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Planning Your Homestead Orchard: Benefits of Dwarf Trees

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Dwarf Trees – When Less is More

We spend a lot of time looking at annual crops and gardens, but perennials have their places. When it comes to fruit trees, we have many options in sizes. There’s little more majestic than a full-sized cherry tree, and not much will match a standard apple for yield. However, there are a lot of times when we’d be equally or better served with a smaller tree, and lots reasons to consider dwarf trees or semi-dwarf instead of a standard, even when there aren’t space constraints that affect the ability to get pollination partners. I’m starting with a primer on size and expected yields by size and species, then hitting considerations such as maintenance, resiliency, harvest size, and more.

Tree Sizes

There are some generally accepted sizes for dwarf, semi-dwarf, and standard sized fruit trees.

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A lot of fruit trees have about the same spread (circular footprint) as they do height. Dwarfs are usually 8-12’ (also regularly seen as 8-10’), semi-dwarfs tend to range 10-16’, and standard fruit varieties are usually considered to be 18-25’.

There are exceptions, such as peaches that are naturally already fairly compact at 12-15’ and cone-shaped pears with a spread of just 10-12’ but a height upwards of 20’ for mature standard varieties. Some standard trees are also just smaller, such as plums and figs.

Part of planning the size we want is planning for space around a tree or shrub where we can work. As a permaculturist, I love stacking spaces and full canopies. However, there’s not much room to maneuver underneath a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree – their canopies tend to start around thigh and shoulder height – and it’s not like all standards are roomy below the canopies. I can create a planting plan that allow me to maximize the space I have without encircling each and every single tree with a path, but somewhere through there, I do have to give myself room to harvest and rake and prune.

Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees produce the same type and size fruit as standards, just less per tree.

Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees produce the same type and size fruit as standards, just less per tree.

 

 Yield By Size

A nice lady who ran a blog once went through and compiled yield ranges from the information Stark Bros. puts out. I turned it into a single-page printable for clients (with citations). As with any, this information should be taken with a grain of salt. Climate, soils, care, and disease can all affect yield, and yield can vary greatly by variety within a species. Still, it makes a nice printable to use for a ratio comparison between dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard trees.

Fruit yields by tree & plant

Be aware: Yields vary depending on soil types, nutrients, water, pests, pruning and variety of tree within each species. I halve the numbers from Harried Homemaker and Stark Bros. when presenting estimated to clients.

Remember, locally produced trees and shrubs, even grafted, will have more success than shipped-in specimens most of the time.

Specialty Types

There are all sorts of even smaller fruit trees and ways to tailor fruits to our needs. Espalier can be done against walls and fences, or grape style in the middle of a yard. Some fruits that are commonly produced on trees have a bush variety, such as the bush nectarine or some of the bush cherries. There are also potted varieties of a lot of fruits now, trees to shrubs and brambles, specimens specifically bred and designed to thrive in a container and be more compact.

 

Cordon or columnar fruit is available in several species, and while expensive, it can save space to increase diversity and allow homeowners variety and resilience.

Cordon or columnar fruit is available in several species, and while expensive, it can save space to increase diversity and allow homeowners variety and resilience.

Columnar or colonnade trees are extremely narrow and small. They can be potted or directly planted. Their yield suffers due to their size, but they can be excellent as canary varieties for us and they excel at providing some backup pollinators, especially for folks in small spaces or who want edible beautification. However, they are pretty darn pricey.

Container fruit needs a lot of water and nutrients over the seasons, but if we stick them on rolling casters, it lets us maneuver our fruit into protected areas. Those minis can allow us a sustainable source of things like citrus, tea, figs, and peaches. Likewise, an espalier against a wall will typically be warmer as well as easier to protect and keep damp than a freestanding tree in a yard.

Dwarf, container, trellis and espalier fruit can transform a compound into a more pleasant space, allow perennial production in urban and suburban environments, and let us take our fruit trees and shrubs with us when we move.

Dwarf, container, trellis and espalier fruit can transform a compound into a more pleasant space, allow perennial production in urban and suburban environments, and let us take our fruit trees and shrubs with us when we move.

 

Yard-planting container-intended columnar, bush and espalier fruit has particular application not only for those who are spacially challenged in their yards, but for those with compounds. There’s no reason our castle has to look industrial. In fact, back when castles were in vogue, they typically made use of every inch with plantings, which were tailored both for form and function.

Benefits of Smaller Specimens

Apples - chart w dates & usesIncreases harvest season – One benefit to smaller trees is that we can spread out the harvest season. The common standard tree yields of 10-20 bushels is a lot to deal with inside the 1-3 weeks of harvest season for each variety, and once it’s in and processed, there’s no more fresh fruit. Instead, we can tailor our home orchard for 3-6 months of fresh produce by selecting varieties from late, mid and early seasons within their species and having a couple of other species with them.

Spreads out the workload – Avoiding a single-type glut such as can come from even just 1-2 large trees (or species) by tailoring our home orchards by harvest period can let us select varieties that go straight to storage to complete the sweetening and softening process, while still having some fresh fruit now. Since summer and autumn are already hectic seasons for a lot of us and will be more so if we’re producing our own food, it’s nice to have that option. Even without storage fruit, smaller amounts harvested over 1-3 weeks per species lets us process fruit at a slower, steadier, more manageable rate.

dwarf cherry

Easier Management – The workload from processing harvest isn’t the only thing that goes down. Smaller trees allow us to work around them with less use of overhead tools. They’re easier to harvest and prune with only a step stool, and it’s easier to see what’s going on in the canopies. That alone can help us spot problems early.

Increase variety and species within a space – Instead of having three apples in standard sizes, we may be able to fit 5-9 dwarf and semi-dwarf trees, in addition to any wall-hugging espaliers and the super-compact minis or potted varieties. Sometimes that means we can get two pollinators for a primary semi-dwarf, and sometimes that means we can have a pair of small apples with a plum and a peach. Other times it means we can have a fruit tree or five, and still have sunlight and space for other perennials or an annual garden.

Smaller trees can allow us to increase variety and resilience in the same space. If one species, variety, or specimen is lost or damaged by pests or weather, others may survive.

Smaller trees can allow us to increase variety and resilience in the same space. If one species, variety, or specimen is lost or damaged by pests or weather, others may survive.

 

Fresh eating is always healthiest, and having multiple harvest seasons from a variety of trees helps increase the periods of fresh produce, especially if we’re not gardening yet or a drought or the power/labor supply is making us choose between livestock and gardens for water. A variety in fruit types also provides a wider array of nutrients than having just 1-2 trees that produce all at once.

Increases resilience to varying weather conditions, climatic change and pests – Diversity is always a benefit in many ways, but in this case, it’s tangible. A lot of our fruit trees share pests and diseases with each other and other plants, and many require pollination.

If there are only two varieties of apple (or other species), and one is sensitive to something around us, the other has lost its pollinator. We won’t get any more fruit. If we get a semi-dwarf or a single standard for the tree we want most, then 3 smaller trees that cross pollinate, losing one of them to a pest/disease and one of them to weather (drought to storm) still leaves us with a pollinator. We still get our fruit harvest from our target tree.  If we had 5-7 smaller trees and lose 2-4, we increase our chances of good harvest in harsh conditions even further.

Graphic: Using a mix of semi-dwarf and dwarf trees can increase the total fruit yield in a space as well as create resiliency. *Yield estimates taken from Harried Homemaker Preps’ compilation of Stark Bros. estimates.

Graphic: Using a mix of semi-dwarf and dwarf trees can increase the total fruit yield in a space as well as create resiliency. *Yield estimates taken from Harried Homemaker Preps’ compilation of Stark Bros. estimates.

The resiliency benefits extend beyond pollination partners. An early-season fruit tree stands more chance of having late frosts and freezes or false springs kill off the buds. Summer storms, bug/pest seasons, and late storms and frosts can all become risks as well. With 3 smaller trees instead of one large tree, we can still get a harvest if one fails or if we lose a tree entirely, inside a species or by planting a variety of species.

Whether they’re small or not, having multiple varieties and species can help avoid total losses and it can help us spot problems early enough to save a harvest. Even if we don’t catch something for the first variety or species, because so many pests are common within domestic fruits, we may be able to treat later-blooming and later-fruiting specimens.

Faster Maturation – Most dwarfs and semi-dwarfs will begin production and hit average, mature rates in less time than standards. Their ultimate total yields are lower, although that can be mitigated with multiple trees.

Future Moves – Dwarf and mini fruit that can handle containers is also beneficial for those who plan to move to a new, larger space or compound. Some of us just can’t justify putting fruit into our small spaces, then leaving it. We can also go ahead and get our fruit trees the day we move, with the plan to transplant once we study and develop our plan for our homestead. That way we’re a little (or a lot) closer to our mature production rates when we hit our new locations.

Small Trees for Big Spaces

Small fruit trees can also be used as “canaries” a la mine-shaft mode, especially on large spreads. We can tuck a sampling of dwarf and super-dwarf compacts in similar light, water and soil conditions along our driveways and near our homes. Doing so lets us keep better track of flowering, health, and fruit development, especially in our busy daily lives, since we see them right there, all the time.

Dwarf and espalier fruit can be trained to hedges, serving multiple functions on our property as well as producing food.

Dwarf and espalier fruit can be trained to hedges, serving multiple functions on our property as well as producing food.

We still need to check on orchards – especially if they’re planted in blocks of the same species or close cousins. Differing microclimates may (will) produce fluctuation even within members of the same species.The diversity of fruit species and other landscaping and gardening can protect our canaries, and lower compaction might be leading to better soil health in one spot or another. Then there are things like chickens, goats, pigs, deer and porcupines that can be affecting outlying trees but not the ones where our dogs and people run most frequently.

Still, over a few seasons, we’ll pick up on the trends and be able to use our canaries to tell us what’s going on in an orchard or even just a few trees that are out of sight-line.

Small Trees for Home Orchards

A small fruit tree isn’t always the solution. For larger families and groups, and anyone interested in silvopasture or sticking crated/kenneled livestock under trees, standard varieties may be a better choice. For those who are looking at age, physical ability, resilience, and small spaces for an edible orchard, smaller trees and container fruits may be a major boost to our capabilities. Smaller trees can also just be faster and easier to care for than large trees, and provide a variety of fruits sooner and a longer harvest period for a busy working family, which may better serve some people.

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  • Mike Lashewitz

    There is a difference between dwarf and “ornamental”. Ornamental are useless. Getting the wife to understand this was a major problem. No Hon you cannot eat Bradford Pears…

    • R. Ann

      I’m laughing so hard. My sister bought my parents a Bradford from my nephew. Can’t replace it, because … from the grandbaby boy. Useless and just sitting there in the middle of my plan for them, big ol’ pear tree. We laugh about it routinely.
      I’ve *accidentally* done things that would at least seriously stunt trees to it several times now. THAT booger is a survivor!
      🙂

  • R. Ann

    OH YEAH!
    (This should have been mentioned every time I talk perennials.)
    PLEASE run a BBB check on any nursery or retailer you order from, especially. There’s an awful cycle with some of them of lousy, lousy stock or handling that has 10-20% survival with 0-10% customer service satisfaction, and Summerstone/USA Seed Store especially have these “too good to be true” prices that people can’t resist. It’s like those credit card thieves smart enough to pnly pull $5-12 per month. Do it to enough people, and you profit anyway, even if each one cuts you off a couple of months in. I TRULY see some of these tree sellers the same way.

  • no more shaking for me

    R. Ann Another comprehensive article. Your efforts are appreciated. The only thing I would add for beginners is times to prune. (when I get my arm out of it’s sling, I’ll look in my books for a chart to add).
    Enjoy the day GayleCz

    • R. Ann

      Thanks. I’d actually considered doing a full article on pruning. Timing, tree age and health, purpose/intent and species can affect when and how we prune so much, even before you get into bearing loads and whether it’s better to decrease fruit load at flower stage or at marble stage, and whether you’re going to hold onto scions for grafting or use pruning limbs for air layering, stuff like water sprouts and tertiary growths, considerations like access and mature spreads, surrounding plants, hedge or free standing, the varying shapes some take to, if you’re pruning to a tree, shrub, low split, lollipop or umbrella, or specialty like espalier or columnar … soooo much more than I want to pack into one article, let alone add to an already long intro and primer, especially one focused on smaller tree options.

      Pruning trees, shrubs and brambles to varying purposes and in differing environments occupies at least part of a class a week for 12-15 weeks when I teach a horticulture class. Dormancy, spring and fall each have their own caveats, some of them directly relating to specific conditions or needs and some of them the climates and stressors.

      For now, I’m totally passing. If you’re into it, you might want to tackle it. If not, there are lots of guides both online and at libraries and through retailers with the very general rules of thumb for airflow, crossing, weight distro and scion size.

      Hope your arm recovers quickly.

  • BobW

    Dang. You just keep coming up with great pieces for the site. The box you define for tree placement has given me some great ideas for next spring.

    • R. Ann

      Thank you.

      If your library runs to it, Gaia’s Garden might be one to read this autumn to plan for it. The suntrap image is from that. I’m not the biggest T Hemmenway fan, but the designs are fabs.

      There’s an online permaculture course where Mad Max meyers (best hats ever) talks about some unique things, too, stuff you only hear from him – at least, with his terms. It’s free to watch the videos. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the course and other videos, but MM is awesome (well worth the trip to CA if it ever comes up).

      I went with that size because it’s a reasonable chunk even for ‘burbs and looser city lots, and most of the 3 have somewhere in there that somebody could cut in half, gut a section and use the basic rim, or cut it in thirds and still have a reasonable planting plan, using either trees or small-med-large shrubs by size, and it would still create opportunities to expand or throw in a garden area, but still create a lot of edge and places to access, drop water catchment, and just need loosened to do 2 of the 3 major swale types on a dry hill.
      Glad it caught your eye!

      Cheers!

      • BobW

        Wow. There’s going to be a lot to think through. After relocating from a hideous suburb to an 80-acre plot, I’ve got a lot of room to do some amazing things, but this child of the suburbs hasn’t grown a single tomato since I was 10.

        We planted hundreds of evergreen and deciduous trees around the property this spring, but keeping the seedlings watered has been a challenge. I’m thinking I need to develop a hydration solution before I go hog wild with a full-on Garden of Eden solution.

        I know I can tap into the in-ground sprinkler system the PO installed when they built the place, but need that legit watering solution to ensure I’m not digging 1/2 of everything up in the Spring.

        And for the record, I’m fully on with you being my neighbor too.

        • R. Ann

          That’s very sweet. 🙂

          I hate to say it, but it’s hard to keep up with that many young trees at once without a dedicated infrastructure for them. Depending on the size, their survival chances aren’t great no matter what. There’s a reason logging companies stick 30 plugs to a yard (only a slight exaggeration).

          One thing you might look at is the same thing I was talking about with Huples – fertility island.

          Basically you start with one area, and you create your system. Maybe it’s the most-likely or most-needed spot for a small scale-swale single-primary-tree system, or a short “log”, or a patch that you start cover cropping. That island of care establishes, and its benefits start spreading to others.

          Too, and this is a biggie if you’re not consulting anyone local, it keeps your failures on a “learned from it” instead of a “devastating” level.

          You need TIME to observe. I don’t know how long you’ve been in place, but consider this:
          – I’ve been in landscaping, ecosystem restoration, and stormwater management for nearly a decade
          – I’ve been growing with a 5-8 year break since I was 8-10 years old
          – I just moved this summer
          – I am NOT digging anything non-mobile or seriously impactful, I am NOT putting any serous money into soil amendments, I am NOT doing any till, I am NOT putting in any permanent structures.
          For about a year, maybe a bit less (I might start next spring.

          Even after multiple visits, mapping water during and after storms of varying level, collecting average monthly data, doing core soil digs, and walking the 3 properties extensively for clues you can get from brush, land cover, and nearby ditches and road edges, I don’t know enough yet.
          I could rush in, guess, take others’ word for it, and I have enough experience to be pretty close.
          However, I don’t know our habits yet, I’m still in flux, and I need a semi-solid plan of what’s coming in so I can get the best access for it, leave some wiggle room, leave expansion room, and not be wasting my time.

          Just saying. Sometimes it’s hard, especially when we feel monkeys and dragons on our necks, but sometimes taking a beat to observe helps.

          Use that beat to get or develop some terrain maps if you haven’t yet. Dealing with slope is different than dealing with a flat screen or a flat sheet of paper. Big time.
          : )

          • R. Ann

            Oh yeah. And container garden. Buckets are cheap and free and so are cardboard. Most of us still have time for turnips, beets, lettuces, cabbage (prestarted). Many of us still have time for green beans (bush) and peas.

            It’s not the same as soil gardening, but it can start getting your toes wet again for various pests and plant disease/problems, and what you grow in this year can be next year’s starter-cup soil.

            Also, start composting. And looking up permaculture zones and sectors mapping.

            Even if you’re not going to jump to the greenie wagon, the zones and sectors are just part of smart design.

            It looks at habits, where you go daily, weekly, and seasonally, and uses that information to develop a plan for where to put the most-needy items.
            Likewise, sectors is about mapping what comes into and leaves your property. Some of it is useful (water, light, human traffic). Some of it we’re avoiding or need to find a way to divert (deer, raccoons, ball-chasing dogs/spouses/children). Some of it is pro-con equally, and specific conditions decide what is good, bad, indifferent, and periodically not enough or too much.

            You tailor your landscape to take advantage of some, buffer others, divert some, sequester things like water and sun, but maybe also to dry up one area or make the best decision for locating a serpentine undulating lake.

            Plus, if you’re a hunter or eco-freak, once you’re observing, maybe you decide this patch here is prime to promote quail and hare, or you want to avoid working over this hill due to slump and erosion that will mess with the beavers or fish that like clear water, and other things like that.

            Time to observe is good, especially when you can be doing stuff like cold frames near the house and container gardening while you’re at it.
            : )

  • calamity janet

    I wish you were my neighbor.

    • R. Ann

      You just made my day!
      (And I really needed it today, so thank you double!! !!)

  • R. Ann

    Here’s a tag-on for fruit tree size and life, from Dave Wilson Nursery: http://www.davewilson.com/question/how-long-do-fruit-trees-live

    Approximate expected productive life:
    Apple and Pear, standard 20 to 40 years
    Apple and Pear, semi-dwarf 15 to 25 years
    Asian Pear 15 to 25 years
    Apricot 20 to 40 years
    Cherry 15 to 30 years
    Fig 30 to 40 years
    Jujube 40 to 75 years
    Nectarines, Peaches and Plums 15 to 25 years
    Persimmons 30 to 50 years
    Pomegranate 25 to 35 years

    I list it because there’s apparently a growing trend where people think dwarf trees only live or produce 5-10 years, and standards only produce for 8-15. No, although you may only get PEAK maximum production for 8-10 years for some species.

    There ARE things like sand cherries that are so prone to disease and death, you plant to only have them in 5-year cycles.
    That works for me sometimes, though, giving 2-3 years of production and then being pulled as trees//shrubs to either side grow larger. Sand cherries are also rarely grafted and take only 3-4 months to air layer, so you can maintain constant propagation and cultivation.

    It’s also worth noting that on the east coast, near-FL to upper NY, most soft stone fruit are managed in 12-tear cycles.
    2-4 to begin and reach max production
    4-6 of max production
    2-4 of diminishing yields still at market level

    That’s why you see so many peach and nectarine fields with rows of trees of different sizes. Farmers will pull their downward-tapering trees and replace them, plotting it so they can be getting regular, predictable amounts of harvest.

    It’s also worth noting that this is big ag management. Look at the accepted number of single-cob and blank-stalk corn percentages for commercial farm management, and then ask yourself if that would be okay if you were only planting 10×10′ or 100×100′ total. One level of typos and familiarity in writing is totally okay here with Pat, while a newspaper and scientific journals hold a different standard.

    We just do things differently than industry sometimes.

    And sometimes, certain techniques improve on industry standards. I make a much better burger than McD’s, but McD’s and Walmart have stock-to-service efficiency that beats me hands down.

    Cheers!

  • Arcangel911

    Pruning, grafting and starting are always interesting.

    • R. Ann

      That bears putting on a t-shirt. (Dry humor tone rolling out with a grin.)

      I graft as little as possible now. If something is pure genetic and I want to propagate, nine times out of ten I turn to air layering in yogurt cups and milk jugs or compound layering to mounds-on-cardboard or into coffee cans now. Just sooooo much easier and sooooo much faster to a finished product, with sooooo much less issue for the “is it dead, is it dormant?” scion and the damn moss and mildew.

      I don’t mind pruning – it’s just so specific to purpose and soooo hard to describe with only words and still images, I’m not writing it. Dave Wilson Nursery do a fine enough job as a RoT reference and for general purposes, and the Eden mulch-composted pony poo guy (name’s escaping me) does a nice quick show of apple trees that also works well for some of the fruiting shrubs.
      🙂