What springs to mind when you think of the word “orchard?” Probably acres and acres of fruit trees and crisp, fall days of climbing ladders into tall trees to harvest. Well, sure—that’s one way that fruit trees exist. But what if I told you that you could walk right to your own backyard and grab a nice, juicy apple right off of a tree that’s no taller than you are? And it’s any variety you can imagine—from hard to find to heirloom—not just the handful of dwarf varieties available at most nurseries. Would you tell me that it’s not possible?
The good news is that it is possible—with the right technique and care. It requires aggressive pruning when the tree is young, and in the opposite season we’ve all been taught to do it in. I first became aware of this method after I read the book Grow A Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph. I highly recommend giving it a read, but I’d like to introduce you to the method here in order to show you what’s possible.
The first step in planning any orchard is to select the type of fruit, or fruits, you’d like to grow, as well as the specific variety. When gardening in small spaces, most people tend to gravitate toward the dwarf or mini-dwarf varietals, or even columnar trees. But you don’t need to limit yourself in this way. You can choose any heirloom or old-time variety that strikes your fancy, and you can keep it small. Since you’re going to train your tree to a small stature by pruning, you can choose any one that you like, provided it’s suited to your area and growing conditions.
You do, however, want to pay attention to rootstock. Most nursery stock is grafted—which means a fruiting trunk is attached to a particular rootstock. This allows a tree to have characteristics that are the best of both worlds—the desired fruit, but also a hearty, healthy rootstock to ensure the tree has the best foundation possible. The different characteristics of rootstock are varied and can be nuanced, but don’t drive yourself crazy for six months researching all the different types. Any good nursery catalog or nursery worker can give you the rundown on the basic differences, but what you really need to know is simple: Is this rootstock suited to my soil and growing conditions (for example, drought-tolerant in areas where water is at a premium)? Also, be sure that you order a bare-root tree from the nursery in late spring. A very young bare-root tree is going to cope with the aggressive pruning much more effectively than an older, planted tree would.
Once you’ve chosen your trees, it’s time to choose the location for them. The considerations here are fairly standard and not drastically different from other types of gardening.
• Does the site get full sun, of at least six hours each day?
• Is there ready access to water?
• Is the site accessible?
• If you have to trek to the edge of your property to get at the trees, do you have the discipline to check on them if you have to walk out of your way to do so?
I personally like my edible garden areas to be close to the kitchen. It makes it easier to cook with and eat everything. As they say—out of sight, out of mind.
When you’re ready to plant, spacing your site is the next consideration. Ralph outlines several useful configurations in her book, and what you select will depend on your site—are you looking for more of a hedgerow, or do you have a squared off area to work with? The main point with spacing trees that are to be kept small is that you don’t need 30 feet—or even 10—in between each tree. You can get away with 2-1/2 to 3 feet, trunk to trunk, if you’re so inclined, because you’re pruning for small size, and can prune all of the trees in tandem—almost as if they were one tree.
The first cut is always the hardest. You’re essentially going to behead the tree. This can be difficult if you’re dealing with a bare-root whip that’s already 4 to 5 feet tall. You’re probably going to cringe at reducing it to a 2-foot stump, but you must. You want to make a “heading cut” of the main trunk down to about 2 feet, or knee height. You’ll do this right above branches if there are any, or branch/leaf buds if there aren’t any formed yet. The tree will grow back, I promise. This cut forms a scaffold (the main branches that make up the tree) at a low height, meaning that the vertical growing potential of the tree is limited—which is just want is needed in a small space.
Contrary to everything you’ve ever been told about pruning, you’re not going to make this cut in the dead of winter when the tree is dormant. You’re going to make it in the late spring, right after it’s planted. Thereafter, you’re going to prune out unwanted branches in the summer season, because that’s when you can train the tree to restrict its growth. And yes, you’re going to make those cuts even if there’s fruit on the tree. The remaining fruit will be better for it as well, because the tree will direct all of its energy into the fruits still on the tree.
After your tree is planted and beheaded, and you’ve got the main branches pruned, care is pretty straightforward. Make sure you have a good mulch on the tree (though not right up to the trunk; give it an inch of two of space) to ensure good water retention. You shouldn’t need to routinely water the trees, unless you’re in adversely dry conditions. And you really shouldn’t need to fertilize it, unless you’re trying to correct sub-optimal soil conditions. And that’s it. The beauty of the small tree is that you could see an edible crop of fruit within the third year, which is relatively fast.
So if you never thought you’d have room for a few fruit trees, take a walk around your yard and think again. If you can commit 15 minutes a few times every summer to pruning some branches (without getting on a ladder!), you can have all of the fresh fruit you could want—plus, you can grow varieties you can’t get in the supermarket.
Amanda is passionate about cooking, gardening and crafting. To read more, please check out Apartment Farm.