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Apr 28 / Jeff

The Fundamentals of Growing Fruits in Arizona

When one mentions the word “Arizona”, most people conjure up visions of deserts, cactus, and maybe the Grand Canyon. It’s not likely you will imagine a lush orchard brimming with ripening fruit. Is it any coincidence that the process of growing fruits in Arizona is actually challenging? Probably not. But that’s not why you’re here. You want to learn how to grow your own fruit trees successfully. And that  is what I am going to talk about.

So what makes Arizona so different from places like California, Washington state, and New York? The obvious answer is “it’s really hot during the summers.” Yes, that does play a factor in the success of most plant life here. However, you may be surprised that there is another critical factor to consider. I’ll explain.

For those of you who are from the East coast, or Midwest, you actually get to experience four seasons. Fall is marked by the changing color of leaves and by winter the leaves drop and all you have are bare branches that brave the bitter cold. Come March/April, flowers and new growth emerge, signalling the arrival of spring. Soon, fruits develop and begin ripening by summer time. Seems so simple? Yes. But there is a lot of plant science behind it all.

During the winter, fruit trees require a certain number of “chilling hours”, or time within a certain temperature range, roughly below 45F. If the tree experiences enough cold, it is able to produce flowers and fruit the following spring. Now for those of you living in areas where it’s snowy and cold, no problem. But what about those of us in warmer regions, such as Arizona, Florida and coastal California? That is the problem. We simply do not get sufficient cold temperatures during the winter to promote flower development in most fruit trees.  For example, check out a map developed by the USDA which designates certain zones of growth, based on average temperatures during the winter:

Here, you can see the varying colors ranging from orange all the way to brown. In the Phoenix metro area, we are located in Zone 9 (tan color). This means our average minimum temperature is about 20 to 30F. Why is this so important? Remember, the more cold a tree experiences, the more likely it will produce fruit. See the blue zone? The average minimum temperature there is -20 to -30F. No problem there. What about us in the desert Southwest? Not so easy, unfortunately.

On the positive side, not every tree is created equal. Some trees need more chilling hours and some trees can produce with fewer chilling hours. So that is the key. Find a tree that needs the least number of chilling hours. Ok, so now we have solved half of the problem. What happens when June/July rolls around? We get to experience 110+F temperatures with intense sunlight. If you’re lucky enough to find a tree that requires few chilling hours, now it must survive the equivalent of hell for a period of 2-3 months each year. Now you start to see the challenge of successfully growing fruits in the Arizona desert. It’s a two-fold battle that most people are unprepared for.

Many people in Arizona grow citrus, which is easy, because they love the summer heat and mild winters. But, let’s be honest. Eating oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit and tangelos gets old after a while. What about the apples, peaches, plums, pears, nectarines, and apricots? That’s the question. How about small fruits such as blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, and grapes? Believe it or not, they all can be grown here in the desert. You just need to remember what we just discussed here today.

1. The fruit tree must have a low chilling hour requirement, suitable for USDA Zone 9. Typically, anything less than 300 chilling hours is acceptable. When you visit a nursery, the tree should have a ID tag with the variety name and a brief note on how many chilling hours it requires. Now you know what it means.

2. The fruit tree must also be able to withstand the heat. Fortunately, most trees that have low chilling hour requirements do. However, you need to modify the growing environment to ensure it gets enough water and possibly some shade (for certain varieties).

By the way, be careful when buying fruit trees and plants from your local hardware store (the orange or blue guys). I’ve noticed that they rarely sell the right varieties. Basically you get a tree with a high chilling hour requirement that fails to produce fruit. You end up with a very nice shade tree! I recommend visiting a local nursery. Typically they are more knowledgeable and sell the correct varieties. If you have any questions about specific varieties, drop me a line. Good luck!

130 Comments

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  1. Bruce / May 26 2016

    I have a third year Yellow Apple tree. This is the first year we have a significantly can’t number of apples. When should they be ready to start picking, andhow can I tell they are ready to pick. My guess is they are still a few month away as thet are only about the size of a golf ball

    • Jeff / Dec 21 2016

      Hi Bruce,
      My reply is a little late now, but yellow apples are hard to tell if they are ripe. I have to just test it out myself. Once the apples stop getting bigger, it’s probably time to pick one and see how it tastes.
      Jeff

  2. Cara / Jun 21 2016

    how about peach trees being planted in phoenix in the summer. should I provide some shade at first to protect them a little bit or will they be okay in close to full sun?

    • Jeff / Dec 21 2016

      Hi Cara,
      I strongly advise against planting anything during the summer time, since it gets so hot here. If you do, I would definitely put up a shade structure to protect them from the hot afternoon sun.
      Now the only exception would be if you bought a large mature tree like in a 24″ box or bigger. Those would be able to handle the shock. Otherwise, the smaller trees (e.g. 15 gallon pot or smaller) will experience stress from transplant shock and the extreme heat.
      Jeff

  3. Tom / Sep 7 2016

    I live south of Tucson and have a healthy 4 year old nectarine tree. I prune it each winter or early Spring and fertilize it with general purpose granular fertilize. It produces beautiful blossoms in the Spring, but only one or two nectarines that grow a little larger than a golf ball and never ripen.

    I also have peach, plum, and apple trees that produce large, tasty fruit.

    What am I doing wrong with my nectarine tree?

    • Jeff / Dec 21 2016

      Hi Tom,
      A couple of questions:
      – How big is the nectarine tree?
      – Which variety is it?
      Jeff

      • BRYAN / Oct 27 2017

        After much research, I have found that most nectarines will not produce fruit in Southern AZ. I have a beautiful, thriving 6 year old Panamint Nectarine. It has never produced fruit. I also have a Garden Delight Nectarine that has never produced. They put out profuse beautiful flowers but no fruit. The speculation is that the dry desert air negatively effect the flowers pollination process. Schnepf Farms of San Tan Valley, I’ve read, also warns against Nectarines. Some still may work, but I’m guessing, most won’t. Try a very early bloom variety. I’ve heard good results from Arctic Star White Nectarine. Hope this helps.

  4. Gerry / Nov 10 2016

    Our mature orange trees are not producing fruit this year. This is the first time that has occurred. Our watering and fertilizing methods have varied little.What should we do?

    • Jeff / Dec 21 2016

      Hi Gerry,
      Fruit production depends on many factors, but the first thing to look at is the general health of the trees. Is there a lot of new growth, green leaves, etc.? If the trees look good, then I would look at the effects of the winter weather, as freeze events can damage flowers/fruit. Also, how are you pruning the trees? Hopefully you didn’t prune off the flowers/fruit during the late winter/early spring time frame. Finally, it is possible the trees are going through cycles, where you get heavy production one year and light/no production the next. It’s not typical for mature trees, but I have seen it happen for smaller trees.
      Jeff

  5. Tiffany C / Dec 17 2016

    I am so glad I found your site! What is the difference between the Masetera Arizona Sweet and the Calencia Arizona Sweet? I just got two from the nursery and asked for Arizona sweets and didn’t realize there were different varieties! Is one sweeter than the other?

    • Tiffany C / Dec 17 2016

      Typo.. I meant the Valencia, not Calencia. Thank you!

    • Jeff / Dec 21 2016

      Hi Tiffany,
      The Macetera is more of your standard eating orange and ripens around the same time as most other citrus (winter). The Valencia is typically used for juicing and ripens later in the season (spring). They are both sweet and I am not sure if one is sweeter than the other. By having both varieties, you will have an extended window of harvest, as most citrus ripen during the winter.
      Jeff

  6. Christopher Boles / Dec 25 2016

    We moved to Prescott Valley about a year ago. We are living in zone 7a/7b (5500 ‘ elevation). I have a large backyard that I want to plant in fruit trees and a couple citrus. I have a couple questions. Can I plant citrus near the fruit trees or should there be a space between them? My citrus is probably going to be navel and lemon. 10 foot centers?

    What fruit trees can I successfully plant in my zone. I was thinking of nectarine, plum, peach, and apricot. 15 foot centers?

    Would it be ok to get bare root stock or should I consider a potted citrus?

    • Jeff / Aug 2 2017

      Hi Christopher,
      You can plant citrus near other fruit trees, but just be sure to space them apart so they don’t crowd each other out. If they are standard trees, I would say 15-20 feet apart. If they are semi-dwarf, 10-12 feet is fine. If they are dwarf, 6-8 feet would be ok.

      Everything will grow in your area. It’s just a matter of choosing the right varieties. Be sure to look for Zone 7 plants.

      Citrus should only be sold in pots, as they do not go dormant and cannot be bare root at any time. Other fruits can be sold bare root, but they will be small trees and it will usually take at least 1-2 years before you start to get any fruit. If you’re patient, I would go the bare root route. Otherwise, you can probably find some larger mature trees at your local nursery.

      Jeff

  7. Olga / Aug 7 2017

    Hi Jeff,

    We live in Glendale, AZ. We planted peach tree this spring and even had fruits in May. Then leaves on the tree started to get more and more yellow no matter how much we water the tree during that heat wave in June. Today I noticed that all leaves are gone (probably were blown away by the last monsoon storm last week). My question – is it normal?
    Thank you very much for you input!

  8. Patti Sano / Sep 6 2017

    I live in Cottonwood and have a, what was labeled to be a 20th Century pear tree. I got it at Verde River Growers. It bore fruit that is dark, somewhat russeted like a Hosui, not light yellow skinned like most pics of 20th Century pears are. Do you think the heat (it got up to 114 in late June) would have made the skin darker? The fruit looked orange on the tree. It still tastes good, so that’s good. I’m just wondering if it’s really a 20th Century pear. Thank you.

  9. Lisa / Nov 1 2017

    Hi Jeff,

    I just moved to Sedona and want to plant a fruit tree.

    I have the perfect, sheltered area with good light but safe from harsh weather.

    It is now November 1, what fruit tree do you recommend I plant if I want to do it right away (it is related to good luck for my new home, and so I don’t want to wait.)

  10. Adam Leese / Jan 29 2018

    I live about 20 minutes outside of Sedona in cotton wood az we were looking at planting mangos and avacodoes have any advise

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  12. J. Marshall / Mar 8 2018

    I live in a complex in Phoenix AZ and we have a number of Orange trees on the property. I am asking when is the best time for pruning these trees if they should be pruned at all. I am also wondering how often we should be watering these trees.

    Thank you
    J. Marshall

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  14. Amber / May 5 2018

    Hi. I just moved to Kingman. The elevation of my home is 3800ft. I’m hoping to glean some insight as to what fruit trees would do the best in my new area. I see several types of citrus, but as you mentioned, eating citrus all year can get a bit bland. My intentions are to sell some of my crops at the local Farmer’s Market. What dwarf variety fruit trees (and a few full size) do you recommend? I’m working with just over 1/2 acre.Thank you!

  15. fred rudow / Jun 5 2018

    hello, i recently recieved a nectaplum tree from raintree nursery it was about 3 feet in total heighth, i live in riverside california, my tree has grown about 2 inches in the month since i planted it. every branch has sprouted leaves, but in the last week the temperature has risen almost 20 degrees and some of the leaves have begun to fall off? im concerned and not sure what to do. can you please give me some ideas on what is happening? thank you

  16. Jim / Jun 9 2018

    Great site!
    1.Looking to buy some ultra dwarf fruit trees for Tucson, zone 9a. Seen your recommendations on the site for Phoenix area, wondering what would work here for ultra dwarfs, especially if nectarines are good, somebody mentioned they don’t give fruit in southern AZ.
    2. Guess they should remain in containers until colder season for planting?
    3. I have a large yard is facing south, is there a difference if they are on the west or east side, since we have full sun most of the day?
    Thank you again and keep the good advice,
    Jim

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