I’ve been gardening in northern New England for so long that I don’t even know what zone I’m in anymore. Some companies tell me my garden is located in zone 4; some tell me I’m in zone 5. Based on the little shady frost-pocket of a valley that I live in, I think it’s safe to say that my microclimate is a solid zone 4, even if the zip code might be teetering on the border.

Bottom line? It gets COLD in my fruit garden. In these kinds of temperatures, fruit trees, brambles, bushes and vines — even those rated for zone 4 hardiness — quietly die, leaving me back at square one and poorer by the plant price plus shipping. Ouch.

However, in the midst of this ongoing challenge, I’ve found a few species to be blessedly reliable back-up plans. Maybe the peach tree died back to the graft; the cherry tree succumbed to the cold; and the small fruits just plain won’t grow. It’s frustrating, but I’ve learned to lean heavily on my tried & true winter-hardy fruit tree, bush and vine favorites to keep me motivated to go on growing. Read on to see my top five winter-hardy fruits for northern gardens!

WINTER-HARDY APPLE TREES

Winter-hardy apples

You just can’t beat them. Apples are CRAZY hardy — some varieties are winter hardy down to zone 2 — so a New England winter freeze doesn’t make them bat an eye. Although growing apples in northern climates still comes with its own set of problems (I’m looking at you, plum curculios), they are relatively painless to plant, tend, and prune. Plus, they have phenomenal diversity of shapes, sizes, colors and tastes, and the fruit can be used in like fifty billion different ways – fresh, sauced, juiced, preserved, dried, even cooked down into a pasty jam-like apple butter.

My top three tips for growing apple trees in a northern zone? Keep them protected in the winter from hungry rabbits & deer; prune faithfully, even when going outside in February is the LAST thing any sane person would do; and buy a SAFE insect spray to make sure you protect the tree from six-legged invaders (we’re talking after the bees have finished pollinating, of course!).

COLD-HARDY STRAWBERRIES

Winter-hardy strawberries

Strawberries may not be at the top of my list in terms of taste — I prefer a little more tang in my berries — but their ease of growing puts them solidly in second place among my top 5. It’s really, really hard to fail at growing strawberries, even in a northern garden (believe me, I’ve done it). There’s always a few things to get used to along the learning curve; mulching strawberry beds is recommended to prevent winterkill, animals of all species love to snatch up the berries before you do, and planting depth can make or break your harvest. However, the rapid regeneration rate means that you only have to wait a short season to try again. Sooner or later you’ll crack the code and start producing like mad.

My top three tips for growing strawberries in a northern zone? Mulch to keep the weeds down while the plants are establishing themselves; get good at growing them in-ground before attempting the more finicky process of container gardening; and PLANT THE RIGHT VARIETY. I can’t stress this last one enough. If you’re a newbie, picking a high-producing cultivar will help you salvage some berries (and some motivation to keep trying!) while the local wildlife is robbing you blind.

ZONE 4 BLACK RASPBERRIES

Winter-hardy black raspberries

Best tasting berries EVER. It can be tough finding a black raspberry cultivar that’s rated to survive a northern-zone winter, but trust me — it’s SO worth it. Establishing a black raspberry bed is easy and the canes are quick to produce fruit and propagate themselves. It’s a gardener’s dream! There’s a couple threats to your black raspberry garden to be aware of — most significant is disease that may be carried by wild berries near your property — but a pie from these berries makes slaying the dragon 100% worthwhile.

My top three tips for growing black raspberries in a northern zone? Be prepared for sprawling, thorny canes and buy yourself a decent set of pruning shears; be VERY careful when purchasing to make sure you’ve picked a variety that’s right for your zone; and start small. Before you prepare a huge garden bed and sink your savings into a couple dozen canes, buy one or two and put them out as coal-mine canaries. If there’s disease in the area, you’ll see it invade and be primed to tackle the problem with fewer casualties.

COLD-TOLERANT RED RASPBERRIES

Winter-hardy red raspberries

These are a close second to black raspberries. Talk about resilient — my red raspberry patch has been through unbelievable stresses in the past decade (including repeated cow invasions!) but has bounced back every single time within just a short season. And the fruit itself is outstanding; raspberry pie, raspberry jam, raspberry ANYTHING is magnificent. The canes propagate themselves like mad, many cultivars are very winter-hardy, and production power is excellent. Unfortunately the berries attract all sorts of insect visitors and the canes are susceptible to a whole long list of diseases, but if you keep a close eye on your raspberry bed you can keep it producing despite these challenges.

My top three tips for growing red raspberries in a northern zone? Be careful about fall-bearing raspberries, because an early cold snap can render those berries instant mush; prune HEAVILY to keep the canes from becoming overcrowded and breeding disease; and once they’re ripe, make sure you keep up with regular harvesting to keep overripe fruit from attracting nasty little pests.

WINTER-HARDY GRAPES

Winter-hardy grapes

I’ll be honest, I’d rather have filled this last slot in my top five list with blackberries — but in terms of winter hardiness and dependability, the good old-fashioned grape vine wins every time. Now, I have to warn you: I’m talking seeded grapes when I add this list item. Growing seedless grapes is a little tougher, but the seeded Concord vines that I have in front of my barn are production powerhouses that just can’t be killed. Propagation isn’t hard and the taste is great (even when I — ahem — haven’t really pruned in, like… literally forever). Foolproof. Winter-hardy. Great taste. What else could I ask for?

My top three tips for growing hardy grape vines in a northern zone? Give them something to climb that’s still going to be reachable when it’s harvest time, because although it’s easier now to plant by a tree, you’ll be kicking yourself come September; remember that trailing vines will root and then surge out into your lawn with the intention of taking over the world; and be CAREFUL picking, because it will be yellow-jacket sugar-frenzy season when the grapes ripen. Watch what you’re picking!

And there you have it. Of the many fruits I’ve grown in my chilly New England climate, these five — apples, strawberries, black raspberries, red raspberries, and hardy grapes — have been by far the most dependable winter-hardy fruits I’ve found. Although taste might not always be my favorite in comparison to other fruits I’ve grown, these are in my opinion the best starting points for a beginning fruit gardener who has to deal with sub-zero winter temperatures…

…or for more people like me, who have loads of experience and haven’t learned a thing from it. The struggle is real, y’all.

For information on how to track down winter-hardy fruits, check out my article on how to find cold-hardy fruit trees for zone 4 and colder.

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