Many of us would love to grow a full-size orchard but simply lack the space to make our dreams a reality. So it’s no surprise that there are now many ingenious ways to shoehorn more fruit trees into less space than you might have imagined possible.
There’s no absolute minimum for how many fruit trees constitute an orchard, but five is the generally accepted lower limit. Five fruit trees may seem like a lot to pack into a small space, but with a little creativity it can work.
Fruits to grow in your mini orchard
While fruit trees such as apples are instantly associated with orchard culture, nuts and berrying shrubs can also be grown in an orchard.
Citrus orchards are generally referred to as groves, but don’t let that stop you! If you have the climate for citrus fruits, dwarf varieties in containers can take up very little space and produce an awful lot of fruits.
Many fruit trees these days are helpfully grafted onto special dwarfing rootstocks that make them more manageable for harvesting and maintenance. The variety grafted onto the rootstock also influences the final size of the plant, so do take this into consideration.
Growing conditions also play their part. For instance, if your garden is windswept, prone to waterlogging, or has poor soil, don’t fall into the trap of choosing the most dwarfing rootstock available – the tree will simply not be vigorous enough to cope. Take advice from your local fruit tree nursery when choosing varieties and rootstocks for your area.
Training fruit against a wall or fence can help to further restrict the size of the tree. Apples and pears can be trained as fans or espaliers, but make sure to choose spur-bearing varieties of apples as opposed to tip-bearers. Plums, peaches, cherries, nectarines and apricots can all be grown as fans.
One option sometimes offered for sale is ‘family’ apple trees. These are multiple varieties (typically three) grafted onto a single rootstock. This enables you to enjoy a range of flavors from one plant and ensures you have pollination partners close by. This sounds great, but gardeners who have grown these often say that one variety will tend to outperform the others, so bear that in mind.
Mini orchard design
Packing more fruit into the space you have available means thinking beyond the traditional. Forget block planting at wide spacings – instead, incorporate your fruiting plants into your overall garden design.
Garden boundaries can be planted up with fruiting hedges or wall- or fence-hugging espaliers or fans. A row of cordon fruit trees can be used to provide a screen between different areas of your garden. You can even grow apples as tiny step-over cordons which are, as the name suggests, no taller than knee high and can be used to define the edges of paths or borders.
Borders can be planned to include fruit trees and bushes with stunning blossom. Lawns can be brightened up by planting a dwarf fruit tree within it as a focal point – or even better, plant several dwarf fruit trees and turn your boring old unproductive lawn into a beautiful and bountiful mini orchard!
Many fruits can be grown in large containers, turning your patio or deck into valuable growing space. Special attention needs to be paid to fertility and watering when growing in containers, but some fruits, such as figs, can respond well to being grown in a pot.
Some gardeners have reported success with ultra high-density planting. For instance, you could grow two to four plants 12-18 inches (30-45cm) apart in the same planting hole. If you plan to use this technique choose trees grown on a similar rootstock so that very vigorous plants don’t bully more delicate ones. The trees will also need careful pruning to prevent them becoming congested in the centre.
Keeping your mini orchard ‘mini’
No matter how good your planning and planting techniques, one thing is certain – trees and bushes want to grow, and to keep them in check they need pruning. Deciduous trees are normally pruned in winter, when they’re dormant, because this results in less stress to the tree and promotes vigorous new growth come springtime. With a mini orchard the desired result is different.
Trained fruit trees are routinely pruned in summer because summer pruning restricts growth, helps let in more sunlight to ripen the fruits and encourages next year’s fruiting buds. The same technique can be used on any fruit tree you need to keep small.
All restricted trees can easily become stressed, so they need to be cared for more than those left to do their own thing. Be prepared to keep a careful eye on watering, feeding and mulching as well as pruning.
I hope this has given you some ideas for ways to fit more fruit into your edible garden. If you have any other ideas or tips on how to grow more in a limited space, please do let us know about it by dropping us a comment below.