These fruit trees will thrive in your shady backyard

closeup picking plums from a tree
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If you’ve ever picked your own fruit in the wide open spaces of an orchard, it’s easy to get the impression that fruit trees thrive in nothing less than full sun. The truth is that some crops really do need full sun, but there are also quite a few shade-tolerant fruit trees. Although commercial growers seek to maximize fruit production by minimizing competition, backyard orchardists can achieve excellent results in partial shade. Just ahead we’ll explore what it takes to grow fruit trees in lower light, which fruits to grow there, and which ones to buy at the farmers market instead.

Fruit trees need sunlight

It’s no secret that plants need sunlight to feed themselves through photosynthesis. Plentiful sunshine allows trees to convert energy from light into sugar to fuel flower production and fruit development. And, although the green skin on immature fruit can perform photosynthesis, the fruit still requires supplemental sugars provided by nearby leaves as its primary source. So, the leaves in the immediate area surrounding an individual fruit have the most influence on that fruit’s development.

The quality of individual fruits also increases with light exposure, regardless of the nearby leaves. Fruits exposed to optimal light conditions attain higher sugar levels, increased flavor complexity, and a greater depth of color. Since color, flavor, and sweetness are important attributes of fruit, we should be aware that optimal light reaching both the leaves and fruit leads to higher quality overall.

But too much of a good thing can be bad. When developing fruit is overexposed to sunlight and high temperatures, it results in sunburn. Too much light is not often a problem in partial sun landscapes unless the sun hits during its greatest intensity in midday and early afternoon.

pear tree branch with ripe pears
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Sunlight use

There are some trees that need full sun all day long to make the best fruit, while others can produce a good crop with only six hours of direct sun. These partial shade fruit trees include pears, plums, and the American native pawpaw. Numerous small fruits produce well in partial shade, including raspberries, blackberries, and the other so-called bramble berries. Also, some grapes, including muscadines and scuppernongs, produce fine crops in just six hours of sunlight.

Although deep, dark shade precludes fruit production, a high, bright tree canopy with dappled sunlight peeking through provides enough light for several other fruiting shrubs. Serviceberry, blueberry, huckleberry, gooseberry, and currant thrive in filtered sunlight. Hardy kiwi vines thrive in low light as well, just be sure to plant both male and female vines. Alpine strawberries, too, produce abundant yields in dappled shade.

The danger of too much shade

Even with good plant selection, there may come a time when the shade starts taking a toll on your fruit trees. Some signs that plants are getting too much shade include reduced fruit yield, increase in plant diseases or insect pests, and a bigger water bill. Excessive shade hinders photosynthesis, leading to diminished fruit yield and quality. If the tree cannot feed itself, it is at a greater risk of damaging insect infestation. A dense canopy overhead also inhibits airflow and rainfall. Stagnant air leads to fungal disease problems. Reduced rainfall leads to increased irrigation. If these symptoms arise, it’s time to let in more light.

ripe huckleberries on the plant
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Prune for better light penetration

If sunlight is minimal, it probably won’t get better with time. Shade trees continue to grow, as do fruit trees. Pruning becomes a critical piece of the routine. A certified arborist can safely thin the canopies of tall shade trees to allow more sunlight and air circulation in the area, both of which will benefit the fruit trees below. This work should be done every one to five years, depending on the climate and the types of trees.

Regular fruit tree pruning also increases light penetration, which improves fruit quality. Summer and winter pruning are beneficial for different reasons. In winter, remove dead, weak, or diseased branches, and branches that cross over or rub. Winter pruning allows trees to focus their energy on the strong, healthy wood when spring growth starts. In summer, remove branches that are unsafe, old and non-productive, and those that are too big. Both types of pruning can be done to increase sunlight and air circulation within the foliage.

Your semi-shade backyard is not a hindrance to growing fruit trees when you make sunlight management a part of their routine care and maintenance. Select shade-tolerant varieties, and prune them for an open branch structure. Watch for signs of stress, such as decreased fruit production or increase in pest problems; and thin the canopies of overhead trees periodically for better sunlight penetration. Your trees will reward you with a ready supply of delicious homegrown fruit.

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