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How to grow fresh fruit in a tiny yard

by Nevin Martell, The Washington Post | September 16, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.
(Dana Luig/Unsplash)

Orchards aren't the only places where fruit trees can flourish. A modest yard, or even a patio, can be enough space to cultivate a tiny tree that will be a prodigious producer. Dwarf varieties generally grow up to 10 feet tall and wide, while semi-dwarf varieties can reach 15 feet in height and width. Both can be kept much smaller, though, with diligent pruning.

Fall is a great time to start planting. "Temperatures are a little bit cooler, so the transplant shock is a little bit less," says Cem Akin, executive director of the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation. "And the trees have the entire fall and winter to really concentrate on their roots rather than top growth, which can really help them get established by the time spring rolls around."

Here's a primer on what to grow and how to grow it, so you can enjoy hyper local fresh fruit (without hitting up a nearby orchard) for years to come.


"Fruit trees are all about turning sunlight into sugar," says Alexander Mohn, head buyer at Barton Springs Nursery in Austin, so make sure the proposed planting location gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day.

The tree's root system will reach down to the water table in roughly 8 to 18 months. But until it's established and can fend for itself, ensure it is in well-drained soil so it gets properly watered. Akin recommends an easy drainage test. Dig the hole for the tree and fill it with water. If it is empty in under 24 hours, you're good to go. If it isn't, you can dig the hole a foot or two deeper and fill the additional area with organic material, such as rotted leaves and grass, compost or manure, which is much looser and will allow it to drain more easily. Or plant the tree in a location with better drainage.

Finally, Mohn says, consider the wildlife in the area that might damage the tree, such as deer eating the leaves or rabbits nibbling on the bark. If necessary, fence off the tree and/or wrap its trunk.


"Choose what works where you are," says Ann Ralph, author of "Grow a Little Fruit Tree." "Don't fight the river." She recommends talking to an adviser at your local extension office or a professional at a local independent garden center to find out what varieties work best in your hardiness zone.

Akin adds that gardeners should buy disease-resistant varieties when possible and research whether the tree needs a second tree to pollinate or if it's self-pollinating (even these varieties benefit from additional trees, though, to help boost harvests).

And, of course, consider how large the tree will grow horizontally and vertically to ensure there is enough space.


Mohn says the last thing to consider is chill hours - the time the tree must spend between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit to flower and fruit properly. (Maps outlining the chill hours across the United States are available online.) Think of the number of chill hours as an alarm clock for the tree; once it hits its required number, the tree will wake up, no matter what's happening with Mother Nature. For example, if the tree requires a low number of chill hours, but winters are long and cold, it will bloom before spring arrives, the blooms will fall off, and the tree won't fruit properly in the spring. Conversely, if a tree requires too many chill hours for the climate, it will bloom too late in the year to fruit correctly.


Burying a tree too deep will essentially suffocate it, which can reduce its life span. For the best results, Akin instructs gardeners to find the root crown - the place where the trunk becomes the roots - and plant the tree at that depth. Make sure to mulch around the base of the tree while it's getting established to help retain moisture and protect the root system.


To ensure your little tree stays little, prune it twice a year using pruning shears, a small handsaw and loppers. "Pruning at the summer solstice essentially puts the trees on a diet," says Ralph. "It creates trees that produce family-sized quantities of fruit and are small enough to be easy to care for."

Another, larger pruning session in the winter will help shape the framework of the tree and encourage proper growth. When choosing what to cut, Mohn advises trimming off any branches bigger than a third of the diameter of the trunk. Then use the same methodology to prune smaller branches attached to the remaining main branches coming off the trunk. Don't be hesitant to make cuts.

"It's like getting a haircut," says Ralph. "If you make a mistake, the tree will grow, and you will have an opportunity to make a correction the next time you prune. It's not a life-and-death thing, like some people think. Fruit trees are very forgiving."


- Apples. Any apple variety can be a dwarf if the tree is grafted to a dwarf-sized rootstock, Mohn says. Akin advises opting for a disease-resistant variety that grows well in your region, such as Liberty, Enterprise or Freedom.

- Peaches. Even if you have yard space, Mohn recommends container-grown patio peach varieties, such as Bonanza and Bonfire, which generally only reach up to five feet tall, because these options still produce more than enough fruit for the average household. Just make sure to double check that the variety will get the number of chilling hours required so it fruits properly.

- Mulberries. Mohn likes the Dwarf Everbearing variety of this berry tree, which can be kept as short as two to six feet with proper pruning. Despite their diminutive size, these self-pollinating trees produce a tremendous number of berries, beginning in May and lasting through summer.

- Figs. There are several dwarf options that thrive in containers, including the pun-loving Fignomenal and Little Miss Figgy varieties, but they must be grown in warmer climates (hardiness Zones 7 and up). Though both of these self-pollinate, fig production will be exponentially increased by the presence of two or more plants.

- Cherries. There are two routes to go. If you live in a cooler climate, opt for a sour cherry dwarf shrub. If you're in a warmer spot - hardiness Zones 5 and up - a sweet cherry tree grafted onto a dwarf rootstock will grow best.

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