BackYard Orchard Culture
By Greg Peterson
When you think of an orchard, do you envision acres of perfectly spaced apple trees and workers on ladders picking the fruit with harvest colors in the background? Are you then discouraged because you realize you don’t have the property to produce a bountiful harvest to delight your family’s taste buds? No so any more!
You don’t need a lot of land to have fresh fruit all year long. All you need to know is “Backyard Orchard Culture.” This is a method for creating a prolonged harvest of tree-ripened fruit while providing a solution to having a family orchard minus the work associated with a commercial operation. Backyard Orchard Culture allows for fresh fruit to be harvested throughout the entire growing season.
Some simple tree management processes make it possible to harvest many different kinds of fruit from your yard. The first step is to design a plan for a prolonged harvest by planting different varieties of the same kind of fruit trees, such as peaches, so the fruit ripens at different times.
At the Urban Farm we have three different varieties of peaches. The Desert Gold fruit ripens in mid May, the Tropic Snow fruit ripens at the beginning of June, and the Mid Pride’s fruit ripens toward the end of June. By planting these three different varieties of peaches the harvest lasts 8 to 10 weeks instead of the normal 2 to 3 weeks of a single variety, and fulfills the first approach of urban orcharding called successive ripening.
The second step is being responsible for the size of your trees. A normal-size fruit tree can climb to well over 30 feet in height and have a 20-foot diameter. I tell people that fruit at the top of a full-size fruit tree (given we don’t have the equipment to pick them) is bird food. In urban orcharding keeping the trees small, in many cases bush-size accomplishes two things:
- Short fruit trees are easier to pick. Our goal here at the Urban Farm is to keep all our trees under 10 feet high, making them easily harvestable from a 6-foot ladder. There are even cases where we keep the trees to a height of only 6 feet making them even easier to harvest.
- Smaller tree sizes allow room for more varieties in the same space. You will see that the space one full-size tree takes up is enough room to plant 10 to 12 trees, giving you plenty of possibility for different varieties.
Planting multiple fruit trees in a small space is called high-density planting. This can be achieved by planting two, three or four trees in a hole that is normally meant for one or by creating a hedgerow of trees. The purpose behind planting trees close together is to restrict their vigor, or their potential to grow. Incredible results are possible by healthfully restricting the resources each tree is competing for.
Managing tree size is determined by three factors: pruning, irrigation and fertilization. You must determine a size limit for your trees and stick to that commitment via pruning when the tree is young. Often people think that if they select a dwarf breed it will restrict the height of the tree. This is not true. Dwarfing rootstocks address issues of soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance, weight bearing and several other things, but are not for controlling the height of the tree.
According to Dave Wilson Nursery, the only way to keep a fruit tree under twelve-feet is by summer pruning, especially during the first three years. Since fruit trees are deciduous (lose their leaves annually), it is necessary to prune them in order to promote new fruiting wood; by thinning the fruit tree, it enables more sun to shine through and spaces out the fruiting wood. If you are looking to become even more efficient, try pruning and thinning the crop at the same time! For more specific instructions on pruning for the first three years and an awesome document explaining Backyard Orchard Culture in more detail download this document: BackyardOrchardCulture.pdf .
Ed Lavio at Dave Wilson Nursery is the expert when it comes to backyard orchard culture. Also, be sure to check out The BackYard Orchardist in our bookstore!