice will gnaw on bark close to the soil. Clear away any vegetation and place a cylinder of hardware cloth around the base of the trunk for protection. Rabbits will also damage trees in winter. Poultry wire can be placed around trunks for protection. Harvesting of fruits depends on the type of tree fruit, and how the fruits are going to be used. Most tree fruits develop maximum flavor and quality when allowed to mature on the tree.

Tree Fruit Suggestions for Illinois


Some Suggested Cultivars


Summer eating & cooking:
'Stark Earliest,' 'Viking Transparent', 'Redfree', 'Pristine'

Early fall eating & cooking:
'Prima' (scab immune), 'Gala,' 'Empire,' 'Ginger Gold', 'Mollies Delicious', 'Ozark Gold', 'Sansa', 'Williams Pride'

Fall eating & cooking:
'Jonathan,' 'Golden Delicious', 'Red Delicious,' 'McIntosh', 'Honeycrisp', 'Cortland', 'Liberty', 'Jonagold'

Winter eating & cooking:
'Winesap,' 'Turley,' 'Fuji,' 'Rome', 'Enterprise', 'Braeburn', 'Mutsu', 'Cameo', 'Goldrush'

Plant any two except 'Winesap' and 'Turley' (both have sterile pollen) for cross-pollination.


'Maxine' or 'Starking Delicious,' 'Seckel,' 'Harrow Delight', 'Anjou,' 'Bosc,' 'Duchess Stark,' 'Moonglow.' 'Maxine' and 'Starking Delicious' do not pollinate each other. 'Seckel' and 'Bartlett' will not pollinate each other.

Plums (European)

'Stanley,' 'Bluefre,' 'Green Gage' ('Reine Claude'), 'Damson' ('Shropshire'), 'Mount Royal'. Plant any two for cross-pollination.

Plums (Japanese)

'Methley,' and 'Ozark Premier.' Not recommended for northern Illinois


'Montmorency,' 'Meteor,' 'Suda Hardy,' 'Mesabi', 'North Star.' All are self-fruitful, so cross-pollination is not needed.


'Black Tartarian,' 'Glass,' 'Rainer,' 'Stark Gold Yellow,' 'Stella,' 'Van,' and 'Windsor.' Not recommended for northern Illinois. Plant any two for cross-pollination.


'Reliance' is recommended for northern Illinois. Recommended for other parts of the state are: 'Biscoe,' 'Challenger,' 'Contender,' 'Earliglow,' 'Encore,' 'Flamin' Fury,' 'Harmony,' 'Madison,' 'Red Rose,' 'Redhaven,' and 'Saturn.'


Not recommended for northern Illinois. Self-fruitful ('Redgold,' and 'Sunglo'). Others - 'Earliblaze,' and 'Summer Beaut'


Not recommended for northern Illinois. Cross-pollination for some cultivars. 'Earli Orange,' 'Goldcot,' 'Wilson Delicious'

Small Fruit Crops for the Backyard - University of Illinois Extension