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Master gardener in training: backyard orchards

May 14, 2010 |  7:55 am

As you might recall from the Thursday post on my Master Gardener class, Tom Spellman of Dave Wilson Nursery was lecturing on backyard orchards and high-density planting -- putting lots of fruit trees in a small space. This backyard method has become a trend among commercial growers, especially in the avocado fields of Ventura County. There are three key issues: choosing successive ripening varieties, controlling tree size through aggressive summer pruning, and growing varieties you know you will use.

The area can be small -- four trees in a 10-by-15-foot space, either all together or in four separate holes. Pruning means fruit are within arm’s reach -- and that bird netting and trimming tasks can be done in minutes. By planting successively ripening varieties, you can have a reasonable amount of edibles nearly year round: peaches from May until September, apples from June to November, pears from July to October.

If four trees sounds like too much work, you can always get a single tree with multiple varieties grafted onto it. An apple tree with six varieties of successive ripening fruit on one rootstock can be espaliered in an area 5 feet wide by 5 feet tall and 12 inches from the fence. They’re not cheap, of course -- not unless you factor in the carbon costs of that shiny Red Delicious in the supermarket.

Once you've chosen the right varieties, the mini-orchard is managed through controlling the tree’s vigor, its natural predilection for growth. Feed trees to develop structure their first few years with a mix that is high in nitrogen (a 12-3-3 mixture of nitrogen, potassium and potash). But once established, reverse the formula  to 3-12-12. Nitrogen will push your trees just like it pushes your lawn, Spellman told us. You get more fruiting and flowering wood when you take nitrogen out of picture.

When selecting a tree, consider the runts, something that already has low branches. The tallest isn’t always the best for a backyard orchard.“We’re not looking for fruit trees,” said Spellman. “We’re looking for fruity bushes.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo: An espaliered tree with three types of apples. Credit: Ann Summa

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