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 – 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. At the local orchards, 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 to 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 are, much easier to train, prune and maintain that a full sized fruit tree. If you have lots of space, full-sized fruit trees are always an option or the variety you want may not be available in the "small version."
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 your fruit 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, 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 that 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 larger than you wanted or expected, yet still 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, 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 crab apple 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, which will free up space in your backyard.