Gardening teaches you to plan ahead and to be patient, two virtues I'm not naturally blessed with. If you want homegrown tomatoes in August, you have to plant out your starts in May. Or better yet, sow your seeds in February. When planning ahead for groceries to last 2 weeks proves a challenge, as the pandemic has shown us all, it's no wonder vegetable planning 6 months out can feel mind boggling.
Fruit trees are a whole 'nother level of planning and patience. If you want to eat homegrown fruit in the summer of 2024, now is the time to begin. (Think of this as a post from your future self, or perhaps your children, reminding you to plan now to enjoy fruit then!)
Summer is the time to taste fruit, plan your backyard orchard, and order bare root trees to arrive next winter.
There's no point planting a tree and waiting years to eat fruit you don't like. Taste now to plant your favorites! We're well into stone fruit season, and backyard trees near you are probably bearing fruit. If you taste something good, make a note. Ask around to see if neighbors have fruit trees, and if social distance allows, perhaps you can visit and taste, and see how the tree looks when mature. Farmer's markets will also likely have lots of varieties you can taste, and you can ask about the trees.
The best selection and price for fruit trees comes when you buy bare root trees. Grown in the field, bare root trees are lifted from the soil when they're dormant (January - March usually), wrapped and shipped quickly, either direct to you, or to a nursery that cares for them until you can pick them up.
Even though bare root trees ship in the winter, they go on sale in the summer, and stock often sells out well before shipping time. If you go to the nursery in February to choose a tree, you're likely to find the left-overs, or a limited selection of much more expensive trees growing in pots. If you want a specific variety for a good price, ordering ahead is a good idea.
To secure your best selection, now is the time to do your homework. I've been deep into fruit tree internet rabbit holes these last few weeks as I think about trees for our garden. The best resource I've found so far is Dave Wilson Nursery, with tons of articles and videos on growing fruit at home, especially in small spaces.
I've found local master gardener and university extension resources helpful too, especially in discussions of chill hours. Chill hours are the average number of hours per year that the temperature drops below 45F, and they vary more than you would think, even in geographically close areas. Many fruit trees require chill in order to produce fruit, and different varieties need different amounts. Before ordering your trees, your local chill hours is a number you definitely need to find. Your local nursery can help too.
The other issue that commonly causes problems for fruit trees is waterlogged soil. If you have heavy clay soil that doesn't drain well, you'll have to choose from a more limited selection of trees that are bred to tolerate soggy roots.
I know that amidst all our current uncertainty, thinking about tree planting 6 months from now, for fruit 4 years from now, seems a bit beside the point. But to me, tree planting is fundamentally an act of hope and nurture, two things we could all use, regardless of the harvest. If you expand your mental math past your personal harvests to include stewardship of the land for future generations, the effort and money required to order and plant a $40 bare root tree seem like like an excellent investment.
If you don't have land to steward, you can still order unusual bare root trees to grow in pots outdoors. Or you can follow YouTube gardener John Kohler's example and impulse-buy some $9 bare root dwarf apricot trees from Home Depot to plant in your own containers. (I'd do my chill hours homework first to make sure you get fruit.) There are even some types you can grow in your living room.
In case you're wondering what I'm thinking about planting, here are my ideas so far: Smyrna Quince, Seckel Pear, White Winter Pearmain Apple, Sundowner Apple, Conradia Fig, and / or some type of pluot / aprium.