Grow A Little Fruit Tree

Author Ann Ralph shares tips for growing short, space-saving fruit trees in your garden.
Grow a Little Fruit Tree

Grow a Little Fruit Tree

Pruning expert Ann Ralph has a "revolutionary vision" for planting, growing and maintaining fruit trees.

©2014, Storey Publishing

2014, Storey Publishing

Pruning expert Ann Ralph has a "revolutionary vision" for planting, growing and maintaining fruit trees.

When I moved to a rural area years ago, an apple tree was one of the first things I planted. 

I dreamed about snacking on crunchy, green apples as I worked in my garden; I couldn’t wait until I had enough fruit to make pies and cobblers and moist, sweet cakes. 

But then I forgot about my poor tree. Seasons came and went and I neglected it, caught up in many other chores. I didn’t spray or prune or fertilize, all of which meant I never had much to harvest, either. Eventually the only ones enjoying my apples were the birds, squirrels and yellow jackets. 

I wish I’d Ann Ralph’s book back then. Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees describes what the author calls her “revolutionary vision” for lopping newly-planted fruit trees to keep them about 6 feet tall.

That explains the word "little" in her title. She's not talking about growing dwarfs or semi-dwarfs, but about drastically pruning standard size trees to keep them around head-high.

Ralph argues that smaller trees take up less space in the garden, so you can grow more trees and a wider variety of fruits. They’re easier to maintain, because you can reach even the highest branches. Obviously, you won’t get as much fruit as you would from a bigger tree, but Ralph reasons that most of us wouldn’t use the extras, anyway. 

That wouldn’t be true for gardeners who want to freeze and can their harvest—and I can’t imagine not having friends or neighbors who’d turn down an offer to share—but I understand what Ralph is saying. A fig tree in my yard bears fruit so far above the reach of my ladder, I have to abandon them to our cardinals every year. 

Besides, Ralph says pruning a 6-foot tree is a 15-minute job while pruning a tall one often demands professional help. After working in fruit tree nurseries for over 20 years, Ralph, who also teaches pruning workshops, speaks from experience.

The problem with semi-dwarf fruit trees, she says, is that despite their name they still need pruning to keep them a manageable size. Dwarf trees grow on their own roots rather than grafted rootstock and will stay 6 to 8 feet tall, but she points out that it's hard to find a wide range of dwarf varieties. She adds that some also fail to grow vigorously or live for a long time.

That's why she advocates starting with bareroot saplings and pruning them drastically. If you're going to follow her advice, you'll need to work up some courage first.

She advises a “hard heading,” which means pruning off the top two-thirds of each new fruit tree. Do this not only to keep your tree around 6 feet tall, but also to help it develop scaffold limbs, which are the branches that will grow below the cut and support the fruit. There are a few exceptions; for example, she doesn’t recommend hard heading for persimmons, pomegranates or citrus. 

This kind of pruning is a “hard sell,” the author admits, even for arborists and experienced nursery workers, but if you’ll do it, she promises your future pruning chores will be as easy as, well, apple pie.

Ralph has much more advice on how to maintain and care for fruit trees and she provides a useful glossary of terms and a comparison of commonly sold rootstocks in the back of her book. 

While her photos are helpful—particularly those showing various pruning cuts—I would’ve liked more, particularly on how to make second-year-and-beyond cuts. But I’m persuaded to try Ralph’s method—-maybe next spring, on a brand-new, bareroot tree.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees

Turn your backyard into a miniature orchard—these gorgeous fruit trees are perfect for pots.

Growing Fruit Trees Indoors

Growing dwarf fruit trees indoors can add a lively touch of freshness to your indoor setting.

Fruit of Your Labor: Growing Blueberries

Five easy steps for a productive harvest.

Grow an Olive Tree

Grow an olive tree and let it take summer vacations outdoors. If your climate is warm, you can even plant it in your garden.

How to Grow an Avocado Tree: Guac 'n' Roll

Tips for turning that avocado pit into a thriving avocado tree and your next bowl of guacamole.

Twig Newton: How to Grow a Fig Tree

This resilient fruit tree thrives in colder regions and provides a yummy snack.

How to Plant in Gardening Containers

To ensure that plants in gardening containers grow and perform as well as possible, you need to plant them properly.

Freezing Fruit

Can you freeze fruit? Yes—all different kinds. Learn the tricks of preserving juicy, delicious fruits for tasty year-round eating.

Family Planting: The Giant Garden

Large plants that dwarf little people can be a wonderful addition to a children’s garden.


Mexico Life

6:30am | 5:30c

Mexico Life

7am | 6c

Mexico Life

7:30am | 6:30c

Desert Flippers

8:30am | 7:30c

Desert Flippers

9:30am | 8:30c

Desert Flippers

10:30am | 9:30c

Desert Flippers

11:30am | 10:30c

Fixer Upper

12pm | 11c

Caribbean Life

1:30pm | 12:30c

Caribbean Life

2:30pm | 1:30c

Caribbean Life

3:30pm | 2:30c

Caribbean Life

4:30pm | 3:30c

Bahamas Life

5:30pm | 4:30c

Bahamas Life

6:30pm | 5:30c

Bahamas Life

7:30pm | 6:30c
On Tonight
On Tonight

My Lottery Dream Home

8pm | 7c

House Hunters

10:30pm | 9:30c

House Hunters

11pm | 10c

My Lottery Dream Home

12:30am | 11:30c

House Hunters

1:30am | 12:30c

Follow Us Everywhere

Join the party! Don't miss HGTV in your favorite social media feeds.