Buying Fruit Trees: Nurseries vs. Big Box Store vs. Online

As a home grower, there are many places you can choose to buy your plants from and this is especially true when it comes to fruit trees. If you are just starting out without any prior experience, you may be asking yourself many questions but they basically boil down to what to buy, where to buy and how to select fruit trees.

Should You Grow Fruit Trees From Seed?

Why People Think Growing From Seed Is A Good Idea

This question is quite elementary. If you have ever grown your own vegetables (i.e. plants like lettuce, carrots, celery, etc.), you are probably aware that you could choose to plant them from seed or buy young plants in small pots.

Growing vegetables from seeds is a decent option because it’s often cheaper and you have more plants to choose from.

Perhaps you also experimented with seeds in elementary school and saw first hand how rewarding it was to experience the developing life of the plant early on.

For a number of reasons, you should never consider growing fruit trees from seed. To be frank, growing from seed is rarely if ever a good option when it comes to fruit trees.

planting seed
Photo: Jonathan Kemper

Why Growing from Seed Takes Too Much Time

While vegetable seeds can germinate and grow to edible proportions within a reasonable amount of time (a few weeks or a couple of months), this is not the case with fruit trees. The young trees you can buy at stores are typically 1-2 years old and naturally have a head start. If you grew from seed, you wouldn’t want to wait so long.

Keep in mind, even the young fruit trees you buy at the store can take a couple more years to mature enough to produce fruit. If you were to grow from seed, you could easily wait half a decade before you get any fruit from the tree. And that’s assuming you did everything right along the way and took good care of the plant to allow it to live that long.

Why Fruit Trees Grown From Seed Are Likely Not What You Expect

Besides the time factor, you will also find it difficult to find seeds to grow your favorite fruit trees.

As a matter of fact, nurseries and other stores that sell fruit trees typically won’t sell seeds for fruit trees. That speaks to availability and would be your first obstacle.

Now if you have a confident, adventurous personality, that might not stop you. You could decide to simply use the seeds you find in the fruits you got from your local grocery store.

However, there is a of course a big catch even with this approach. Assuming you succeed in growing a mature tree with that seed, the fruit it eventually produces can look and taste different from what you are used to.

There are a couple of things you need to know about commercial fruit production. First and foremost, there is a focus on homogeneity. As consumers, we have come to expect the fruits we buy to have a consistently good taste and appearance. We accept small differences but also look for them to be labeled.

For instance, some people might prefer a Fuji apple over a Gala apple (and vice versa). Importantly, they would expect any Fuji apple to look and taste more or less the same however.

This might sound a bit bizarre, but commercial growers can meet these expectations through selective breeding (to develop different cultivars of a given fruit) and cloning (to ensure consistency). It’s not futuristic at all. In fact, it has been a common practice for hundreds of years.

The cloning does not need to involve any lab work and artificial DNA modifications. Growers can instead simply take a branch from an existing fruit tree and graft it onto what is basically a stem and root system of another tree, also known as root stock. As the tree grows from that branch, it will be a clone of the parent fruit tree. It’s also possible to use branches without grafting them onto root stock. The tree branch itself can grow roots, sometimes with the help of rooting hormone to speed up the process. This is what is known as growing a tree from cuttings. Again, the tree growing out of the branch will essentially be a clone.

As for developing different cultivars, this does involve more experimentation. Growers can mix different types of trees or cultivars deliberately or work on fruit trees that have grown naturally from seed. Unlike cloning, hybrid offspring can be different from the parent trees. The qualities that are observed can be better or worse in various ways. If a fruit tree grown this way turns out to have attractive qualities, for example better taste or resiliency, it can be selected to become a new cultivar for the commercial market.

This takes us back to the seeds you will find in grocery store fruits. The seeds themselves don’t result in cloned offspring because they originate from mixing DNA of two parents. You won’t know what they will look like (just like you cannot predict that the children of human parents will have the same physical attributes as their parents, though there will likely be similarities). Obviously, there will still be a fruit tree but you cannot be sure that it will taste like the fruit you can buy. It could be very bland or it could be better but not many people would want to take the risk, especially since it takes a lot of time and effort to grow a fruit from seed.

When you purchase a young fruit tree from a store, its label will tell you exactly what you can expect. A lot of times you can buy cultivars that are identical to the fruits you can get from grocery stores and you will also find many more cultivars that you have never tried or that are no longer available commercially. Generally, though, you can be reasonably certain that the fruit will be of acceptable quality; otherwise the cultivar would have never been commercialized in the first place.

Is There Anything Wrong with Buying Fruit Trees from Big Box Stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s?

parking at bix box store
Photo: Oxana Melis

This is a question that often comes up and can be quite divisive in some circles. To be fair, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying fruit trees from big box stores.

As a home grower, big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s may be the first place where you have seen fruit trees to buy. This is because most of us would also be shopping at these stores for other reasons besides gardening and you don’t need to be a homeowner either. It’s not until later in their gardening journey when people start to seek out retail nurseries.

However, this sequence isn’t inherently wrong. The big box stores have certain advantages to be sure and they shouldn’t be discounted for that reason.

The number one advantage that big box stores have is that they are often able to sell fruit trees for less than what you’d have to pay elsewhere. This is because they have enormous pricing power and can sell in volume.

For example, you might find an orange tree for $40 at Home Depot but pay $60 for a similar sized orange tree at your local nursery. Similarly, the tree that set you back $110 at the big box store could cost you $160 at your local nursery.

Price differences like this are often the case but to be fair, the differences can also be much smaller and occasionally you might also find something for less at your local nursery than what it costs at the big box store.

Of course, selection is another matter. Perhaps the fruit tree you want is just not available to be sold at the big box stores and in that case you really have no other choice but to buy elsewhere.

You also have to do more to educate yourself about what you buy. The employees at the big box stores may be very friendly and eager to help but it’s not guaranteed that they have the level of expertise you need. Over time, as you focus on your orchard and develop your own knowledge, it’s unlikely they will have enough training to be able to answer your questions.

It’s also important to verify that the fruit trees you get from big box stores are adapted to your local area and will grow well where you are. This is rarely if ever an issue with local nurseries, but it’s easy to see how things can slip through in bigger stores that have contracts encompassing larger regions. From my own experience, I can tell you that I have seen bare root fruit trees sold at big box stores that would never have enough chill hours to produce fruit in my local area and climate. From what I remember, the number of necessary chill hours was printed on the label but nobody at the store seemed to take note. Presumably, the same fruit trees were also shipped to other branch locations.

Are the Fruit Trees at Nurseries Better?

It’s clear that you are more likely to encounter highly trained, expert staff at retail nurseries. Many of them will work there for years and it is what they specialize in after all. From what I have seen, they often have a passion for gardening and will be eager to talk to you and share their expertise.

But does that mean the fruit trees themselves are better? Yes and no.

Obviously, their training should enable the nursery staff to take better care of the plants. For fruit trees that have been at the store for a long time, this can make a big difference. You are less likely to be buying a sickly or diseased fruit tree from a local nursery. For many home growers, especially those who are just starting out and don’t have an eye for healthy plants, this alone can be worth the difference in price.

In another respect, however, it’s not far-stretched to point out that the product can be similar to what you can get from the big box stores. If you pay attention to the labels on the fruit trees found at big box stores and local nurseries, you will notice they often come from the same suppliers.

The industry for commercial growing is more concentrated than it seems. Depending on where you live, there may be at most just one or two major companies supplying most of the fruit trees to big box stores and nurseries alike. Now it could be that some of the local nurseries have better relationships and are more selective in terms of quality but it’s not guaranteed.

From what I have seen, the trees can be comparable in quality at least initially when they arrive at the stores. Thus if you are afraid that the fruit trees could be neglected at the big box stores, you could talk to the staff and buy soon after the shipment arrives. Then it will be up to you to take care of the plant.

Is It Okay to Buy Fruit Trees Online?

shopping online
Photo: Rupixen

Besides buying fruit trees in person, it’s also possible to order them online and have them delivered to you. If you think this sounds rather risky, then you are right but it shouldn’t dissuade you. You will want to make sure to buy from reputable buyers online or at least give preference to them.

Unlike many other types of online shopping, buying fruit trees online is rarely done in order to save money. In my experience, you can often find trees to be more affordable at your local nursery or big box stores, especially when you take into account the size of the tree. The trees that are mailed to you are often relatively small. The pot size is usually disclosed but not everyone pays as much attention to that as the price, which may appear comparable to what you can get at local stores. In addition, and justifiably so, there are often delivery fees that further increase the total cost to you.

The major reason why you should consider buying online is availability and selection. If you are looking for a special fruit tree and it’s just not available to buy locally, then you really have no other choice but to buy online.

There are a number of store fronts that will sell fruit trees online. Some of them even appear to specialize in online sales. You can also buy fruit trees and even cuttings from individual sellers on sites like Etsy. There is ample opportunity to experiment with unusual cultivars.

One thing you have to pay attention to, however, is whether the fruit trees you buy online are suitable for your local climate. In some cases, this should be very obvious. If you live in a northern climate with lots of snow in the winter, there’s a good reason why your local stores won’t sell tropical fruit trees like avocados for example. They simply won’t survive and their customers would not buy them, or worse buy them and then return for refunds soon after.

Other times, however, suitability may be less obvious. For example, there are numerous apple cultivars. Some of them, like the Einsheimer cultivar developed in Israel, require only a small amount of chill hours and can be grown in places with mild winters such as California but other apple cultivars like the Honey Crisp cultivar will struggle to produce any decent fruit there. You will need to research adaptability beforehand or be ready to accept the cost to experiment.

What’s the Takeaway When Buying Fruit Trees?

As you can see, there are are lots of things to pay attention to when buying fruit trees. Different types of stores have their own advantages and disadvantages.

As a home grower, it’s important that you educate yourself in advance as much as possible. Growing fruit trees is a venture that can take many years. The right amount of preparation goes a long way.

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