Growing Fruit Trees at WLTX

Fruit trees are an investment. Plant them once, and enjoy them year after year. They don’t require annual planting like tomatoes and eggplant, but that doesn’t make these trees full proof. Actually, some of the fruit trees I’m trying in Gandy’s Garden at WLTX are proving to be more trouble than they might be worth! In Late 2019/Early 2020, I selected fruits to test their limits in South Carolina’s climate, but I learned the weather isn’t the only hurdle that could keep fruit from reaching the table. Here’s a look at what I’m growing and a few problems I’ve encountered so far.

Watch my story that aired on WLTX about our fruit trees.

Loquat

Loquats are beautiful trees planted all across the South Carolina Midlands (and mild climates around the world). They’re a great choice in landscapes because of their evergreen foliage, tidy appearance, and low maintenance requirements. Those who have grown these trees long enough may have noticed they also produce bright yellow fruit in the spring. The fruit is usually ripe by mid spring, but they don’t fruit every year in South Carolina because of our weather. Loquats bloom in early winter which makes the fruit vulnerable to hard winter freeze. This year the lowest temperature was 20 degrees in Columbia, SC, which is relatively mild and many loquats are loaded with fruit.

Loquat fruit has a similar taste to apricot and are ready to pick when the skin is soft, yellow and can pull off the tree with a light tug. The tree is native to eastern Asia. Loquat fruit are popular in Chinese and Japanese desserts, but are rarely seen at grocery stores in the United States because of their short shelf life.

Kiwi

There are several species of Kiwi vines, but most of them are not self pollinating. That means they need a male and female plant in order to produce fruit. I purchased this kiwi plant from a local nursery in late winter 2020 as two plants (one male, one female) in one pot. This is often how gardeners can find these plants for sale, and in theory, it ensures they’ll one day fruit.

This plant is very easy to grow and appears to sail through mild winters. Unfortunately, the kiwi plants here at WLTX are not fruiting. It’s possible one of two vines we purchased died and now there isn’t proper pollination for fruit. Our vines are producing plenty of flowers, but even when it appears that fruit is on the way, the flowers brown and drop off with no notice. It’s a clear sign of lack of pollination. Planting a lot of kiwi vines would ensure more pollination success, but be prepared to dedicate plenty of space and wait a few years before reaping the benefits.

 

Pomegranate

Pomegranate are another very easy tree to grow in the South Carolina Midlands, but a challenging one to fruit. The trees are pretty through the growing season, and they’re very heat and drought tolerant. Pomegranate trees lose their leaves in the winter and produce red flowers in spring after they leaf out for the season. There are several varieties of pomegranate, and some of these produce flowers without fruit. For those looking for an incredible conversation plant, there’s a variety of pomegranate tree that produces white flowers and white fruit.

The pomegranate in our garden at WLTX is a fruiting variety, but it did not fruit its first spring and none of the flowers so far this spring have produced fruit either. We’ve spoken to several gardeners on our facebook page WLTX Gandy’s Gardeners about this, and they have shared a similar experience. Like the kiwi, this could be a pollination issue, but unlike kiwi, pomegranates are self pollinating which means only one tree is required for fruit to develop. I recently decided to try hand pollinating each flower to encourage fruit to form. To hand pollinate I pick off one flower and rub it onto all the other blooms (basically doing a bees work!). So far this method is not working. I’ll let you know anything changes!

Citrus

There are many types of citrus trees available, and most are too tropical to grow outside in the South Carolina Midlands. Citrus trees typically fruit during the wintertime where they could be exposed to damaging freezes. Selecting an earlier fruiting variety that has enough cold tolerance to survive winter nights in the teens is critical for success outdoors in the South Carolina Midlands. 

I’m growing an Owari Satsuma Mandarin in our garden at WLTX. This variety fruits in October and survives temperatures in the upper teens without damage. It’s capable of recovering from temperatures in the low teens which makes it a good candidate for gardens in the South Carolina midlands. The tree I planted at WLTX has survived 20F temperatures multiple times without any protection. It comes out of winter completely untouched by the cold. During its first spring in the ground, my tree bloomed heavily and produced about a dozen fruit. This past spring the tree produced fewer blooms and it does not appear to have any fruit. The tree seems to be focusing more energy on producing foliage this year, which is common for citrus after a heavy fruiting season. I have confidence this tree will fruit again when it’s ready. 

RELATED: How to grow citrus outdoors in South Carolina

Citrus hystrix is a bit unusual because it’s grown for its foliage. Like bayleafs, Citrus hystrix has fragrant leaves that lend a unique citrus flavor to dishes. The trees also produce fruit, similar to limes, although the fruit from Citrus hystrix is used mainly as a zest since there isn’t a lot of pulp. Although this tree is considered tropical, I left this tree outside in a pot when temperatures dropped to 20F. A few leaves became spotted, but the tree remains healthy and even bloomed this spring. Citrus hystrix would not be the best choice in the ground in the South Carolina Midlands, but it certainly can handle some cold.

Peaches

The first fruit tree anyone in South Carolina thinks of is (or probably should be) peaches. Peach cobbler is a southern staple and South Carolina produces more peaches than anywhere else in the southeast (even more than Georgia!). Peach trees require a certain number of chill hours (hours below 45F each winter) in order to flower. A peach tree will not flower if it doesn’t experience enough chill hours, and trees that receive too many chill hours will flower prematurely and be destroyed by a late frost or freeze. 

I purchased this tree in February 2020. During its first spring, the peach tree produced abundant flowers because it came straight from the nursery. There were plenty of peaches, but unfortunately there were too many peaches. The fruit ended up staying small. splitting, and eventually fell off the tree. I learned peach fruit need to be pruned off so the fruit gets enough nutrients to mature. Unfortunately, this past winter was too mild for the peach tree to produce abundant flowers, despite being a recommended variety for the South Carolina Midlands. The result was plenty of lush foliage, but few opportunities for fruit. Fortunately, the few branches that did flower produced fruit. I cut most of the fruits off so the tree can focus on making the most out of the few fruit I got. If successful, the fruit will be ready in June. If it’s not successful, you’ll be hearing about it!

Bananas

One look at banana trees and most people’s minds go straight to the tropics. They’re often called banana “trees” because of their huge size, but these plants don’t produce woody stems which is why they’re considered the world’s largest herb. The stems are more cold tolerant than the leaves. Some species like Musa Basjoo and Ensete Maurelli have stems that can withstand temperatures below 20F, although their leaves are just as cold sensitive as their tropical relatives. The most cold tolerant banana species unfortunately don’t produce edible fruit. 

In Gandy’s Garden I’m trying several ornamental bananas and a tropical edible banana called “Blue Java”. This variety can withstand temperatures in the mid 20s before the main trunk begins to die back. Blue Java (also known as Ice Cream bananas) requires about 3 years of growth before flowering and fruiting. One tree can produce a bundle of bananas that number in the 100s. Unfortunately, after two successful winters, the “Blue Java” banana in Gandy’s Garden died to the ground. It was completely exposed during a 20F night because I was out of town. The banana plant is returning from the ground, but will take at least 2 more years before it can attempt to fruit.

October recap of the garden

Some fruit trees are more challenging to grow for new gardeners than the quintessential summertime crops, but they are worth an effort. Even when they fail to produce fruit, the trees themselves look great in a landscape and will usually get bigger and and better with each passing season.

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