Backyard Orchard Culture
Growing Fruit Trees in Limited Space
Dave Wilson Nursery
What is Backyard Orchard Culture?
Families today have less space for fruit trees, less time to take care of
them and less time to process or preserve large crops than in the past.
Accordingly, today's family orchards should be planned and managed
differently. The objective of Backyard Orchard Culture is the prolonged
harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space. This means planting close
together several or many fruit varieties which ripen at different times, and
keeping the trees small by summer pruning.
For many years most of the information about growing fruit came from
commercial orchard culture: methods that promoted maximum size for maximum
yield but required 12-foot ladders for pruning, thinning and picking, and
400 to 600 square feet of land per tree. Tree spacings had to allow for
tractors. Most people today do not need or expect commercial results from
their backyard fruit trees. A commercial grower would never consider using
his methods on a 90 ft x 100 ft. parcel, so why should a homeowner?
High Density Planting and Successive Ripening
Maximizing the length of the fruit season means planting several (or many)
fruit varieties with different ripening times. Because of the limited space
available to most homeowners, this means using one or more of the techniques
for close planting and training fruit trees: two, three or four trees in one
hole, espalier and hedgerow are the most common of these techniques. Four
trees instead of one means ten to twelve weeks of fruit
Close planting offers the additional advantage of restricting a tree's vigor
- it won't grow as big when it has other competing trees close by. Close
planting works best when the rootstocks of similar vigor are planted
together. For example, for a four-in-one-hole planting, four trees on
Citation rootstock would be easier to maintain than a combination of one tree
on Lovell, one on Mazzard, one on Citation and one on M27. In many climates
planting more varieties can also mean better cross-pollenization of pears,
apples, plums and cherries, which means more consistent production.
Establishing Tree Size
Small trees yield crops of manageable size end are much easier to spray,
thin, prune, net and harvest than large trees. And if trees are kept small,
it is possible to plant a greater number of trees, affording the opportunity
for more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.
Most semi-dwarfing rootstocks do not control fruit tree size as much as
people expect. Rootstocks are for soil and climate adaptation, pest and
disease resistance, precocity (early heavy bearing), tree longevity and ease
of propagation. To date, no rootstocks have been developed which do all these
things in addition to fully dwarfing the scion.
The only way to keep most fruit trees under twelve feet tall is by pruning,
and the most practical method of pruning is summer pruning. In Backyard
Orchard Culture tree size is the grower's responsibility. Choose a size and
don't let the tree get any bigger. A good height is the height you can reach
for thinning and picking while standing on the ground or on a low stool.
Two other important influences on tree size are irrigation and fertilization
practices. Fruit trees should not be grown with lots of nitrogen and lots of
water. Some people grow their fruit trees the way they do their lawn, then
wonder why the trees are so big and don't have any fruit!
The Need to Prune
Most kinds of deciduous fruit trees require pruning to stimulate new fruiting
wood, to remove broken and diseased wood, to space the fruiting wood and to
allow good air circulation and sunlight penetration in the canopy. Pruning is
most important in the first three years, because this is when the shape and
size of a fruit tree is established. It is much easier to keep a small tree
small than it is to make a large tree small. Pruning at the same time as
thinning the crop is strongly recommended. By pruning when there is fruit on
the tree, the kind of wood on which the tree sets fruit (one year old wood,
two year old wood, spurs, etc.) is apparent, which helps you make better
Summer Pruning Program for Size Control
There are several reasons why summer pruning is the easiest way to keep fruit
trees small. Reducing the canopy by pruning in summer reduces photosynthesis
(food manufacture), thereby reducing the capacity for new growth. Summer
pruning also reduces the total amount of food materials and energy available
to be stored in the root system in late summer and fall. This controls vigor
the following spring, since spring growth is supported primarily by stored
foods and energy. And, obviously, pruning is easier (and more likely to get
done) in nice weather than in winter. There are lots of styles, methods and
techniques of summer pruning, most of them valid. The important thing is to
Fruit tree pruning need not be complicated or confusing. In Backyard Orchard
Culture, pruning is simple. When planting a bareroot tree, cut side limbs
back by at least two-thirds to promote vigorous new growth. Then, two or
three times per year, cut back or remove limbs and branches to accomplish the
- First year pruning:
- At planting time, bareroot trees may be topped at 15 inches to
force very low scaffold limbs, or higher, up to four feet, depending on
existing side limbs and desired tree form. After the spring flush of growth
cut the new growth back by half (late April/May in central California). In
late summer (late August to mid-September) cut the subsequent growth back
- When selecting containerized trees for planting in late
spring/early summer, select trees with well placed low scaffold limbs.
These are usually trees that were cut back at planting time to force low
growth. Cut back new growth by half now, and again in late summer.
- Two/three/four trees in one hole: At planting time cut back all
trees to the same height. Cut back new growth by half in spring and late
summer as above. In the first two years especially, cut back vigorous
varieties as often as necessary. Do not allow any variety to dominate and
shade out the others.
- Second year pruning is the same as the first year. Cut back new growth by
half in spring and late summer. For some vigorous varieties pruning three
times may be the easiest way to manage the tree: spring, early summer and
late summer. In the third year choose a height and don't let the tree get
any taller. Tree height is the decision of the pruner. When there are
vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove them.
- Remove broken limbs. Remove diseased limbs well below the signs of
- The smaller one, two and three year old branches that bear fruit should
have at least six inches of free space all around. This means that where
two branches begin close together and grow in the same direction, one
should be removed. When limbs cross one another, one or both should be cut
back or removed.
- When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the
under side so it won't tear as it comes off. Also, don't make the cut flush
with the trunk or parent limb. Be sure to leave a collar (a short stub).
- To develop an espalier, fan or other two-dimensional form, simply remove
everything that does not grow flat. Selectively thin and train what is left
to evenly space the fruiting wood.
- Don't let the pruning decisions inhibit you or slow you down. There are
always multiple acceptable decisions. No two people will prune a tree
exactly the same. You learn to prune by pruning!
Fruit Varieties New and Old
There is a special anticipation and excitement in growing and tasting
different varieties of tree-ripe fruit. We learn when to pick each variety
for peak quality and whether it is best just off the tree or a few days after
picking. This enjoyment can last a lifetime because of the never-ending
stream of new fruit experiences. It can be an older variety grown and tasted
tree-ripe for the first time, or a completely new variety, the most recent
product of modern breeding.
The home grower can select from a seemingly endless choice of new and
interesting fruit varieties. As examples, even years of fruit tasting can't
dilute the excitement of the flavor and superb acid/sugar balance of
tree-ripe Heavenly White nectarine, the intense flavor of tree-ripe Double
Delight nectarine, the candy-like sweetness and low-acidity of the new white
flesh nectarines such as Arctic Rose and Arctic Queen, the spicy perfection
of Craig's Crimson cherry, or the sweet, unique flavor of the new
plum-apricot hybrids--the Pluots.
Rewards of Backyard Orchard Culture
There is a definite sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, a special
pleasure in growing hour own fruit, in growing new varieties of fruit, in
producing fruit that is unusually sweet and tasty, in having fruit over a
long season and in sharing tree-ripe fruit with others. These are the rewards
of becoming an accomplished backyard fruit grower.
Know Your Nursery Professional
The concepts and techniques of Backyard Orchard Culture are learned and
implemented year by year. An integral part of this is knowing your nursery
professionals and consulting them when you have questions.
There is no excuse for neglected trees, maintenance undone or lack of
know-how. Backyard Orchard Culture is an attitude: "just do
||© Copyright 1994 Dave Wilson Nursery|
19701 Lake Rd.
Hickman, CA 95323
Used with permission.
California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc.
Questions or comments? Contact us.