If you want to cultivate fruit trees in a small yard, you have to think big and grow small.
The main reason gardeners give for not growing fruit trees in their yard is lack of space. Here are some cool tips for growing an orchard in your backyard, even if you don't have much room.
Modern fruit trees are usually grown on vigorous root stalks, so even dwarf and semi-dwarf trees often grow much faster and larger than gardeners expect. "The primary concern for gardeners with smaller lots should be to maintain the size of the tree for easier maintenance and earlier harvest," says fruit-growing expert Ed Laivo.
So just how big should a backyard fruit tree be? Laivo answers by putting his hands above his head. "If the tree is taller than your hands," he says, "it's too big. If it's the same height, it's just right." To really size up a tree, though, you have to look at its framework. "The trunk of the tree begins here," Laivo explains. "And the primary scaffolding of the tree is the primary limb that comes off of the trunk." Laivo recommends keeping the trunk knee-high. The reason for this is simple: the trunk houses the primary limbs, which house the secondary limbs, which bear fruit on most trees. The lower the limbs, the easier it is to pick the fruit. A smaller tree equals a smaller yield, and if you're feeding a family rather than an army, the yield produced should be ample. A 3- or4-foot tree such as the Santa Rosa plum will produce 150 to 300 pieces of fruit.
Cutting established trees down to size requires some pretty major pruning over several years. If you are unsure of the procedure, contact your local nursery or cooperative extension agent. If you're planting new fruit trees, why not try high-density planting? Planting several trees close together provides a bigger variety, extended season and easier maintenance.
High-density planting offers many benefits - that is, if the trees are kept small. Never allow any variety to dominate at one time; all trees have to grow at the same rate. If one tree is growing faster than the others, cut it back. By pruning now, the tree will have more secondary limbs next year as well as a bushier shape. If you plant bare-root trees, Laivo suggests cutting them off knee-high for low branching, which also creates stronger trees that mature earlier than tall trees.
Laivo also recommends high-density mulching. He layers wood-chip mulch several inches high around peach trees planted four to a large hole. The mulch nearly covers the entire trunk, which allows for less frequent irrigation because the mulch holds the moisture in the soil. "In this case, having the mulch right up against the tree doesn't matter because air penetration to the crown is just fine," Laivo says. A nice deep layer of mulch keeps the roots cool.
Remember that most fruit trees need at least eight hours of sunlight a day to develop sweet fruit, but adequate moisture is also important. If you cut back on the amount of water toward the end of the growing season, it stresses the tree, which increases the sugar content in the fruit.