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Over the Garden Fence

Fruit trees have a place, even in a small yard

Note: this is part one of a series on fruit trees

You don’t need space for a full orchard to plant and enjoy fruit trees in the home landscape. However, where you place those fruit trees – whether it’s a whole home orchard or just a few trees – makes a big difference in how they grow and perform. As they say, “location, location, location.” Here’s what to consider:

Soil and moisture

A major factor is the soil. Placing the home orchard where water will drain away very soon after a rain event will help ensure that the roots will have the needed soil oxygen to continue to supply both the moisture and nutrients needed to the canopy. This is important to support continued growth of the foliage and filling of the fruits. Soils that remain too wet will promote root and crown decay, putting further stress on the fruit tree, and causing potential decline and death, especially if crown rot is the culprit. If your soils are on the heavy side, meaning lots of clay, then plant the fruit trees a bit higher in the planting hole. Even a couple of inches can make a difference.

Air and frost

A consideration we may not often hear about is air drainage. Home orchardists can avoid those late spring frosts to a great degree by placing the trees on a slope or at the high point in the landscape, so the cold air settles away from the trees. The challenge is preventing the more frost susceptible flower buds from damage late in the winter and very early spring. By planting our trees in the best possible locations in the yard, we can reduce the risk. Stone fruits like peaches are the most susceptible to those late spring frosts.

Yard size and tree choice

When choosing trees, homeowners should think about some level of dwarfness, especially if yard space is limited. There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider, such as apple, cherry, peach, pear, and plum. As we live in the northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in backyards because it is very winter hardy.

Dwarf apple trees are smaller than their full-sized siblings and are much easier to train, prune, and maintain. 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 fruit tree. If they are naturally dwarf, then the apples listed will be a “spur-type” tree. The smallest fruit trees will be a combination of a spur-type grafted or budded on a dwarfing root stock. These will need support as their root systems are limited, and they can easily be blown over. It should be noted that the catalogs will list a mature size, but that ultimate size of your dwarf tree is up to you.

Dwarf fruit trees are not limited to just apples, so a larger mix can be planted in a smaller space. When buying at your favorite garden center or through a fruit tree catalog, make sure you consider winter hardiness, mature size, and pollination needs. We’ll explore more on pollination next time. Stay tuned!

Home Orchard / Fruit Tree Blog Series:

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.