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Down the Garden Path

Dwarf Fruit Trees and Pollination

January is not too early to start to plan for a new home orchard or to consider replacements for aging fruit trees in an existing orchard. There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider, including apple, cherry, peach, pear and plum.

As we live in the northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in back yards and commercial orchards. Certainly at the commercial level you will be able to pick just about every fruit you want, but in the home orchard, apples are a good place to start.

When you shop the fruit tree catalogs or visit with your favorite retail garden center, find out what cultivars or varieties they will be carrying this spring. Homeowners should consider dwarf apples, as in most cases, yard space is limited. Dwarf apple trees are naturally smaller than their full-sized siblings, and are much easier to train, prune and maintain than a full-sized fruit tree. If you have lots of space, full-sized fruit trees are always an option.

Fruit trees are dwarf because they are naturally so or because fruit tree growers graft or bud them to a dwarfing rootstock, limiting the size of the tree. If they are naturally dwarf, then the apples listed will be a "spur-type" tree. There are many examples of spurs available to us – Empire, Red and Yellow Delicious, Macintosh, Rome, Winesap, and Early blaze, are a few. The smallest fruit trees will be a combination of a spur-type grafted or budded on a dwarfing root stock. It should be noted that the catalogs will list a mature size considerably smaller than the full-sized version, but the ultimate size of your dwarf tree is really up to you. If you start to train too late, or do not prune correctly, that dwarf apple tree will be much larger than you wanted or expected, but it will still be much smaller than a full-sized tree.

Another very important key to selecting your fruit trees will be pollination. Fruit tree catalogs will suggest which apple varieties will be the best pollinators for the varieties you wish to grow. It is critical that you have TWO DIFFERENT varieties blooming at the same time in order to get good pollination and a strong fruit set. Apples are, for the most part, considered to be "self-unfruitful," meaning that pollen from other flowers on the same tree or from another tree of the same variety will not pollinate itself. A possible exception to this rule is if you have an ornamental flowering crabapple in bloom at the same time; the pollen from the flowering crabapple will pollinate your fruiting apple trees. So if you live in an established subdivision and you or a neighbor has a flowering crabapple in the front or side yard or an apple tree of a different variety that blooms at the same time, you do not have to plant a second apple tree for pollination purposes. This will free up space in your backyard.

Further compounding the pollination story is that there are fruit trees containing sterile pollen. You will get apples, yet that pollen sterile tree cannot serve as a pollinator for your other fruit trees. This is just one reason why you should research your options and ask questions at your garden retailer before purchasing and planting your trees. For more information, contact your local Extension office or visit