Backyard Orchard Culture

How small can you go? An image from the Dave Wilson website demonstrating one way to keep a fruit tree a manageable size.

Damn. I wish I had heard this lecture twelve years ago when we bought our house. “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, a sales manager with Dave Wilson nursery, gave a remarkable talk last night on how to create your own backyard orchard. He began by dismissing most advice on growing fruit trees, noting that it is intended for commercial orchards and is completely irrelevant for backyard fruit growers. Few of you reading this blog, after all, have to worry about having space to maneuver a tractor. Spellman outlined what he considers the three key components of a successful small scale backyard orchard:

1. Successive harvest. With careful choice of varieties you can create a mini orchard that produces consistently throughout the year (or growing season in colder climates). You don’t want a bunch of trees that all ripen in July. In his own yard Spellman planted four varieties of avocados, each of which produce fruit at different times, so that he can have a crop year round. You could also, say, plant three kinds of peaces that each mature successively. Or, plant a fig, an apple tree, a pomegranate and a lemon tree that will produce in different months. The Dave Wilson nursery has a handy ripening sequence chart, that you can use to plan what to plant.

2. Size control. Basically you don’t want fruit trees in a backyard orchard, you want fruit shrubs. Rather than one 30-foot tree in a 10 by 12 space, plant four or more and prune them vigorously so that their  branches are within easy reach. The possibilities for intensive fruit tree planting are endless: trees can be planted four or even six in one hole, espaliered, grafted, arranged into hedges, even braided together. But whatever the techinque, the goal is the same–tight spacing, short trees. You don’t want to have to go up on a ladder to harvest, and you don’t want 300 pounds of apples all at one time. Follow commercial standards and you’ll have huge, hard to manage fruit trees in your backyard. Follow Spellman’s backyard orchard guidelines and you’ll have many small trees and never be without fruit.

3. Grow what you will use. Spellman told the story of someone who went down to their local big box store and bought six trees for five dollars each. The problem was that he had bought six quince trees and did not know what to do with the fruit. Grow flavorful varieties that you can’t buy at the market. One quince tree is fine (we have one) but six is way too many.

Some other points Spellman made:

  • Pruning: Spellman suggests size control in the summer and detail work in the winter. (Note: this pruning advice is for our climate in California.)
  • Commercial growers focus on eye appeal over taste. You can’t buy decent stone fruit at the market, so stone fruit is a great thing to grow at home or buy at a farmer’s market.
  • It’s never too late to start a backyard orchard or to modify what you’ve got. Even huge fruit trees can be knocked back to a manageable size through radical pruning. You may lose a season or two of fruit, but you’ll have more room to squeeze in more trees. Don’t be afraid to bust out the chainsaw!
  • Be wary of most fruit tree growing advice as universities focus on research intended for commercial growers. In particular, the spacing suggested by many sources is way too far apart. Even many commercial growers are beginning to space tighter and keep trees shorter, a result of workman’s compensation lawsuits (workers falling out of those tall trees). More intensive growing has resulted in greater productivity as an unintended result of those lawsuits.
  • Pay attention to rootstock! Rootstocks are developed for varying soil and climate conditions. Every grafted fruit tree should have two tags on it–the tree and the rootstock–don’t buy a tree whose rootstock is unknown and make sure you grow trees with rootsocks developed for your climate and soil. Dave Wilson has a hand guide to rootstocks on their website, with their advantages and disadvantages here
  • Mulch like crazy! Mulching brings bioactivity to the soil, reduces weeds and saves water.Use 2 to 4 inches–according to research less than 2-inches is bad, more than 4 a waste of effort. 
  • Fertilize fruit trees with with organic fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen promotes vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and, again, you get a tree that’s too tall to manage. Fertilizers should also contain humic acid and micro nutrients. I’d add that a soil test is always a good idea. Our soil is already very high in potassium and phosphorus.
  • Make your first pruning cut knee high–i.e. chop that little tree off at the knee. This will be the start of a pruning strategy that keeps your tree small and manageable. 
  • When you get trees at the nursery buy small trees–don’t waste your money on large trees that have been sitting around in their pots too long. The small tree will quickly catch up to the large tree and you’ll save money.
  • When you plant four or more trees in one hole keep all the trees pruned to the height of the weakest tree.
  • In heavy clay soils, plant trees in raised mulch beds.
  • Fruit trees and berries work great in containers, just remember to prune them and keep them small.
  • Squirrel control: get a dog, use a have-a-heart trap or shoot-em!
  • Another reason to keep trees pruned small is so that you can throw bird netting over them. Use the netting for only a short time–2 to 3 weeks. Roll the netting up on a cylindrical object, like a piece of pvc pipe, for storage.
  • To get decent sized fruit, thin the fruit off the tree when it’s the size of a pea. Some trees you might have to thin upwards of 90% of the fruit.
  • Whitewash trees with sensitive trunks if you’re in a hot sunny climate. To make whitewash use a 2/3rds water to 1/3 cheap white paint mixture.

For extensive how-to fruit growing advice see http://www.davewilson.com/. Dave Wilson also has a “Fruit Tube” video channel here. I’m canceling Netflix!

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery. To order their trees, Tree People fruit tree expert Steve Hofvendahl recommends ordering through Bay Laurel Nursery. You can order trees now for January delivery.

A special thanks to Altadena Heritage who hosted this talk and put on an amazing series of lectures. Friend them in Facebook to get the lowdown on upcoming events.

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11 Comments

  1. The Dave Wilson site is great! My nurseryman recommended it to me (he carries the Davie Wilson trees), and I spent a good couple of weeks researching successive ripening varieties of fruit trees that my husband and I wanted.

    I have three growing areas for fruit trees (10×30), where I had originally planned to only put three trees. Once I was turned onto the Dave Wilson site, the future of fruit opened up to me! I now have groupings of three trees in each growing area: 2 apricots, 2 peaches, 2 plums and 3 cherries. Each variety was chosen for its harvest time (with minimal overlap), so with luck I will have fresh fruit from May – September when the trees all start to produce.

    Since the Dave Wilson nursery are based in California, they also have a lot of low-chill varieties that I have chosen, including 4 varieties of blueberries (kept in pots to keep the soil nice and acidic).

    Lucky you to hear Spellman in person! I’m sure it was a great talk.

  2. Thank you so much for this post! We have been thinking through what we should do with a big sunny slope at the top of our yard. We were leaning toward fruit trees but we might have ended up with 6 or 8 rather than 15 if we follow these guidelines. Now I just need to figure out how to get water up there. Hauling 10 gallons a week for our avocado sapling is wearing on me.

    cheers!

  3. Dave Wilson trees are very well regarded, but be aware that not all mail order nurseries linked on their site actually sell Dave Wilson trees.

    I found a nursery on their site up in Washington and order from them because their prices were so much better than everybody elses- guess what? They weren’t Dave Wilson trees.

    Peaceful Valley Farm Supply (www.groworganic.com) up in Grass Valley definitely do sell Dave Wilson trees, and proudly state that they do!

    I’ll check out that other site- I need to replace an Italian plum and an almond that croaked, and get some peaches to espalier.

    By the way, don’t overlook espaliering fruit trees- it’s a great way to squeeze fruit trees into small spaces and actually results in more fruit- the secret is that it just has to be a sunny space.

  4. When I was a kid we had a couple of beautiful big apple trees in the yard. Although I loved having all the apples in the fall the thought of having a variety of fruit all year long sounds much better.

    I just planted a Dave Wilson Fuji apple that I got from Homegrown Neighbor. I’ll have to keep it small and see what else I can plant around it.

  5. Hey that’s me up there in the picture. haha. Almost 10 years ago. The tree is a Santa Rosa plum that is now almost 20 years old and has never been more than 5 feet tall, and sets hundreds of delicious plums every year.

  6. hello,I have several apples that are 15 years old 15 ft high.. Can i cut them back this winter here in Il.to a manegable size? great artical!!!!Thanks

  7. I just planted a peach tree, 2 different cherry trees, 2 different apple trees and an almond tree. I live in South Carolina, my planting zone is 8a. Trees have been in since April. The almond tree was slow to produce leaves and was concerned about it, I really don’t know much about them. I planted all the trees about 12 feet apart-in to separate sections on our property. They haven’t been pruned as we had a lot going on and they were forgotten, then I thought it was too late. Also, we have many pine and oak trees-the pine needles are a concern-we tried to find spots where they aren’t to close to those trees. I planted garlic and onions around them. So,I’m hoping perhaps you can give me a bit of help from here about pruning,soil,protection, etc.

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