High Density Orchard Techniques for the Backyard Orchard

High Density Orchard Techniques for the Backyard Orchard

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For years, most of the information about growing fruit came from commercial orchard culture: methods that promoted maximum size for maximum yield but required 12-foot ladders for pruning, thinning and picking, and 400 to 600 square feet of land per tree. Tree spacing had to allow for tractors.

The objective of high density planting or what is sometimes called the back yard orchard,  is
the prolong harvest of tree-ripe fruit from a small space.
Many fruit varieties may be be planted close together.
The trees should be kept small by summer pruning.

Most people today do not need or expect commercial results from their backyard fruit trees.

Backyard Orchard Culture Is High Density Planting And Successive Ripening

Maximize the length of the fruit season by planting several (or many) fruit varieties with different ripening times.

Because of the limited space available to most homeowners, this means using one or more of the techniques for close-planting and training fruit trees; two, three or four trees in one hole, espalier, and hedgerow are the most common of these techniques.

Four trees instead of one means ten to twelve weeks of fruit instead of only two or three.

Close planting offers the additional advantage of restricting a tree’s vigor. A tree won’t grow as large when there are competing trees close by. Close-planting works best when rootstocks of similar vigor are planted together.

For example, using a four-in-one-hole planting, four trees on Citation rootstock would be easier to maintain than a combination of one tree on Lovell, one on Mazzard, one on Citation, and one on M-27.

In many climates, planting more varieties can also mean better cross-pollination of pears, apples, plums and cherries, which means more consistent production.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Accepting The Responsibility For Tree Size

Small trees yield crops of manageable size and are much easier to spray, thin, prune, net, and harvest than large trees. If trees are kept small, it is possible to plant a greater number of trees, affording the opportunity for more kinds of fruit and a longer fruit season.

Most semi-dwarfing rootstocks do not control fruit-tree size as much as you might expect.

Rootstocks can help to improve soil and climate adaptation, pest and disease resistance, precocity (heavy bearing in early years), tree longevity, and ease of propagation.

To date, no rootstocks have been developed which do all these things, plus fully-dwarf the scion.

Pruning is the only way to keep most fruit trees under twelve feet tall.

The most practical method of pruning is Summer Pruning.

Tree size is the grower’s responsibility. Choose a size and don’t let the tree get any bigger. A good height is the height you can reach for thinning and picking while standing on the ground, or while standing on a low stool.

Two other important influences on tree size are irrigation and fertilization practices. Fruit trees should not be grown with lots of nitrogen and lots of water.

Most kinds of deciduous fruit trees require pruning to stimulate new fruiting wood, to remove broken and diseased wood, to space the fruiting wood, and to allow good air circulation and sunlight penetration in the canopy.

Pruning is most important in the first three years, because this is when the shape and size of a fruit tree is established.

It’s much easier to keep a small tree small than it is to make a large tree small.

Pruning at the same time as thinning the crop is strongly recommended.

By pruning when there is fruit on the tree, the kind of wood on which the tree sets fruit (one year-old wood, two year-old wood, spurs, etc.) is apparent, which helps you to make better pruning decisions.

Backyard Orchard Culture Means Summer Pruning For Size Control

There are several reasons why summer pruning is the easiest way to keep fruit trees small. Reducing the canopy by pruning in summer reduces photosynthesis (food manufacture), thereby reducing the capacity for new growth. Summer pruning also reduces the total amount of food materials and energy available to be stored in the root system in late summer and fall. This controls vigor the following spring, since spring growth is supported primarily by stored foods and energy. And, obviously, pruning is easier in nice weather than in winter.

Pruning Backyard Orchard Culture is simple. When planting a bareroot tree, cut side limbs back by at least two-thirds to promote vigorous new growth. Then, two or three times per year, cut back or remove limbs and branches to accomplish the following:

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First year

At planting time, bareroot trees may be topped as low as 15 feet up from the ground to force very low scaffold limbs or trees may be topped higher than 15 feet (up to four feet) depending on the presence of well-spaced existing side limbs or desired tree form. After the spring flush of growth cut the new growth back by half (late April/early May in Central Calif.). In late summer (late August to mid-September) cut the subsequent growth back by half. Size control and development of low-fruiting wood begins now.

When selecting containerized trees for planting in late spring/early summer, select trees with well-placed low scaffold limbs. These are usually trees that were cut back at planting time to force low growth. Cut back new growth by half now, and again in late summer.

Two, Three or Four trees in one hole 
At planting time, plant each tree 18 to 24 feet apart. Cut back all trees to the same height.
Cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer as above. In the first two years especially, cut back vigorous varieties as often as necessary.

Do not allow any variety to dominate and shade out the others.

Plant each grouping of 3 or 4 trees in one hole at least 12 to 15 feet apart to allow for adequate light penetration and good air circulation.

Hedgerow plantings: 
Easiest to maintain when spaced at least 3 or more feet apart. Make sure that the placement of the hedgerow does not block air circulation and light from other plantings.

To conserve water: 
for single trees, apply at least a 4-inch layer of mulch up to 4 feet from the tree or from the center of the planting of 2, 3, or 4 trees in one hole.

Second year

Pruning is the same as the first year: cut back new growth by half in spring and late summer.

Pruning three times may be the easiest way to manage some vigorous varieties: Prune in the spring, early summer and late summer.

Thin to an open center beginning in the second season.
Prune single-tree plantings to vase shape.
Multi-plantings: thin out the center to allow plenty of sunlight into the interior of the group of trees.
Remove broken limbs. Remove diseased limbs well below signs of disease.

Third year

Choose a height and don’t let the tree get any taller.

Tree height is the decision of the pruner. When there are vigorous shoots above the chosen height, cut back or remove them. In late spring/early summer, cut back all new growth by at least half.

The smaller one, two, and three-year-old branches that bear the fruit should have at least six inches of free space all around. This means that where two branches begin close together and grow in the same direction, one should be removed.

When limbs cross one another, one or both should be cut back or removed.

When removing large limbs, first saw part way through the limb on the under side ahead of your intended cut. Do this so it won’t tear the trunk as it comes off. Also, don’t make the final cut flush with the trunk or parent limb and be sure to leave a collar (a short stub).

To develop an espalier, fan, or other two-dimensional form,  remove everything that doesn’t grow flat. Selectively thin and train what’s left to space the fruiting wood.

Smaller trees are easier to spray, prune, thin, net and harvest! With small trees, it’s possible to have more varieties that ripen at different times. The easiest way to keep trees small is by summer pruning. There are lots of styles, methods and techniques of summer pruning; most of them are valid. The important thing is to prune!

There is a definite sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, a special pleasure in growing your own fruit, growing new varieties of fruit, producing fruit that is unusually sweet and tasty, having fruit over a long season, and in sharing tree-ripe fruit with others. These are the rewards of learning and experimenting with new cultural practices and techniques as you become an accomplished backyard fruit grower.

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