While the eastern half of Nebraska has more fertile soils and more rainfall than the rest of the state, fruit trees must tolerate both bitter winter cold and occasional influxes of summertime hot air from the southwest. Wind dominates all of Nebraska, and fruit trees must be placed so they receive protection, especially in winter. In the western counties, choose fruit cultivars with increased cold hardiness and amend soils to be more neutral or acidic in pH.
The center of the Great Plains, where Nebraska lies, is a battlefield between cooler and dry air from the north and hot, arid or humid air from the south and southwest. The state experiences more rainfall near the Missouri River and more arid and colder weather in the gradually higher elevations in the west. The northern half of Nebraska falls into U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zone 4, and areas south of the Platte River generally fall into Zone 5.
The Sunset Climate Zones, which take into account more factors, divide Nebraska into three zones. The western half is Zone 1, the coldest designation and with the shortest growing season with 75 to 150 frost-free days annually, perhaps good for hardy apples and apricots. Eastern Nebraska, roughly Lexington eastward, comprises Zones 41 and 43. Zone 43's winters are milder, allowing for the growth of the least cold-hardy fruits in the state, like peaches and sweet cherries.
Nebraska's original habitat of tall- and short-grass prairies has provided many fertile soils, but a limiting factor is the high lime content. The lime causes soil pH to remain above neutral (7.0) and even range into alkaline, especially in the western half of the state. Fruit trees need neutral to slightly acidic soils for optimal growth (pH 5.6 to 7.0), and those conditions are much more naturally prevalent or easily corrected in eastern counties.
Apples remain the most popular home orchard fruit tree in eastern Nebraska, according to Don Janssen of the Lancaster County Cooperative Extension office. Select scab and fireblight resistant varieties and plant at least two apple trees for the best pollination and fruit set. Large crab apple varieties provide fruits appropriate for making jams and jellies.
Plums grow well in eastern Nebraska, but use European types rather than Japanese types and hybrids. Plant two or more European types in the garden for better cross-pollination and fruit yield. The most serious problem for plums is black knot disease.
Sour or tart cherry varieties do well in eastern Nebraska. These varieties possess much better winter cold hardiness than sweet cherries and are self-fertile, meaning trees will pollinate themselves without the need for multiple plants in the orchard.
Pears do well in eastern Nebraska, with hardiness rivaling apple trees. A limiting factor for pears is the disease fireblight. Typically insect pests and diseases harm pears less so than an orchard of apples. Consider planting two pear trees in proximity to increase flower pollination.
In the mildest counties of extreme southeastern Nebraska, the most cold-hardy varieties of sweet cherries, peaches and nectarines may succeed. A primary concern for fruit production is late spring frosts that may destroy flowers. Grow trees away from winds, such as on the southeastern side of buildings or in shelter belts.