Love the free fruit, love the planet, enjoy fruitful plants for many years

Imagine a warm summer evening in the near future. A quick peek out the back door reveals something exciting: the fruit trees, shrubs, or canes the family planted in spring 2023 ready for their first harvest.

This winter, find a good nursery catalog to make that dream come true.

While summer annuals are the most popular edible garden plant, perennial fruits are gaining in popularity. According to 2019 USDA consumer data, the average person eats 10 pounds of apples, 5 pounds of grapes, and 3.5 pounds of strawberries annually, and they buy most of what they consume. Little do they know, this species is well adapted to the growing conditions of central Illinois.

Perennial fruit can be grown in containers as well as in the ground, has straightforward growth requirements, can help combat climate change, and some are native to our region. What do we not like? Maybe its price.

When comparing New Year’s garden goals and financial reality, it’s undeniable that the cost of live plants far outweighs the cost of seeds. However, it is not uncommon to receive monetary gifts in place of physical gifts during the holiday season. Consider commemorating the giver of cash gifts by growing a delicious specimen of the fruit that may last a lifetime.

Even if you lack a garden, accessing fruit at home may be easier than you think. According to the University of Wisconsin Extension, strawberries do well in large garden pots or balcony planters. For best results, offer strawberries the largest available pot filled with high-quality potting soil and water often.

When planting perennials in the yard or garden, proper site selection, organic matter additions, and watering are key to successful establishment. Most perennial fruits require a semi-full sun position — although there are shade-tolerant exceptions, such as papaws or black currants. All perennial fruits prefer plenty of organic matter added to the soil, both when planting and as an annual mulch. Water the new plantings at least once a week during the growing season until the soil is moist (not soaked) at a depth of 3 to 4 inches.

Perennial fruits, once established, are remarkably drought tolerant, but in the first few years of growth, inadequate watering is the most common cause of plant death.

By growing perennial fruits, your long-term investment is a net positive for the climate. While both annual selections and woody perennial species store carbon in their woody tissues and in the soil, the level of carbon accumulated by perennials continues to grow each season. By comparison, the carbon stored in annuals is released when the plant is broken down and especially during soil cultivation—a common occurrence in the vegetable garden.

Some types of perennial fruit that might catch the eye of a more adventurous grower include elderberries, cranberries, and pawpaws. Elderberry and serviceberry can make attractive flowering shrubs that support native pollinators; Papaw lends itself well to rebuilding species diversity in shady planting spaces where other sun-loving fruit trees fail. These three species make a nice addition to native growing spaces for another reason: They’re native to North America. Planting these is a major act of environmental protection – you are participating in restoring the local environment.

Plant a perennial fruit tree and enjoy a pound of fruit for free while investing in local ecosystems, a stable climate, and local pollinators.

Frillman is the University of Illinois Native Foods Educator and the Small Farms Educator in Livingston, McLean, and Woodford counties.

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