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How to Grow Fruit Trees for your 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

Stone Fruits

Natives

Exotics/Sub-tropical

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Comments 2

  1. Hi. This is great information. I am ashamed to say that I have a lovely Blenheim apricot (semi-drawf) that I bought months ago and that is still in the original plastic container because I couldn’t figure out where it was best to plant it…I thought to plant it along a fence near our two raised beds. Will that cause a problem with the fence?

    1. Post
      Author

      Stone fruits (apricot, plums, peaches, cherries) grow in a different branch shape compared to pomme fruits (apple, pear, quince), which you can espalier. However, you can still train them along a fence by pruning them into a fan shape. If you set up horizontal guide wires (using a medium gauge aluminum or stainless steel wire) on the fence before you transplant the apricot you can tie the branches to the guide wire (I wouldn’t prune the first year to let the apricot get established). Semi-dwarf apricots can get 15-20′ tall, but you can aggressively prune each year to keep them around 10 feet, which shouldn’t cause a problem with your fence.

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