Fruit Trees for Limited Spaces

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

Today, most homes are situated on a smaller parcel of land with limited area for planting but there is still a demand for edibles in the garden. Many people believe they do not have enough space in their landscape to put several fruit trees or are afraid the Apricot, Peach or Plum will get too big. In a typical home garden you do not need 15 or 20 feet spacing between each fruit tree. This type of spacing is ideal for commercial orchards where they need heavy equipment, trucks, and tractors. The only space you need is for you and a few pieces of simple gardening tools. I will provide you with some tips and tricks on how you can maximize your fruit tree production for smaller spaces. Due to limited space, gardeners need to realize how to maximize their area so they can get the most out of it. If you live on a smaller parcel of land and want to grow your favorite fruit tree and think you just have room for one, you need to think twice because by size managing your fruit trees, you discover that in reality you can plant multiple trees.

Did you know that it is possible to have a fruit tree that is over 15 years old and be only 5 or 6 feet tall and be loaded with fruit? How does one accomplish this? The answer is by summer pruning, read on and I will explain. Let’s say you go into a nursery and you want to buy a semi-dwarf Nectarine. A semi-dwarf fruit tree can get close to 15 to 20 feet tall and as wide with some exceptions. While a standard size fruit tree may get over 30 feet high and equally as wide. Do not think of a semi-dwarf Peach, Apricot, Cherry, Nectarine, and etc. in terms of size management. The only way to keep them small is by pruning. Pruning is critical in developing a smaller size. As intimidating as it may be, do not let the ultimate size of the tree discourage you from not keeping it small to suit your needs. Prune them to a size that is best for you. Keeping your trees small has many advantages: It is easier to harvest the fruit because it is at a lower picking height. A big tree will oftentimes be wasteful because you can’t access the fruit with ease and therefore the birds or other wildlife may get it provided it does not rot on the tree. Smaller trees offer ease of care, spraying, pruning, and thinning.

The secret to keeping fruit trees to a height that is convenient for you is by pruning. Think of a height you want to keep it at and don’t let it go beyond that goal, if it does, you prune it off. You can keep fruit trees to any desired height whether it is a semi-dwarf or standard size tree by size management. Prune to the size that best suits your needs.

If you want it low, prune more, if you want it really high, prune less. The tree height is the decision of the pruner. Whenever there are vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove them. The growth you prune off will never become fruiting wood, that wood already formed earlier. I will provide you tips and tricks on how you can keep your
fruit tree small.

For new bareroot fruit trees or dormant trees in containers at planting time, if you choose, they can be topped as low as 15 inches (or whatever height you elect) above the ground to force low branching. Trees may also be topped higher than 15 inches (up to four feet) depending on the presence of well-spaced side limbs or desired tree form.

After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half. In late summer cut the subsequent growth back by half. Size control and development of low fruiting wood begins in the first year.

If you have large stem caliper fruit tree (3/4 up), which sometimes do not push new limbs from low on the trunk. They should be topped higher initially, just above any existing lower limbs or at about 28 inches if no lower limbs are present. Once new growth has begun, height may be reduced further.

During the second and subsequent years. Cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer, same as the first year. Pruning 2-3 times: spring, early summer, and late summer is the easiest way to manage height. When pruning, be careful not to cut too much at one time, as this might cause excess sun exposure and sunburn to the unprotected interior limbs. When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the under side ahead of your intended cut. Do this so it won’t tear the trunk as it comes off. Also, don’t make the final cut flush with the trunk or parent limb; be sure to leave a short stub. Always when pruning, proper technique should always be followed. Make cuts at a 45 degree angle just above a bud using clean, good quality pruning implements.

What If you have an old, large tree that is too unruly and want to make it smaller so it is easier to manage and pick the fruit. If the tree is taller than 20 feet and you feel unsafe on a ladder, or the job is just bigger than you want to take on – call a professional arborist! If the tree is older than 20 years, this can be a mistake; the results simply might not be worth the time and effort. Some old trees are beyond their peak productive years and the trauma of a drastic reduction in size could make them more susceptible to
other problems.  Consult a professional arborist if this is a concern. If you love the fruit and choose to keep the aging tree, it is essential to maintain its health – the right amount of watering, pruning out diseased limbs, and etc.  Otherwise, have the tree removed and replace it with a new one, a great-tasting variety of your choice. If you must prune, bring the tree down in stages over a three-year period. Begin by reducing the tree height by one-third in the first winter.  This will stimulate limb development below the cuts. In spring, when the tree is flush with growth, you would cut just below
the winter cuts, removing the uppermost spring flush. This will redirect the growth, stimulating lower limb development. The following winter, half of the remaining excess canopy height comes off. Again, in the spring, the resulting uppermost spring growth is removed. Do not remove limbs that are forming lower in the canopy; these may be used as scaffold limbs. In the third winter, you would make a final determination of canopy and tree height, and prune accordingly.

While pruning is the obvious way to maximize space, did you know that you can also have multiple fruit trees planted in the space that a large fruit trees grows. Instead of having a large Apricot tree that takes up a space of 10 or 15 feet for example and provides you fruit for 2- 3 weeks in April or May, why not have 2 or 3 fruit trees spaced 5 feet apart keeping them trimmed and having fruit over 2 to 3 months with the right combinations. Consider using Flavor Delight Aprium®, Arctic Glo Nectarine, and Spice
Zee Nectaplum® with this combination you have the ability to have sweet, delicious, and healthy fruit from early June to August, ( which is called consecutive harvest.) you can even throw in a Fig in the mix and have fruit all the way to first frost. You are not limited to those fruits only, there are other winning combinations you can try. When you plant multiple fruit trees in the space of one not only does it provide an extended harvest
time, you will be rewarded with more trees in flower so you have more of an opportunity for cross- pollination which leads to more fruit set. Let’s say you have a sunny area in your landscape that is 20 feet by 20 feet for example you can potentially have as many as four or five fruit trees planted 4 to 5 feet apart and kept at a manageable size by pruning. Another technique with parcels of land with limited space is to plant 3 trees in one hole with each one spaced up to two to three feet apart. Remember to keep them trimmed smaller and keep the branches in check so they do not grow in the way of each other. Some important considerations to be aware of when electing to do this type of high density planting of fruit trees is that you need to match the rootstocks. Either use a standard(full size) or a semi dwarf, it is not advised to mix them because it is more challenging to maintain. It is highly advised at planting time to cut back all trees to the
same height so you can have maximum air and light flow through each plant. Do not allow any variety to dominate and shade out the others.

Feel free to visit your favorite Green Thumb Nursery we have an extensive dormant fruit tree selection.

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