by Ken Lain, The Mountain Gardener, Watters Garden Center
You used to need a lot of land to grow fruit trees, but dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees allow growing them in just about any yard.
Most standard-sized fruit trees mature at a height and width of between 18 to 25 feet. Not only will this require a big chunk of your yard, but it also makes them tall to prune and spray without using a ladder.
Even with smaller trees, growing fruit is a long-term investment. Fruit trees can take anywhere from two to 10 years to bear fruit. If pays to do some upfront planning.
Choosing a size
The terms dwarf and semi-dwarf can be confusing. Dwarf fruit trees reach a height and width of about eight to 10 feet. At this height, they can be tended and harvested without a ladder. Pruning keeps them even smaller. Unfortunately, dwarf fruit trees tend to be short-lived.
Semi-dwarf fruit trees are a little larger, with most topping at 12 to 16 feet tall and wide. Maintenance and harvest require a ladder, but the average yield is eight to 12 bushels, about twice what you expect from a dwarf tree, and they live far longer.
For those of you thinking that even eight to 10 feet is more space than you have or can sacrifice, don’t give up. Fruit trees can be grown in containers as well, although the yield is not as heavy.
Which trees need pollinators?
Most fruit trees produce better fruits if two or more trees are planted nearby. Just don’t put your house or barn between the two trees. Anywhere in the landscape will do.
Although the trees need to be the same type of fruit, they should not be the same variety. You can plant two different kinds of apples, and they will cross-pollinate with each other as long as they bloom simultaneously. Most fruit tree catalogs and plant labels give you suggestions for excellent pollinators.
If you only want one tree, your best options are peach, apricot, nectarine and sour cherry. These are self-pollinating or self-fruitful and pollinate themselves with help from bees. One notable exception is a Stella Sweet Cherry that is also self-fruitful.
A second option is a multigrafted tree, in which three or more varieties of fruit are grafted onto one trunk. Another name for this tree is a Fruit Cocktail Tree.
Some like it cold
Fruit trees need a certain number of hours when the temperature drops below 45 F. Without this chilling period during their dormancy, they set little fruit the following spring.
Which trees are low maintenance?
All fruit trees require some care and the right fruit tree food. Most require annual pruning. However, some can get by with minimal supervision once established.
At the top of the list of low-maintenance trees are cherries. These require pruning only when branches are damaged or crossed.
Stone fruits like peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines are easy to maintain. Some pruning is required to keep the trees open to light and may need fruit thinning in early summer for a larger harvest
Apples and pears are the best mountain producers. Because they are the last fruit trees to blossom in spring, it reduces the likelihood of frost damage. This one trait puts them in the No. 1 producer spot.