Grow Little Fruit Trees for Big Rewards
An ingenious pruning method for growing an orchard in a small backyard
Luscious, sun-ripened peaches...crisp, juicy apples...sweet, velvety-fleshed pears. The allure of homegrown fruit leads many of us to plant a tree or two. Problem is, just a few years later, we find we've bitten off more than we can chew with large, challenging-to-prune trees that produce substantial quantities of fruit. One 'Santa Rosa' plum tree, for example, stands 15 feet tall and wide and produces about 700 pieces of fruit, much of it too high to reach without a ladder, over just a few weeks; same with peach, pear, and apple trees. That's fine if you're a commercial grower, but not if you just want a few fresh-picked plums.
Luckily there's a simple, innovative way to keep fruit trees at people-height, with all the harvest within arm's reach. By relying on a very specific pruning schedule, this method also allows you to grow more kinds of fruit over a longer harvest season in a small area. That same plum tree, pruned in this way, would stand 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide when mature, could be pruned from ground level in about 15 minutes, and might yield 100 full-size fruits by the third year—enough for a small family, with some to share. For all the how-to details, keep reading.
Shown: Kept small with timed pruning, this 'Fuji' apple tree stands about 4 feet high and wide and produces an ample crop of full-size fruits.
Begin with a bare-root sapling, available at nurseries and by mail order from late winter into spring (about $30 each, depending on the variety). Fruit trees are sold according to their mature size: standard (or full size), semidwarf, or dwarf, depending on variety. Most fruit trees are grafted; a branch of one tree is grown on the rootstock of another, creating a new plant with the best attributes of both. So why not just buy a semidwarf or dwarf tree rather than craft one? Semidwarf rootstocks can grow as tall as 25 feet; dwarf rootstocks stay small (8 to 10 feet tall) but often have weak roots. Instead of selecting trees based on their mature height, choose ones that excel in your climate, and keep them small with pruning. Consult a local nursery or cooperative extension office for proven varieties.
If selected carefully, planted to get at least a half day of full sun, and mulched well, fruit trees will thrive in most soils. If your soil is rocky, lacks nutrients, or has a lot of clay, you can plant in a raised bed or a 20-inch-wide container instead.
A typical summer-pruned fruit tree can grow to be about 5 feet wide. In an 8-by-8-foot area, you can plant two trees on the diagonal, 3 feet apart on center (A). Another option (B) is a hedgerow made of any types of trees spaced 3 feet apart on center. Get even more variety with "high-density planting" (C). Here, several of the same type of fruit tree with a similar rootstock—such as a grouping of early, midseason, and late peaches—are planted in a single hole, spaced 18 inches apart on center. In all cases, pruning and competition for water and food limits size.
Most need the pollen of a second variety on the same fruiting schedule for fertilization. Here, three seasonal combinations:
Early: (late July through mid-August)
Warren (Zones 5-7): medium size; pale green; juicy and buttery flesh.
Conference (Zones 4-9): medium size; pale-green skin; very juicy and sweet; notably Early fruiting.
Red Clapp's Favorite (Zones 4-9): medium size; bright-red skin; very juicy.
Comice (Zones 4-9): large size; light-green skin; sweet with a firm texture.
Midseason: (late August through Early September)
Seckel (Zones 5-8): small size; reddish-brown skin; very firm, creamy white flesh.
Potomac (Zones 5-8): medium size; pale-green glossy skin; creamy white flesh.
Max Red Bartlett (Zones 4-8): medium size; sweet, crisp fruit; notably cold-hardy.
Harrow Delight (Zones 4-8): medium size; yellow skin; very sweet and juicy; notably cold tolerant.
Late: (mid-September through Early October)
Anjou (Zones 5-8): large size; bright-green skin; sweet, fine-textured flesh.
Bosc (Zones 5-9): medium size; brownish skin; tender and spicy-sweet.
Luscious (Zones 4-8): small size; bright yellow; fine-textured flesh; notably cold tolerant.
Parker (Zones 3-7): medium size; yellow-bronze skin; tender and sweet; notably cold tolerant.
These will grow in Zones 4-9 but do especially well in Zones 6 and 7. Most are able to set fruit with their own pollen.
Early: (June through mid-July)
Fourth of July (Zones 5-8): medium size; reddish skin; firm, juicy, and sweet; very early fruiting.
Eva's Pride (Zones 9-10): medium size; reddish skin; fine flavor and aroma; notably heat tolerant.
Midseason: (late July through mid-August)
Fay Elberta (Zones 5-9): medium size; yellow skin; classic rich, peach flavor.
Reliance (Zones 4-8): large size; yellow skin; sweet, juicy, peachy flavor; notably cold tolerant.
Late: (late August through late September)
Hale Haven (Zones 5-8): medium size; yellow blushed-red skin; firm, sweet, and juicy.
Contender (Zones 4-8): medium size; yellow blushed-red skin; sweet, creamy flesh; notably cold tolerant.
Most produce a better yield when pollinated by a second variety. Here are three seasonal combinations:
Early: (late July through late August)
Gala (Zones 4-10): large size; red-striped skin; crisp, sweet-tart.
Akane (Zones 5-9): medium size; pale-red skin; sweet, spicy flesh.
Anna (Zones 6-9): medium size; golden-red skin; very juicy.
Ein Shemer (Zones 6-9): large size; golden-yellow skin; crisp and tart.
Midseason (late August through late September)
Granny Smith (Zones 6-9): large size; yellow-green skin; firm, tart flesh.
Jonagold (Zones 5-8): large size; red-striped fruit; firm, juicy.
Empire (Zones 4-9): medium size; reddish skin; sweet and tangy; notably cold tolerant.
Honeycrisp (Zones 3-8): large size; red skin; mild, sweet, and aromatic; notably cold tolerant.
Late (late September through late October)
Stayman Winesap (Zones 5-8): large size; deep-red skin; firm and spicy.
Fuji (Zones 5-8): medium size; reddish-orange skin; very crisp and sweet.
Northern Spy (Zones 4-8): large size; blush skin; firm and crisp; notably cold tolerant.
Golden Delicious (Zones 4-7): large size; yellow skin; tangy; notably cold tolerant.
Late winter is an ideal time to prune for structure and aesthetics, but not for controlling height: Branches grow vigorously in spring. To keep your tree small and sturdy, prune in June, around the summer solstice. By removing leafy growth then, your tree is put on a diet of sorts; fewer leaves means less photosynthesis, which decreases the amount of food made by the plant. Reducing available nutrients and energy, along with summer pruning, helps your tree stay short.
If your tree doesn't already have branches below the initial heading cut (see First Pruning), use your fingers to remove all but three evenly spaced buds. These will become the tree's scaffold branches.
Remove suckers—growth that emerges from the rootstock—and prune away all but the three branches evenly spaced around the trunk. Head back these branches by one-half to two-thirds, to an outward-facing bud.
Prune to open up the center of the tree and remove crossing or crowded limbs. These cuts encourage a vase-like shape. To spur growth of thinner limbs, head back by two-thirds; to slow growth of thicker limbs, head back by one-half.
You'll have a small, shapely tree that still has growing to do. Head back vertical branches by one-half to two-thirds. These cuts reduce height and encourage branches to grow at a 45° angle, horizontal enough to create fruit.
In winter, prune to refine the tree's shape and maintain its form. The final size now depends solely on summer pruning: Thin crowded branches and head back growth that exceeds your reach. Fruit on the tree? Prune anyway!
After planting, make a heading cut at an angle just above a leaf node so that the whip now stands knee-high or no taller than 18 inches from the ground. While lopping off the top two-thirds of your new sapling seems lunatic, do it anyway—the structure of your tree depends on it. This initial cut creates a sturdy, low-branching scaffold, the major supporting limbs of the tree. Where you cut becomes the crotch of the tree, and the trunk will grow no taller. This heading cut and the pruning that follows creates branches strong enough to support the weight of ripening produce.
Used to shorten branches and limbs. Make a clean cut just above a leaf node or where a leaf is attached to a stem. This type of cut forces the buds below to grow into new branches, increasing bushiness. If you've sheared a hedge, you've seen the resulting bushy growth of heading cuts.
Removes an entire branch or shoot in two steps. The first cut (A) shortens the branch to a stub and avoids ripping the bark. The second cut (B) removes the rest of the limb; cut back to just above the branch collar, the thickened area of bark from which a limb emerges. Thinning cuts decrease the number of branches and open the interior of the tree to light and air. Light is crucial for the formation of fruiting spurs, the twiglets that blossom and ultimately bear fruit.
For more information, check out a copy of Grow a Little Fruit Tree, by Ann Ralph (Storey Publishing, 2015).