Planning the home fruit garden requires more future-thinking than the vegetable garden. Most vegetables are annuals or biennials and spend just one or two seasons in the garden. Most fruits are trees or shrubs and live for 10 to 50 years or more.
How much of each crop you want to produce will be the first thing to consider when planning an edible garden, including fruit or vegetables. You should then make a list of what you like to eat, and estimate how much of each crop you will eat fresh, cooked, or preserved. By estimating the yield of each plant, you will be able to determine how much of each crop you should plant.
Size of the Fruit Garden
- Soft fruits which include strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries require little more than a planting bed 3 feet wide and 6 to 10 feet long, perhaps less. A strawberry plant will be in the garden for three years; a raspberry or blackberry will live 5 to 10 or more years; a blueberry will live 40 or 50 years.
- A dwarf or trained fruit tree such as an apple or pear will require about 4 feet by 4 feet in the garden. A semi-dwarf apple tree will require about twice that space. Standard fruit trees grow much larger—25 feet by 25 feet or more; they may be too big for a home garden. A dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit tree will live 15 to 20 years; a standard fruit tree will live 40 to 100 years depending on the variety.
- A fruit tree trained as a column may require a space as small as 3 feet by 3 feet. Fruit trees that fruit on spurs such as apples and pears are well suited for growing columnar.
- Many fruit trees can be grown as cordons or espaliers; they might require a planting bed against a post, wall, fence, or house just 3 feet by 3 feet or 3 feet by 6 feet or so. Apples and pears are well suited for cordons and espaliers. Plums and cherries also can be trained to a trellis or espalier.
- Besides space, time is a consideration when planting fruits; most soft fruits will bear fruit the same year or the spring after they are planted. A young fruit tree will bear fruit in three or four years; a standard fruit tree may require five or six years to bear fruit. (Of course, many fruit trees, once they begin bearing fruit, will continue to do for 40 or 50 years or more.)
Site and Soil for Growing Fruit
- Plant soft fruits and fruit trees where they will get a full day of sun, 8 hours or more is optimal.
- Plant fruits in compost-rich, loamy soil that is deep and well-drained. Avoid planting fruits where water sits after a rainstorm. Fruit tree roots grow deep when the soil is loamy and trees are watered deeply. Deep roots support strong trees.
- Plant fruits where they are sheltered from a prevailing breeze or wind. A breeze can suck moisture from leaves and fruit; wind can do the same and even break branches.
- Avoid planting fruits in low spots where cold air and frost can collect. Cold air and frost can damage or kill flowers in spring and slow ripening late in the season.
- Access your garden space before planting. Decide where fruits will grow best and be sure there is room for vegetables as well.
Spacing Plants in the Fruit Garden
- If you live where summers are cool, plant fruits near walls or buildings that can collect solar heat during the day and radiate the heat back out to the garden at night. A south-facing wall will keep fruits warm and productive in gardens that tend to be cool in summer.
- If you live where spring temperatures vacillate; warm one day and cold the next, plant fruits on the north side of a building or wall where temperatures remain consistently cool until spring has fully arrived and temperatures warm evenly. Avoid planting in spots that may warm one week and cool off the next; wide temperature variations can damage or kill fruit flower buds in spring (and cause uneven ripening in summer).
- Plant fruit trees where other fruits and vegetables will not grow too close. Leave the ground under fruit trees bare except for a thick mulch of aged compost or leafmold. Do not make fruits compete for water and nutrients. Plant fruit trees in their own garden or to the side of the vegetable garden. Deep-rooted fruit trees should be irrigated separately from shallow-rooted vegetables. Mulching will keep weeds down under fruits. Avoid mechanical cultivation of weeds near fruit trees; you might disturb or harm the roots.
Space Saving Growing Methods
- Consider space-saving fruit growing methods such as cordons, espaliers, stepovers, single-stem or columnar trees, containers on plant dollies that are easily moved, and hanging baskets.
- Cordon fruit trees grow on a single stem or trunk with short fruiting lateral branches commonly growing at 45-degree angles from the trunk; fruits grow at picking height. Cordons are often free-standing or supported by wires.
- Espaliered fruit trees also grow on a single trunk, but branches are usually trained at right angles from and grow horizontal to the ground. Espaliers can be supported by a trellis or wires often against a wall or fence.
- Step-overs are small fruit trees with low lateral branches trained to a wire at knee height or lower. Stepovers are often placed as edging around planting beds.
- Columnar fruit trees take little but vertical space in the garden. Apples and pears can be trained to a single-stem or columnar form; fruits on short spurs grow the length of a single-trunked columnar tree. You can grow 4 or 5 different columnar fruit trees in a space just 10 by 10 feet.
- Container-grown fruits placed on heavy-duty plant dollies can be wheeled across patios and walkways to catch the sun in small spaces. They can also be wheeled indoors or under overhangs when frost threatens.
- Plant fruit trees and rows of fruiting brambles where they will not cast shadows on other growing crops. Plant large fruits to the north of the garden where shadows will not fall on other edible crops—unless you want them to shade shade-tolerant plants such as lettuce and leafy greens, mint, and rhubarb.
- Use a stepped planting method. Place standards (which grow to 20 feet tall or taller) to the north end of the garden then place semi-dwarf trees (which grow 12 to 15 feet tall) directly to the south of the taller trees, then plant dwarf trees and large bush fruits (which grow 6 to 10 feet tall). Next, place espaliers of hard fruits such as apples or pears, then cordons and trellises of soft fruits such as grapes, then small bushy soft fruits such as currants and raspberries. Finally, site the lowest growing fruits such as strawberries to the far southern end of the garden where they will get plenty of sunshine. This is a stepped planting method from the tallest growing to the lowest growing with the tallest plants to the north and the smaller ones to the south.
- Use the microclimates in your garden. Most gardens have at least two or three different microclimates–spots that are warmer or cooler, that are sunnier or shadier, and where the soil is drier or wetter than other parts of the garden. Grow a peach tree in the warmest and sunniest part of the garden; grow an apple tree in a cooler spot. Warm spots will usually be south-facing and close to a wall or near a patio. Dry spots will often be on the far side of a wall or fence that breaks the force of wind and rain.
Choosing Fruits for Your Climate
In order to harvest the fruit, one needs a ladder, a head for heights, and an endless appetite for apple crumble. Some of their modern-day siblings, however, are of such small dimensions that they could grow in a large pot.
Why are apple trees usually small? This is because they are grown on a rootstock that is also small. The rootstock is the part of the tree that is mostly underground, to which the upper part of the tree has been grafted. This is done using a horticultural technique that joins the two parts together.
Nursery owners have a wide range of rootstocks to choose from when propagating fruit trees. They carefully select rootstocks according to their compatibility, vigor, hardiness, disease resistance, and capacity to withstand certain growing conditions. For example, M27, an ultra dwarfing rootstock used for apple trees, will produce a very small tree with an average height and spread of just 1.5 to 2m. M9 will produce a tree with a height and spread of 2-3m. M26 will produce a tree with a height and spread of 2.5-4m.
Different methods of pruning and training, like using a dwarfing rootstock, are successfully used to keep fruit trees compact enough for small outdoor spaces. An example of this is a single cordon, which is a small tree with a single vertical main stem and short lateral branches coming off it.
Fruit trees that can be grown as cordons include apple, pear, cherry, gages, and plum trees. Each tree can produce up to 10kg of fruit. Cordons can also be planted in the ground (spaced just 60-80cm apart) to create a mini-orchard, or they can be grown in a line to make a compact and ornamental flowering and fruiting hedge.
If you choose to grow cordon trees as a hedge, plant each tree at a 45-degree angle with the slightly bulging part above the base of the trunk facing upwards.
If you want to grow cordon fruit trees, you will need a strong support for them to grow on, like a single wooden stake or a system of wires. If you are only growing one tree, make sure to get a self-fertile variety so it can pollinate itself, or it will need another compatible variety that flowers at the same time nearby to act as a pollinating partner.
To keep cordon fruit trees compact and productive, prune them in late summer. Cut back the growing tip, plus any new side shoots coming directly off the main stem, as well as side shoots coming off the fruiting spurs (the part of the tree carrying the fruit).
Fruit trees can be trained in many ways that are both space efficient and decorative. For example, you can grow them as espaliers or fans against a sunny wall or fence. Alternatively, you can grow them as standards or lollipop-shaped trees in a large pot.
Other types of fruit trees that can be grown in a large pot outdoors include the self-fertile “Sibley’s Patio Medlar” and “Sibley’s Patio Quince.” These types of trees will typically reach an average height and spread of 1.2m and produce decorative, pollinator-friendly spring blossom, followed by pretty and delicious fruit.
Each of these small, productive trees is ideal for the most limited of outdoor areas. The only drawback is that they need more favorable growing conditions to do well than trees grown on heartier rootstocks. So give them a rich, loose, moisture-holding but well-drained soil/compost in a sunny sheltered spot.
To grow them in pots, make sure the pots are a minimum of 60 cm in diameter. Use a good quality John Innes compost with added grit. Keep them well watered, but don’t let the roots sit in water. Give the compost a top-dressing in the spring.
Containers for Tropical Fruits
Figs and citrus fruits are good choices for growing in containers rather than in the open garden. Fruits that won’t tolerate frost can be grown in containers and moved indoors or undercover in winter; they can be moved back to the garden in summer. Choose dwarfing varieties if you grow fruit trees in containers (use an all-purpose loam-based potting mix with horticultural sand added for good drainage).
Planning for Harvest
- Choose fruiting plants that are easy to harvest. Don’t grow a 25-foot-tall standard-size apple if you don’t have a tall ladder or are afraid of heights. Instead, choose a semi-dwarf or dwarf tree that is easy to harvest by hand or with a fruit picker with your feet firmly planted on the ground.
- Know when the fruits you want to grow come to harvest. Some fruits are ready for harvest early in the season, some midseason, and some late in the season. For a long harvest, for example, grow an early-season apple tree, a mid-season variety, and a late-season variety. Grow June bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral strawberries for a continuous harvest from spring to fall.
- Know how the fruit from the plant you want to grow is used—fresh eating, cooking, or preserving. Some apples are best eaten fresh, others and best cooked or preserved. Choose varieties to match the use you have in mind. The same goes for pears and cherries.