Fruit trees are a structural staple of any edible garden and with a little thought, urban gardens can provide the perfect microclimates for growing fruit trees in small spaces. There is room for a fruit tree in almost any garden, whether it be in a tub or in the ground. And now is the perfect time to start planning your urban food forest as most trees should be planted in late winter-early spring.
Trees are a long term investment so there is value in spending some time considering what you want to eat, what will thrive in your climate zone and how the tree will fit with other aspects of your garden. Remember, trees grow and some grow big so think about how that tree will look in 2, 5 and 10 years. Spacing is key and mapping the potential canopy sizes is time well spent.
Two key things to consider when choosing fruit. Choose fruit you like to eat – that way you are more invested in seeing them thrive. And choose fruit to suit your climate. Some stone fruit that need long sunshine hours and a longer warm season, and will struggle here in Wellington. Others need a hard frost in order to bud, will not find that here either.
However there are plenty of other options that will thrive and if you are not sure, ask at your local garden centre. Edible Garden has a fantastic selection of fruit stock, all raised in the Manawatu, and Sarah there is always happy to offer advice.
Light and Shade
When positioning a tree, consider not only the light the tree needs, but also the light you need in the garden around it. The relative angle of the sun at different times of the year is important in determining where shadow will be cast..
Apples, apricots, pears, peaches and plums are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in winter. Hence they cast minimal shade when the sun is low and more shade in summer when the sun is high. Citrus and feijoa, on the other hand, are evergreen.
Shade is not always a bad thing. It provides shelter from the harsh sun for tender vegetables. Leafy greens will grow quite happily beneath an apple tree.
You will also need to consider the pollination. Some trees are not self-fertile and require another tree to pollinate the flowers. If you have limited space single pollinated varieties might be an option, although these tend to have lower yields. It is possible to source dual grafted apples, pears and plums. These trees have two different varieties of a fruit grafted to a single root stock, so they can pollinate one another.
Have a scout about your neighborhood too and survey any fruit trees in your area. You may have neighbours with similar varieties. Remember, bees travel immense distances so chances are they have frequented another tree of the same variety before they come to yours.
Most commercially available fruit trees consist of two parts. The scion, which is the fruiting variety that you have selected, for example granny smith. This will be grafted to a root stock which determines how tall the tree will grow. Root stocks vary from extremely dwarfed to vigorous and different fruit have different root stock names. For urban gardens it is best to stick to the dwarfing varieties. These can be trained as espalier or cordons (see below) or grown to a vase or pyramid shape.
When planning your urban garden, be sure the map out the potential tree canopy size so that you can determine appropriate spacing between trees. I’ve made that mistake more than once. Trees are a long term investment and they need space to grow.
Shaping and Training
Most fruit trees can be tricked into growing a certain way to fit the space of an urban garden. The main methods to train dwarf fruit trees are listed below. I recommend researching these methods before settling on the most appropriate for your space.
Step over – a low-growing horizontally trained tree, about 50cm high. Great for apple trees used to line a path. Diminutive but very productive.
Espalier – suitable for all kinds of spur-bearing (as opposed to tip-bearing) pip fruits. Laterals are trained along a fence, wall or wires.
Fan shaped – Similar to espalier but more suited to stone fruit that has more brittle wood. Branches are trained in a fan shape from the central leader.
Cordon – trees are planted and grown at 40 – 60 degree angle and tied to a wire. Lateral branches are clipped to short fruiting spurs.
Tubs or pots – by containing the root growth the growth of the tree is restricted. Perfect for balconies and small spaces. However, it is extra important to ensure the tree is fed and watered regularly.
Pruning is a key part of achieving these trained tree shapes. It can be quite daunting making cuts in the new of your precious tree. Yet trees are surprisingly tolerant to pruning and often respond with more vigorous growth as a result. The trick is to make the right cuts that benefit the plant and encourage the right sort of growth.
For standard trees (upright vase or pyramid shapes) the pruning focus is on opening the branches to let light and air into the tree. Therefore cuts are made to inward facing growth and crossing branches. Getting light and air into the middle of the tree reduces disease, stimulates healthy growth and more fruit.
Trained trees are slightly more complicated and the method varies slightly depending on the form you want and the type of tree. I must admit I am still learning and experimenting with my own espaliered apples and pears.
Before you make any cuts though, ensure you have the right tools for the job. You are disrespecting your tree if you prune it with blunt or inappropriate tools. A sharp pair of secateurs is sufficient for branches up to pinky finger in diameter. Anything larger and you will need loppers or a hand saw, otherwise you risk making damaging cuts that make the tree prone to infection.
A great resource to help you on your fruit tree training and pruning journey is Kath Irvine’s Pruning Fruit Trees book. She discusses pruning techniques in perfect detail and some tips for “tree trickery” too.
Plant guilds are groupings of plants that together form symbiotic relationships that can be mutually beneficial to each plant. It’s also a great way to grow additional useful plants in small spaces while contributing to the health of your fruit trees. Click this link to read about our fruit tree guilds at BURPP.
The BURPP Orchard
The BURPP Orchard is mostly plans on paper so far. We have spent a great deal of our first years on the property observing the different conditions through the seasons in order to make the best possible plans and decisions about where and how to grow fruit-bearing plants. We do have some fruit in the ground: apples, pears, plums, lemons, feijoa and blueberries. But we also have plans to plant a lot more now that we understand the summer and winter sun patterns. While there is always room to grow trees in small gardens, it is worth taking a little extra time to plan.