Create compact orchards for lots of fresh fruit.

Recently. Phil Pursel, representing David Wilson Nursery come to our monthly Master Gardener’s meeting to tell us about backyard fruit growing techniques. Yes, Master Gardeners do have meetings once a month to hear speakers to educate us on gardening issues and this one was very relevant. The size of home lots has shrunk noticeably in the last fifty years with population growth and land prices compelling construction of more homes per acre. Hence, many folks don’t consider growing a back yard orchard of fruit trees on small lots, but it is possible using some newer techniques.
I had a large fruit orchard where I previously lived that was nearly half an acre. Since downsizing, I had to become more rational about fruit growing and have learned that less can actually be more. I planted only 9 fruit trees and grafted three rootstocks of flowering plum to edible plums. In this article I describe some of the things that can be done to produce more tree fruit in smaller areas.
For starters, why would you want to do this? If you know what fresh ripe fruit tastes like, you might prefer home grown ripe fruit to those found in the supermarket that are picked before being ripe and are neither as tasty nor as sweet because they are picked and shipped before ripening.
When planning your orchard you should consider trees that will ripen sequentially and not all at once and crop size has to be considered too. A large Santa Rosa plum tree can ripen and drop several hundred pounds of fruit in a short time—more Jam making and fresh fruit than most can handle. Smaller trees mean less is more. For more information on this from Dave Wilson Nursery see: https://www.davewilson.com/home-gardens/backyard-orchard-culture
How do you pack more trees into small spaces, and thus increase the variety of fruit? One way that you can do this is to buy multi-grafted trees. This can work, but you need to be diligent. One or two of the grafts can become dominant and will crowd out the other grafts, so the fruit salad is not balanced among the tree parts. To avoid this here are some things you can do. If possible, select a tree that has the grafted limbs evenly spaced around the trunk and always plant the smallest limb (the “weakest” variety) to the south/southwest to insure that it gets plenty of sun.
Cut back the strongest growing varieties by 2/3rds and cut back the weakest variety by 1/2 — or not at all. Watch the growth-rate of the smaller limbs during the summer to determine if pruning is necessary and if the weakest variety is half the size of the others, don’t cut it back.

Three nectarine or peach trees planted together to be trained as a fruit bush. (Photo courtesy of the Master Gardener Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks, CA)

Another approach is high density planting with different varieties. You can plant 3 or 4 trees close together. The trees should have similar rootstock vigor so that one or more trees don’t dominate the others. The crowding of the trees will help decrease their vigor and summer pruning will keep them as fruit bushes that will provide crops of manageable size and the use of ladders can be avoided. See fruit bush at: http://homeorchard.ucdavis.edu/8057.pdf
When trees are kept small, more trees can be in a given space which results in more kinds of fruit and a longer harvest season. One cannot rely on dwarfing rootstocks to keep trees small. The only reliable method is summer pruning which decreases the plant’s vigor. Cut back new growth by one half or more in April and May or later in the summer. Trees can also be planted in a hedgerow which is basically creating a hedge of fruit bushes that are maintained in a shortened form by pruning.
Another approach to maximize your space is to espalier fruit trees against a wall, a fence or on a trellis in two dimensions. It is a technique started in Roman times. The fruit trees should be exposed to at least 6 hours or more of sunlight and requires paying attention to manage and train the plant to the espalier form.
There are a variety shapes for an espalier. There are cordon (branches straight out to the sides), fan (branches fanning up and to the side), candelabra (like a cordon but the branches turn at a right angle to form the shape of a candelabra), lattice (multiple trees with crossing branches). The fan and the candelabra forms take advantage of the natural tendencies of trees to grow in an upright direction and may be easier to maintain than the cordon approach. Most commonly espaliered trees are apple, pear and plum. Grapes are also often cordon trained. For more information on espalier techniques see: https://www.epicgardening.com/espalier-fruit-trees/
May your back yard orchard be fruitful!
If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: http://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/

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