Love tree fruit, love the planet: Enjoy a fruiting plant for many years

By Nick Frillman University of Illinois Extension Services

Elderberry. Closeup view of wet elderberry’s bunch over green leaves. Autumn forest berry after rain, soft focus.

Imagine a warm summer’s evening in the not-too-distant future. A glance out the back door reveals something exciting: the fruit trees, shrubs, or canes that the family planted in spring 2023 are ready for their first harvest. This winter, find a good nursery catalogue to make that dream a reality.

While summer annuals are the most popular edible garden plants, perennial fruits are gaining in popularity. According to USDA consumer data from 2019, the average person eats 10 pounds of apples, 5 pounds of grapes, and 3.5 pounds of strawberries a year, buying most of what they consume. Little do they know, these species are well-adapted to Central Illinois growing conditions.

Perennial fruits can be grown in containers as well as in-ground, have straightforward growing requirements, can help combat climate change, and some are even native to our area. What is not to love? Maybe the price tag.

When comparing garden goals of the new year and financial realities, it is undeniable the expense of live plants far outweighs the cost of seeds. However, it is not uncommon to receive monetary rather than physical gifts over the holiday season. Consider memorializing the monetary gift-giver by planting a delicious fruit-giving specimen that may last a lifetime.

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

When growing perennials in the yard or garden, proper siting, organic matter additions, and watering are key to successful establishment. Most perennial fruits require a near-full sun location – though there are shade-tolerant exceptions, such as pawpaw or black currant. All perennial fruits prefer lots of organic matter added to the soil, both at planting and as an annual mulch layer. Water new plantings at least once a week during the growing season until the soil is moist—not flooded—at a depth of 3-4 inches. Perennial fruits, once established, are remarkably resilient to drought, but in the first few years of growth, insufficient watering is the most common reason plants die.

By planting 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 tissue and in the soil, the level of carbon accumulated by perennials continues to grow each season. In comparison, the carbon stored in annuals is released when the plant breaks down and especially during soil cultivation—a common occurrence in the vegetable garden.

Some perennial fruit species that may catch the eye of a more adventurous grower include elderberry, serviceberry, and pawpaw. Elderberry and serviceberry can make attractive flower-bearing shrubs that support local pollinators; pawpaw lends itself well to rebuilding species diversity in shady planting spaces where other sun-loving fruit trees would not succeed. These three species make a nice addition to local growing spaces for another reason: they are native to North America. To plant these is a great act of environmentalism—you are participating in local ecological restoration.

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

Nick Frillman is a local foods and small farms educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford counties.