The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Planting fruit trees in a changing climate

Changing hardiness zonesFirst the Arbor Day Foundation and then the USDA came out with revised hardiness maps during the past decade, responding to our changing climate. And in both cases, the maps promise that our farm has moved to a warmer place. But can we take their recommendations as gospel?

Depending on which map you consider, our farm could have moved from zone 6a to zone 6b or even to zone 7, with average annual extreme minimums of -10 to -5, -5 to 0, and 0 to 5 respectively. However, given the data of the last two years --- with annual minimums of -12 and -22 --- we might be smarter looking for plants that can handle zone 5b or even zone 4b, suggesting that our winters have become colder rather than more mild. Granted, each zone's annual minimums are supposed to be averages only, so it's somewhat normal to exceed those minimums from time to time. Still, two years in a row of deep-freeze conditions begins to look like a trend.

I posted before about Logsdon's recommendations for easy fruit tree species by zone, with the map below summarizing the author's recommendations. If we're moving a zone or two north, though, that would mean Japanese plums, peaches, sweet cherries, and hardy figs all drop off the easy list, leaving us with only apples, pears, European plums, and sour cherries to savor. Similarly, blackberries, rabbiteye blueberries, and hardy kiwis might all become dicey if the current trend toward arctic blasts continues.
Easy fruit trees
Which isn't to say that we won't be able to grow the dropped species at all. However, our sun trap along the south face of the trailer might become prime real estate for plants that have become a gamble from a climatic standpoint, and we might eventually have to admit that peaches and figs in the main part of the garden are doomed to failure.

Or maybe these brief cold spells won't have the same effect as a full zone 5 winter. Only time will tell. But I do recommend keeping track of your annual minimum temperatures and also perusing both of the new hardiness-zone maps...especially if, like Karen B., you're planning to put in $928 worth of fruit trees. If nothing else, stick to spring planting for questionable species, and plant your charges in well-drained soil shielded from wind and in an area exposed to the maximum amount of winter sun. Here's hoping all of your fruit trees --- and mine too --- are surviving this long, cold winter.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I know that there are so many different kinds of berries that Scandinavians use--esp. blueberries! Also that gooseberries and currants are so often grown both in New England and in England, besides blueberries, which are so prevalent in Maine. Also Alpine strawberries must be hardy. I also read of a peach orchard in Ipswich, Mass.--tho that was in the 30s, I think. And, as you did mention earlier, the trick is to somehow keep the fruit trees from budding too soon, esp. in a mid-winter thaw. Maybe one trick with peaches wd be to plant them in shadier places, which, because seemingly colder, might hold them back, and might even protect them. As for blueberries, I think the "low-bush" are actually hardier, tho I haven't looked it up. As for apples: maybe New England types are better, to try.

Comment by adrianne Mon Feb 23 09:24:27 2015

Interesting post. I do hope your figs and other trees will survive this cold. Any you guys too. Our house stays around 55-58, but 40 degrees inside would be uncomfortable! I dont know what rabbiteye blueberries are, but blueberries grow wild here in zone 5, so maybe, even with colder winters, they would still be an option for you. I just finished shoveling and snowshoeing a path to three maples in more tnan thigh deep snow In preparation for tapping. Forecast next week looks good. This snow will definitely limit the number of taps we drill.... it is just too hard to get to the trees! (Its the reason of course why most of the old trees were planted along roadways)

Comment by deb Mon Feb 23 10:22:12 2015
Despite the Ag Dept's saying I live in zone 7A (ha!) my microclimate is probably closer to 6a or 6b with winds that try to take my porch roof off. My apple tree (Stayman Winesap) produces but I've had a lot of trouble with blueberries, mostly because the clay "soil" (read: bricks!) doesn't drain too well despite the fact I planted them next to the creek which is about 5 feet lower than the blueberries. I've tried O'Neal's which are supposed to be good for NE TN, but it died. On es like Elliot, Patriot, Northblue and other northern berries survived better than some of the "southern highbush" berries. I don't mulch them as the wind would simply blow everything away unless I lay a tarp or something down on top of them. Instead I cut 55 gallon barrels in half and planted them in that hoping that they would drain better than being planted in that cold wet clay. The perennial strawberries, on the other hand, that I have in pots hanging from my back porch actually had flowers on it in January! How weird is that? Not sure if they survived or not. Gonna keep trying with the blueberries as they are my favorite fruit. Have wild blackberries on the property but they taste like gritty gravel and so I am afraid to plant raspberries anywhere on the property since they'll probably cross-pollinate with the crappy blackberries and end up being inedible.
Comment by Na Yan Mon Feb 23 14:49:36 2015
anna and mark, I would have thought you had temperature data for the past 8 years instead of just two. Subjectively speaking, would you say winters are getting colder for the past eight years vis-a-vis just the last two? do you feel the length of the season has changed too?
Comment by pedro Mon Feb 23 20:46:02 2015

Some of the most delicious blueberries I've had were growing wild in northern Minnesota, and the bramble fruits at my parents' house in Wisconsin are pretty good, too. Seed catalogs originating from the colder zones actually have a pretty good selection of berries and fruits, so don't despair!

I agree it will be interesting to see how the changing weather patterns (or variability [un-patterns?], I suppose) affect perennial plant survivability. Looking forward to your meticulous notes on the matter! :-)

Comment by Jake Mon Feb 23 23:01:44 2015

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