Sometimes I wish our suburban lot had no trees at all. That way I could plant my own. If this were the case, I'd plant only trees that produce food of some kind.
Alas, our yard has a number of trees and none of them produce food of any kind. We've considered removing the trees and replanting, but this simply isn't within our budget. However, as many apples as we eat (whole, as applesauce, as dried apple rings, and in our desserts and entrees), I decided we really ought to have at least one apple tree. After a lot of thought, we bought two columnar apple trees. I'm excited!
Since it's nearing Arbor Day, it's a great time consider whether you have room for a fruit tree in your yard. Just imagine having absolutely fresh, way-better-than-store-bought, organic fruit you and the kids can pick yourselves. Here's how to pick a fruit tree that's right for you.
A Size for Every Yard
Fruit trees come in three sizes: Standard, Semi-Dwarf, Dwarf, and Ultra-Dwarf or Patio size.
Standard trees were once the only choice. They slowly grow to about 25 to 30 feet tall and usually begin producing in 3 to 5 years. Most standard fruit trees produce fruit for 30 or 40 years; some produce past that. As an example of the sort of yield you can expect from a single tree, a standard apple tree should produce 336 to 420 lbs. of apples.
Semi-Dwarf trees grow to about 10 to 16 feet fall. Their fruit is the same size as a standard tree, but they produce a little less because the tree is smaller. They live about 20 years. A single semi-dwarf apple tree produces about 252 to 420 lbs. of fruit.
Dwarf trees are an excellent choice if your yard is small. They can even be grown in pots. Because they grow just 8 to 10 feet tall, they are easier to prune and harvest than other sizes of fruit trees. The fruit is of normal size, but you won’t get as much fruit as you would on a larger tree. Dwarf trees start begin producing fruit in 3 to 5 years and usually live for 20 years or so. One dwarf apple tree produces about 126 to 252 lbs. of fruit per year.
Ultra-dwarf or patio trees are available for most types of fruits, including lemons, oranges, pears, plums, peaches, and apples. They are usually 5 to 8 feet tall and are ideal when you don’t have room even for dwarf trees. “Columnar” varieties (currently only available as apples or pears) are also narrow, measuring a couple of feet across. All ultra-dwarfs can be grown either in the ground or in pots. Ultra-dwarfs are also handy when you want to grow a fruit that isn’t winter hardy in your location. As long as you have a sunny window, you can bring the tree indoors in the winter. The fruit of ultra-dwarf trees is normal sized.
In addition, there are espalier trees. These are usually dwarf or semi-dwarf trees, trained to grow flat against a wall. These add a lot of charm to a garden, and are a great idea if you have an area that gets lots of sun but wouldn't allow for the bushiness of an ordinary tree. The downside is you'll have to prune the tree frequently to train it.
Although many fruit trees are now “self pollinating,” they will produce more abundantly if another tree of their basic type blooms at the same time. For example, let’s say you want to plant an apple tree. It will give you more apples if you plant another apple (or crab apple) tree of the same or different variety that blooms at the same time of year. If a neighbor has an apple tree that blooms at the same time of year, that will work, too. But consider that the neighbor might someday remove her tree, making yours far less productive. (And if your apple tree isn’t self-pollinating, it may stop giving fruit altogether.) Two dwarf apple trees should produce plenty of fruit for the average-sized family.
Aside from choosing what type of fruit you’d like to grow, consider what variety of each fruit you want. It’s almost always best to grow something known to grow well in your area; ask around at the local farmer’s market, then purchase stock from a local nursery.
Also consider how you’ll use the fruit. Continuing to use apples as our example, some varieties are better for certain uses and storage methods. For example, you may prefer one type of apple over another for applesauce, or you may wish to choose an apple known for lasting a long time when it’s stored in a root cellar or cool basement.
Finally, consider your soil and how much sun the trees will receive. Apples, for example, don’t like damp soil, but plums usually don’t mind wet feet. Peaches don’t do well in really rainy areas, but pears or apples probably won’t mind as long as the soil drains well. All fruit trees prefer at least 6 hours of sun per day, but a few fruit trees, like choke cherry and plums, tolerate slightly less sunlight.