I gotta say, I’m not trying to dis any plant nurseries here. The obvious solution to finding fruit trees that will thrive in zone four and colder areas is to look in the garden company catalogs to see how they rate each tree’s hardiness. Right?

Well, not necessarily. I repeat, I’m not trying to trash any companies here, but the straight truth is that you may find different zone ratings for the SAME TREE depending on which catalog you’re looking at. Company A might advertise the super-duper-fabulicious peach as zone 4-hardy, while Company B might advertise that same peach tree as only winter-hardy to zone 5. And then you get Company Z which carries that same fruit tree in their inventory and doesn’t give a zone at all — just says it’s capable of surviving temperatures as low as -20F.

So how do you know which hardiness zone rating is accurate? And if the price of the tree varies widely, which company should you buy from? What’s a good bet, and how objective is the information from the people who make their money selling these trees, anyway?

I’m no expert, but I’ve been growing fruit trees (and sometimes killing them…oops) in frosty climates for many years now, and I’ve taken some time to outline my strategy for figuring out which fruit trees will survive in northern zones.


Apple HarvestContext is everything. If you already have a good idea of which fruit trees thrive in your zone and which ones barely cling to life through a long snowy winter, you’ve got half the battle won. For my area (zone 4), I don’t worry much about most apple trees, sour or pie cherry trees, and many plum trees, because I know they are commonly found in extremely cold-hardy cultivars. When I find a new apple tree advertised in a catalog with a note that the variety is hardy to zone 4, it’s an easy sell; I often don’t bother to do any extra research. Statistically, there’s so many apple trees that are hardy to zone 3 that I find it very likely that the catalog advertisement is correct.

However, I DO keep a very close eye on fruits that I know typically struggle in my zone. When I run across advertisements for the more cold-susceptible fruit and nut trees like peaches, sweet cherries, almonds and pecans, I am careful to keep a healthy skepticism about zone ratings. Again, we’re talking statistics; if most sweet cherry trees are not hardy to zone 4, I may need to do a little extra research before dropping $40 on the first one I see advertised as cold-hardy.


Fruit TreeWe all know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. That goes for plant catalogs arriving in your mailbox, too. While there are many companies that have a long reputation for quality products, just be aware that in today’s day and age, massive corporate mergers and outsourcing has become fairly common. If an advertisement seems too good to be true, it quite possibly is.

There are some great forums and review boards out there to get information on a company before you plunk down your cash. Dave’s Garden is one that I check fairly regularly when scoping out a new nursery — but again, keep in mind you can’t believe everything on the internet, so it’s not wrong to maintain a little dash of skepticism when you run across an outrageously negative or a saccharine-sweet positive review. Gardeners themselves are no less infallible than the companies they buy from.

I’ve certainly not tested all the companies out there, but at the top of my love list (in no particular order) are Jung Seed, Indiana Berry, Nourse Berry, and Stark Bros. These all seem to have generally good stock and a good livability guarantee, and I have lower than normal hesitation in trusting their zone ratings.


Cherry TreeI get seed and plant catalogs from like 90 bazillion fruit nurseries every spring. My rule of thumb is to cross-check across catalogs if I see something new and interesting. If I find that the pecan tree that Company Y rated as winter-hardy to zone 4 is also listed in Company X’s catalog as cold-hardy to zone 5, I tend to be very wary of purchasing.

Now let me be clear: I’m not saying these companies are dishonest. What I am saying is that if the cultivar’s hardiness is borderline enough that even the experts disagree, then in real life it’s highly unlikely that my inexpert gardening can coax that poor little tree through one of my frigid winters.

If you do feel comfortable trusting the company’s rating and you end up purchasing the tree, make sure you purchase from the company that rated it to the coldest zone. Even if it costs you a few extra dollars, this is worth it for the livability guarantee. You can’t go to Company A and ask for your money back because a different company suggested that the fruit tree was hardier than Company A was willing to guarantee. Refunds don’t work that way! (Related: check out my posts on the Kristen Sweet Cherry tree, and cold-hardy peach trees)


Plum TreeThere’s some amazing information out there from the world’s top experts… if you can figure out how to tap into it. When I’ve got my heart set on a specific tree, I’ll often drop the name of the variety into a search engine with a “.edu” tag to try to get research papers from random universities (like this article on Cold Climate Fruit Trees from the University of Vermont’s Dr. Perry, or this interesting article on selecting cold hardy fruit tree cultivars from Iowa State’s Richard Jauron). It’s pretty amazing the stuff that’s out there; one of these years the world will figure out how to make it easier to find, but if you have a little time and access to the internet (which, seeing as you’re on this site, I sure hope you do), you can find a wealth of information and sort through it at your leisure.

Keep in mind that if you’re looking for northern-zone and cold-hardy fruit trees, you’re going to be looking for links from colleges and universities in the northern states. My go-to sources are Cornell Cooperative Extension (specializes in New York State research) and the University of Minnesota. Type in a specific fruit tree type with pretty much any northern state name, though, and you’ll have a good shot at coming up with some good research.

It’s not easy growing fruit when you deal with months upon months of heavy snow and ice every year. The good news is there are cold-hardy fruit trees that CAN thrive in zone four and colder areas — lots of them! The bad news is that it just might take a little work to pin down which specific cultivar is the one for you. If you’re just beginning to dabble in fruit gardening starting with a can’t-fail fruit tree like a cold-hardy apple might be a good way to get started; the worst thing you can do is plant a series of “iffy” cold-sensitive trees and become discouraged when your winter-kill rate is through the roof. One of my biggest gardening regrets is throwing in the towel when my first cherry tree didn’t survive the winter; I went roughly a decade without trying again, just working on the assumption that my zone was hopeless for cherries.

Don’t be me. Don’t give up. You CAN find trees that are able to thrive in your zone. After much trial and failure, I’ve done it, and I know it’s doable — and trust me, the pies will be worth it!

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