How to Grow Fruit Trees for your Backyard Orchard

backyard_orchard

Fruit Trees Placement

What if I told you that the first thing you should do when planning your garden is figuring out where the fruit trees should go?

Why? Generally, fruit trees take a few years to establish and produce a yield so you want to design around them and get them started as soon as you can.

You might look at your small backyard or patio and wonder how you could possibly grow anything, let alone fruit trees. Fortunately, with appropriate pruning and correct selection of varieties, even the smallest spaces can fit a few fruit trees in with big results.

A mature dwarf fruit tree can yield up to 1 bushel of fruit a year, which is on average around 40lbs. In our small 1/27 of acre townhouse garden, we have over 10 fruit trees at various stages of maturity. In this blog, we’ll cover how to pick and maintain trees that will fit into smaller suburban and patio gardens and give some tips on varieties that do well in tight quarters.

Beneath these fruit-tree boughs that shed
Their snow-white blossoms on my head,
With brightest sunshine round me spread
Of spring’s unclouded weather,
In this sequestered nook how sweet
To sit upon my orchard-seat!
And birds and flowers once more to greet,
My last year’s friends together.William Wordsworth

Orchard Terminology

Unlike annual vegetables and flowers, many fruit trees do not grow successfully from seed. The fruits of an offspring or seedling tree will more likely than not be very different than its parent tree. Trees or plants whose descendants grow the same as the parents are called growing “true-to-type“.

grafting fruit trees

Since growing these seedling trees to be “true-to type” from seed is difficult, it is best to propagate these trees through small branch cuttings, called scion-wood.

You can still purchase, find or even grow a base tree seedling or “rootstock” from seed. Just make sure that this rootstock has the general desired properties like size, hardiness to disease, etc.

You then need to “graft” the scion-wood from the heirloom onto the rootstock to create your target variety. This involves mating the end of the scion-wood with the end of the rootstock like the picture above.

Miraculously enough, if the graft is successful, the rootstock will pump it’s energy into the scion-wood, forming a new fused entity which is your desired fruit tree.

Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand.Mother Teresa

Tree Size

One of the main reasons to use rootstock is to control the size of the tree. The 3 different types of rootstock are: normal/standard size, semi-dwarf, and dwarf.

Many varieties of stone (plum, peach, cherry) and pomme (apple, pear, quince) fruits have options for semi-dwarf and dwarf trees.

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    Normal / Standard Size Rootstock

    This is the full-sized height of a fruit tree grown from a seedling. Un-pruned apple trees, for instance, can reach to a maximum of 30 feet in height with a diameter width of 30 feet across according to www.extension.org

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    Semi-Dwarf Rootstock

    Semi-dwarf trees tend to be larger, around 10-15 feet tall, or 50-55% height of their Normal/Standard counterparts. However, they will generally be hardier and more robust and will live around 15-20 years. They will also require as long as 4-6 years before bearing fruit.

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    Dwarf Rootstock

    dwarf pomegranate fruit trees

    Although the overall sizes vary by fruit species, dwarf trees tend to be 6 -10 feet. When they are grafted onto dwarf rootstocks, these varieties tend to only live 10-15 years. They will start to produce fruit by the second or third year. Dwarf trees may also require some structural support when they fruit since their bodies are not big enough to support the heavy load of fruit they will bear.

How to Space/Shape Fruit Trees

toroidal growth of fruit trees
Even with dwarfing and using naturally smaller trees, you want to maximize every inch of growing real estate especially if you have a small backyard. We can take our space optimization to another level by taking advantage of a tree’s natural adaptability.
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    Espalier

    espaliered fruit trees

    Normally trees grow in a three-dimensional toroidal shape. However, if we have a fence or other 2D surface, we can train the tree to grow along the plane of the fence in 2 dimensions. These shaping techniques are called espalier.

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    Plant Intensively

    We can also naturally dwarf fruit trees by planting them very close to each when we initially plant them. Because of the root competition with their neighbors, they will naturally grow to be much smaller than normal. Visit this permaculture site for more detail about dense planting layouts.

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    Prune to a Column

    Finally, there are some varieties that have been bred and pruned to grow much of their fruit along the main spur or trunk of the fruit tree. Their advantage is that you don’t need to worry about all the space taken up by the fruit tree’s branches. These trees are called columnar trees.

    columnar fruit trees

Chilling

Most temperate climate fruit trees require at least some time with colder temperatures. That way, they can go dormant and recover for the next year. The “chill requirement” is the number of hours the tree needs to recover enough to produce fruit the following year.

Purchasing Fruit Trees

Looking for reliable online nurseries for your backyard orchard?Check out this curated list!
  • Fedco Trees is a Maine-based nursery with a ton of heirloom apple tree options.
  • Edible Landscaping is one of the few east coast nurseries specializing in permaculture fruit trees. Located in Ashton, VA, not too far away from where we (Permaculture Gardens) lives.
  • Harvest Nursery is an Oregon-based nursery with a focus on permaculture. They have very good prices on 2-gallon size fruit trees, although shipping can be quite high.
  • Rolling River Nursery is based in Oakland, California. They have a wide variety of fruit trees, focusing on varieties that do well in California.
  • Raintree Nursery hosts a wide variety of heirloom fruit tree varietals and extensive rootstock selections for Cherry, Plum, Pear, and Apple. Sometimes they have good orchard bundles. They are based in Washington state.
  • One Green World is an interesting selection of Ukrainian and Russian fruit tree varieties.
  • Oikos Tree Crops is a Michigan-based nursery with some interesting native varieties (hazelnut, persimmon, paw-paw).
  • Trees of Antiquity has a focus on heirloom fruit tree varieties.
  • Albemarle Ciderworks & Vintage Apples is another Virginia heirloom apple orchard, with a good variety of apple trees and some scion-wood.
  • Maple Valley Orchards has a good source of Apple and Pear scion-wood
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    Bareroot Fruit Trees

    Most fruit trees will be shipped as 2-year old bareroot trees, meaning that there is no soil on the roots (or very little, perhaps wrapped in damp newspaper) and they have been refrigerated to keep them dormant. On average, a fruit tree purchased this way will cost between $25-$35 per tree.

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    Rootstock & Scion-wood

    You can also purchase rootstock and scionwood for the tree varieties you are interested in and graft the trees yourself. This is much cheaper (a rootstock is about $3 each and scionwood can be used for 2-3 grafts at $3-4 each) than buying bareroot trees. One downside is most scionwood available is for apple trees, and there is almost none for more exotic choices like feijoas or persimmons.

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    My Recommendations

    I recommend doing your first purchase of 4-6 bareroot trees of 2-3 varieties (to promote cross-pollination). Once these trees get established, you can cut your own scionwood for them and graft them onto rootstock. You’ll get experience growing and harvesting the fruits and be well set up for increasing the size of your backyard orchard or giving orchard gifts to others in the future.

Pomme Fruits

These pomme fruits require no introduction, but most people are unaware that there are thousands of heirloom apple varieties with a wide range in taste and culinary properties different than the 5-6 varieties you can find in the supermarket. You can store certain varieties of apple up to 6 months over the winter. Because of this, apples are one of the few fruits in a temperate climate that can be harvested locally year-round.

Apple trees prefer full sun, although you can get away with a little dappled shade.
July to December
4 to 8
Fireblight (fungal), cedar rust (fungal), apple maggot, plum curculio, codling moth. Application of kaolin clay can help with the insect pests.
The Dwarf rootstock is 10-12 feet. The Semi-dwarf is 15-20 feet. You can espalier apples and columnar varieties are available.
Requires 2 trees of different varietes to successfully pollinate. It’s important to make sure that the 2 different varieties blossom at the same time.
Dessert (Newton Pippin, Esopus Spitzenburg, Bramley), Fresh Eating (Yellow Transparent, Arkansas Black), Cider (Ashmead Kernel), Disease-resistant (Liberty, William’s Pride)
Distinguished from apples by their smooth, melt-in-your mouth texture and fragrance, pear trees share similar growth characteristics with apples. Unlike apples, they tend to blossom and develop earlier in the season and most of them found in the supermarkets are actually heirloom varieties from the 19th century! You need to “age” pears after harvest in order to properly develop their flavors. Asian pears do not need this shelf time.

Pears trees prefer full sun, although they can tolerate more shade than apple trees.
August to November
5 to 9
Fireblight (fungal), cedar rust (fungal)
The Dwarf rootstock is 10-12 feet. The Semi-dwarf is 15-20 feet. You can espalier pears.
Requires 2 trees of different varietes to successfully pollinate. It’s important to make sure that the 2 different varieties blossom at the same time.
Winter – ripens weeks to months after harvest (Bosc, Comice, Seckel), Summer – ripens on the tree or shortly thereafter (Tysons, Bartlett), Asian (Hosui, Shin La), Perry – for wine (Pound, Blakeney)

Stone Fruits

Plums are one of the most diverse deciduous fruit trees in the world, with different plum trees being ready for harvest all the way from May to December in the northern hemisphere. You can use plums in a wide variety of both sweet and savory dishes. Did you know that prunes are dried plums? They range in color from green through yellow to red and black. The Sub-types of plums include: Gage, Mirabelle, Damson, and Prune. Japanese plums need cross-pollination while European plums are largely self-fertile.

Plums prefer full sun although some varieties thrive in partial shade.
May to December
variable (3-9), based off minimum number of chill hours need for the plum variety (Burgundy is a low-chill 150-300 hour plum with japanese hybrids like Waneta being the hardiest)
Black Knot, Black Rot, Aphids, Borers
The Dwarf rootstock is 6-10 feet. The Semi-dwarf is 10-15 feet. You can espalier plums.
Check the variety of plum; quite a few are self-fertile (you only need 1 tree). European plums tend to be more self-fertile than Japanese
Japanese (Santa Rosa, Methley), European (Green Gage, Stanley, Seneca)
Nothing says summer like a ripe peach picked straight from the tree. Peaches tend to be a bit pickier than plums for successful cultivation; they don’t like consistent freezing temperatures but still have a chill requirement. This leads to most peach cultivation in the US taking place in specific climate bands around zone 6-8. Peaches fall into clingstone (stone clings to the flesh, good for baking) or freestone (stone separates easily from the flesh, good for fresh eating). Varieties include yellow and white peaches, donut, as well as nectarines.

prefers full sun
June – August
4 to 8
Brown Rot, Peach Leaf Curl, Peachtree borer, Plum curculio
The Dwarf rootstock is 6-10 feet. The Semi-dwarf is 10-15 feet. You can espalier peaches.
Peaches tend to be self-fertile, although they will be more productive with a pollinator.
Freestone (Artic Supreme, Baby Crawford), Clingstone (Dixon, Desert Gold)

People have been cultivating cherry trees since antiquity. We know that they originated from Asia Minor and prefer a reasonably dry climate with fairly high chilling requirement. Cherries fall into two categories: sour/tart and sweet varieties. Sour cherries are largely self-fertile and smaller in size; Sweet varieties usually require a second tree as a pollinator.

prefers full sun
May – August
5 to 8
Bacterial Canker, Black Knot, Brown Rot, Aphids, Borers
The Dwarf rootstock is 6-10 feet, The Semi-dwarf is 10-15 feet. You can espalier cherries.
Peaches tend to be self-fertile, although they will be more productive with a pollinator.
Sour cherries – self-fertile; Sweet cherries – two varieties needed for cross-pollination
Varieties: Sour (Morello, Montmorrency), Sweet (Stella, Rainier, Bing)

Natives

The American Hazelnut, or Filbert, is a bushy, shrubby tree native to America that only grows 15 to 20 feet tall native tree that produces tasty hazelnuts. The nice thing about hazelnuts (aside from being able to make homegrown nutella) is that they are small enough to fit in most backyards. You can also use them as a “windbreak” or hedge because of it’s wide, dense leaf shape.

Can grow in full or partial shade
June – August
4 to 9
Eastern Filbert Blight
15-20 feet, wide (8-10 feet) dense shrubby growth. Suckers heavily around its roots. Dense root stucture makes it difficult to grow other plants in the drip zone.
Doesn’t require separate pollinator, but having different varieties encourages heavier yield
The largest native American fruit, shaped something like a mango and tasting faintly like a creamy banana, paw-paws have escaped pubic notice mostly because the shelf-life of the fruit is extremely short, under a week in most cases. Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson favored pawpaws! Paw-paws evolved as “understory” trees so they do well even in a shady backyard. The only difficulty is that they don’t rely on bees for pollination (they are one of the few fruiting trees that rely on flies), so pollination can be spotty. To ensure our pawpaw trees bear fruit, we hand-pollinate them!

Grows in partial and full shade.
August – September
4 to 8
Asimina webworm moth
10-15 feet tall
Requires a different variety for cross-pollination (need 2 trees)
Sour cherries – self-fertile; Sweet cherries – two varieties needed for cross-pollination
Varieties: Susquehanna, Shenandoah, Rappahannock

Exotics/Sub-tropical

Figs are one of the first plants cultivated by man. Indeed, when you pick fresh figs at the height of their ripeness they are an incomparable treat! Figs grow 10-30 feet long with long spur-like branches. You can easily be prune them to a manageable size to fit your garden. Although figs prefer a semi-tropical climate, there are a number of hardy varieties that can survive mild frosts with heavy mulching. In America, there are 4 types of figs: (Caprifigs, Smyrna, San Pedro, and Common). We typically grow only common varieties in America because the other types have specific pollination requirements that involve a symbiosis with a type of wasp not present in this country. Figs can bear up to 2 crops a year. Figs produce the breba in the fall and their “main crop” of in the summer.

Prefers Full Sun
June to December (although can be year-round in more tropical climates)
can be container grown, outside 7-10
Fig Rust, Fig Mosaic, Root Knot Nematode
10-20 feet; You can prune this to be much smaller. You can espalier figs.
Common figs are self-fertile
Brown Turkey, LSU Purple, Petite Negra, Kadota
Standard-size persimmons are too big for a small yard. However, you can easily fit dwarf persimmons into a patio container or small yard. Persimmons are either “astringent” or “non-astringent.” You can only eat fully-ripened astringent persimmons. Otherwise, they are tart. Non-astringent persimmons are less bitter and are crisp-textured. Asian persimmons are quite large, almost the size of an apple. American persimmons grow wild throughout much of North America. These varieties are much smaller, and have a spicy, sweet taste when ripe.

Prefers Full Sun
American (September – February), Asian (October – December)
4 to 9
Borers, Stinkbugs (fruit), Persimmon Wilt
Dwarf persimmon tree 8-10 feet in height.
Self-fertile, although yields will be greater with 2 varieties
Asian (Fuyu, Hachiya), American (Yates, Ruby)
Another name for feijoa’s is pineapple guava. This evergreen, subtropical tree from South America has beautiful flowers. It is also is surprisingly cold-hardy. It has a small, round, and green, fruit that is about the size of a lime. When feijoa’s are ripe they have a pleasant tropical fruity taste. Feijoa’s are similar to guavas. Although they are not well-known in America, they are very popular in New Zealand and Australia. Their fruits last about a week in the refrigerator. So eat them when fresh!

Full Sun to Partial Shade
May – July
7 to 9, prefers some cool periods
Guava Moth
Height to 15 ft total, bushy, shrubby growth pattern out to 15 ft wide. You can prune this to be even smaller.
Requires 2 trees to pollinate successfully.
Coolidge, Mammoth, Robert
This is a long-lived tree (up to 200 years). Pomegranates produce grapefruit-sized fruits with pulpy seeds filled with bright red, tart juice. Middle Easterners use the refreshingly tart pomegranate seeds in cooking and in making refreshing pomegranate molasses.

Prefers full sun.
September – February
7 to 10
Leaf-footed plant bug, Aphids, Scales
Standard size is 16-20ft in height, but compact varieties are easily kept under 10ft.
Self-fertile, although yields will be greater with 2 varieties
Haku Botan, Salavatski, Wonderful

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