December is the start of bare-root season and nurseries and catalogs will carry a huge variety of deciduous fruit trees. But what if you have a small garden and don't have the space for a large fruit tree? Here are several ways you can harvest a bumper crop of delicious, homegrown fruit in a limited area.
Grow genetic dwarf varieties.
There are two parts to most fruit trees – the scion or fruiting top, and the rootstock, or root system, to which the scion is grafted. With genetic dwarf fruit trees, the scion is dwarfed and compact with tightly-packed fruiting spurs. Trees rarely grow over 6-8 feet high and are perfect for large containers. Peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots and apples are available in genetic dwarf varieties.
Grow varieties on dwarfing rootstocks.
Dwarfing rootstocks cause the scion variety to grow smaller and more compact, but can still be very productive. The nice thing about dwarfing rootstocks is that you can grow almost any scion variety you want, including the best-tasting varieties you are familiar with from supermarkets and farmers markets. Most deciduous fruit are available on dwarfing rootstocks, but apple rootstocks offer the most flexibility. For example, with the Malling rootstocks, you can choose a rootstock and customize the height of your tree, from very tall down to just a few feet high.
Change your pruning rules.
In most commercial orchards, fruit trees are trained to maximize production as wide-spreading trees with plenty of room to grow. That's not necessary in home gardens. If you understand a little about how fruit trees grow, you can prune harder to keep trees smaller and still get bumper crops. You can even grow some fruit trees as formal espaliers (branches trained in formal geometric patterns, usually in a single plain) or fruiting fences or walls. The best explanation of these techniques can be found at Dave Wilson Nursery's Backyard Orchard Culture website
Plant three or more trees in one hole.
This is another technique developed by Dave Wilson Nursery. Essentially, you plant multiple bare-root trees in one hole, then develop each as a fruiting scaffold or main branch.
Grow in containers.
The restricted root space provided by containers dwarfs plants, including fruit trees. Genetic dwarf varieties or varieties grown on dwarfing rootstock are the best choice for large pots. You'll need to water and fertilize more frequently to keep plants healthy.
Sources and more information.
Nurseries and garden centers usually carry a variety of dwarf fruit trees. Stark Brothers and Raintree Nursery are great mail order sources. Dave Wilson Nursery is wholesale only, but has great information and provides dwarf varieties for many retail nurseries.