How to Choose Your Fruit Trees Well

Sketch showing rootstock and scion

Your goal, in choosing your fruit trees, is to match them to your environment – both the rootstock (bottom) and scion (tops). When well matched, your trees thrive with very little inputs from you – easy orcharding awaits!

To do this well, you need to understand:

  1. your environment, including all its different little microclimates
  2. the varieties + rootstocks that thrive in your area.

We tend to focus all our attention on the fruiting tops, the named variety/ cultivar/ scion eg: Granny Smith or Black Doris, but there are 2 parts to a grafted tree and the bottom part (the rootstock), is incredibly important! It contains vital information, information you need to know in order to grow thriving fruitful trees. Its the bit that determines whether or not the tree is well matched to your climate and soil and how tall it’s going to get.

This can sound more involved than it is, but it’s truly not that tricky. There are only a few types of rootstock, each one used across a broad range of varieties. Specialist fruit tree nurseries know all the rootstocks of their stock and will help you choose well. If the label on the fruit tree only lists the height and not the type of rootstock, you’re missing out. Heres a list of commonly used ones:

  • Apples on MM102. Very productive 3m trees. Resistant to woolly aphid.
  • Apples on MM106. 4m trees. Prefer very free draining soil.
  • Apples on Northern Spy. 5m trees. Prefers heavier soils. Best apple rootstock for clay.
  • Pears on Quince. 3m trees. Prefers heavy soils.
  • Stonefruit on plum Myrobalan rootstock. 5m trees. Vigorous. Handles a variety of soils, including wet.
  • Stonefruit on plum Marianna. Prefers heavier soil. 
  • Stonefruit on peach rootstock. 6m trees. Need light, free draining soil. Good vigour.
  • Citrus on Trifoliata rootstock. 4m trees. Cold and frost hardy. Prefers free draining soil.  

For instance, if you are gardening on heavy clay and wanting to grow apples, you wont do better than a Northern Spy rootstock. An MM106 rootstock will most likely struggle and disease will ensue. Peaches and Nectarines, don’t flourish in poorly drained soils – choose ones grafted onto Myrobalan rootstock and all will be well. A locally sourced seedling is another great option – you can also grow your own.

Rootstocks are easy – there’s not many to choose from, its all pretty straightforward. Scions/ cultivars (the named varieties), however, are a different kettle of fish. The selection is huge and mighty seductive, it takes discipline!

Stay focused on the fruits you eat and find varieties that suit your purpose eg: drying, bottling, sauce, fresh. Your harvest calendar will be a huge help here – if you don’t have one, rustle one up to ensure a steady flow of fruit throughout the year. Ease your load by plugging into community excess that’s up for trade or sale – so good to support local organic growers!, and save your effort for the crops that you cant easily get.

Local knowledge will get you through.

  • Join a Tree-croppers, Transition towns or Permaculture group to get the low down on the varieties and rootstocks that grow best.
  • Wander your neighbourhood and pop in on those with fruit trees growing – gardeners love to help fellow gardeners out!

This in person research is my preferred way, though the internet is ever useful. Connecting to your local growing network is worth its weight in gold.


  1. Hi Kath
    Trust your travels are going well and you’ve found a nice warm spot to hunker down over winter.
    We have a small orchard on a north-facing slope (Waikato hill country) which we’re now finding too hard to mow but my partner doesn’t want to just let the grass grow. Do you have any suggestions for ground cover or paving etc? if I do the whole cardboard/mulch thing I think it will just end up at the bottom of the slope.

    • Letting the grass go is the simplest and most nutritious. Paving is the least nutritious and will still create weeding and also a horrible surface to work around. Go for rambunctious groundcovers like yarrow, comfrey, even Emerald Gem flax – scroll through this post here for details Be practical with planting – plant in groups and work out from there. Each group could have a simple terrace of timber scraps or driftwood to hold it in place until established. Plant close for eventual complete groundcover and as your partner has less energy for mowing he will love the wild long grass – takes time to turn the conditioned mowed look around!