Photo by Claire Splan
You don’t need to have acres of land to have a successful fruit orchard. By selecting the right varieties, utilizing space-saving planting techniques, and employing simple garden practices, you can grow numerous types of fruit in a relatively small garden and keep your fruit bowl overflowing with home-grown fresh produce.
What you need to know before buying
Here are the basics you should know before you start tree-shopping:
- Know how much space your garden has with full sun exposure. Virtually every kind of fruit tree requires a minimum of 6 hours of direct sun.
- Know what your plant hardiness zone is. You can find out what zone you’re in by going to the USDA website’s plant hardiness page and searching by your zip code.
- Know the cumulative chill hours (number of hours below 45 degrees) for your area. Different varieties require a different amount of chill each winter in order to set blossoms. Check with the Master Gardeners in your area or inquire at your local nursery to see what the chill hours are in your locale.
Zeroing in on the best varieties
With that information in hand, you’re ready to zero in on the right varieties for your garden. Here are the next things to know before you make your final selections:
- Is the variety self-fruitful or does it require a cross-pollinizer? If it requires a cross-pollinizer, then you need to research what variety is a good match, meaning that both varieties will be in bloom at the same time. If it’s self-fruitful, you can grow it by itself but most self-fruitful trees will be more productive if there is another tree nearby for cross-pollinization.
- Is it the right size for your space and growing conditions? Depending on the type of fruit you’re considering, you may find dwarf (up to 8 or 10 feet tall and wide), semi-dwarf (generally up to 15 feet tall and wide), or standard options (25+ feet tall and wide).
- Is it disease resistant? Plant breeders are always working on developing varieties that are resistant to some of the worst diseases that plague fruit trees. Especially when you’re growing in a small-space garden, it’s a good idea to select varieties that are less likely to spread disease to other plants.
- Is it definitely a fruiting variety? Some fruit trees, such as olives or cherries, have ornamental as well as fruiting varieties. Make sure you’re selecting a fruiting one.
- Will it look pleasing in the landscape? Some fruit trees are especially attractive in a garden and can be used as a focal point in the landscape. Pineapple guava and all varieties of citrus are good options.
Small-space planting options
There are several ways to optimize the growing space you have in your garden for fruit trees.
- Container growing: Plant in a container large enough to accommodate the tree’s mature root ball—five gallons at a minimum up to half-barrel size. Make sure there are drainage holes and use a well-draining potting mix. You can mix in up to one-third perlite to lighten it. Feed regularly with compost or fertilizer. Every few years, remove the tree from the container and prune the roots before repotting with fresh soil.
- Espalier: Trees can be trained in a flat espalier shape against a wall, fence, trellis, or wire structure. Start with a bare-root tree and plant it against the supporting structure. In the first year, prune the tree to just above the bottom level of the support structure. Train branches out horizontally. The following year, cut the tree back to just above the next level of the support structure. Keep pruning each year until the tree has reached the top level of the support structure. Espalier forms can be either formal or informal. You can also buy some trees that have already been started in an espalier form.
- Vertical growing: There are some varieties of apple trees that have been bred in a columnar shape that can fill in tight spaces. Kiwi and passion fruit vines can also be trained vertically or to grow over a pergola.
- High-density planting: High-density plans include planting two, three or four trees in one large hole; planting a row of trees closely to train as a hedgerow; or grafting multiple varieties on one tree.
Careful seasonal pruning is essential to keep a small-space orchard healthy, productive, and well, small. Any tree can be pruned and trained to stay small, but it’s a lot easier to keep a dwarf tree small than it is to keep a standard tree small, which is why selecting the right size and variety is so important.
Prune deciduous trees in winter when they are dormant to define and maintain the structure. In the summer prune them again after fruiting to remove unproductive branches and control the size.
Prune evergreen trees such as citrus or avocado in late winter or early spring (after all threat of frost has passed). These mainly need to be pruned to control the size and remove crossing branches.
Dead, diseased, or damaged branches can and should be pruned out of any kind of tree at any time of year.
Claire Splan is the author of California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening and California Month-by-Month Gardening.