So you say you don’t have space to plant fruit trees?

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Picture courtesy Michael Coghlan - see his flickr pagePicture courtesy Michael Coghlan - see his flickr pageThere are many innovative ways of shaping fruit trees to keep them smaller, and gardeners can even grow their own ‘fruit salad trees’ using simple grafting techniques,  and if you learn the art of espalier you can utilise the perimeter walls around your property to grow fruit. This article will inspire you to take a fresh new look at your garden and the spaces available to you to grow your own fruit.

Image by youyikoyoyo from PixabayImage by youyikoyoyo from PixabayThe appeal of an orchard filled with sweet, sun-kissed fruit is every gardener’s dream, and for many of us this dream is inspired by wonderful childhood memories of long summer days spent playing outside and riding our bicycles around without a care in the world, and of course, part of the fun was climbing the fruit trees in our own back yards and perching precariously on the branches while eating the fruit. And, children stealing their neighbour’s fruit; often together with children of that very same household was about the worst crime committed in the neighbourhood besides playing “tok-tokkie”.

Sadly, growing fruit trees became very untrendy and gardeners focused on large expanses of manicured lawns and long borders filled with flowering shrubs, perennials, and lots of annual colour. The trends then shifted to more practical gardens which were often a lot smaller, and to gardens where maintenance could be kept at a minimum, simply because our lives had become too busy and gardening had also become a lot more expensive. Gone were the large expanses of lawn and masses of annuals which required lots of watering, and in their place we saw a lot more ornamental grasses and water-wise perennials and shrubs being used, together with a lot more hard landscaping materials like pavers, pebbles and mulches.

Many gardeners bemoan the fact that they don’t have the space to grow fruit trees, while others rightly declare that fruit trees require regular spraying which becomes a chore, and nobody likes the sight of their precious fruits rotting away on the ground as a result of fruit flies. And they are right, you do need space and yes you will most likely have to spray, but today there are many new and innovative ways of growing and shaping fruit trees to keep them small, and the very ancient art of espaliered fruit is trending once again, as is growing fruit in containers.

 Pear tree espalier. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking-  see her flickr page Pear tree espalier. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking- see her flickr pageGardeners and horticultural students interested in grafting and budding techniques could even try their hand at growing what are called “fruit salad trees”, where several varieties of fruit are grafted onto a single rootstock. This practice enables one to grow many varieties of fruit in a small space and is very popular overseas. Hopefully commercial growers in South Africa will start to produce these ‘space age’ fruit salad trees - a ton of money could be made with this method.

There are also many effective natural sprays available to control pests and diseases on fruit trees, so when you purchase your fruit trees, you may as well budget and buy the sprays at the same time. There’s nothing more frustrating than working in the garden and noticing that your fruit tree needs spraying, but not having anything to spray with.

Thankfully the wheel of gardening fashion is turning again, with large numbers of gardeners prepared to put in the time and effort to plant and maintain fruit trees in their gardens again. So, if you are inspired to find out more about modern homesteading in the suburbs and how to incorporate fruit trees into your garden landscape in a variety of both old and new ways, you certainly can. All it takes is a bit of research on your part in order to identify the best fruit trees and varieties for your climatic region. This, together with the correct care and a little cooperation with mother-nature will ensure success, and when you take that first bite you will remember how fruit used to taste when you were a child - the way sun-ripened fruit really should taste – incredibly sweet and juicy!  And you don’t need an entire orchard to grow your own fruit, if space is limited, spoil yourself with just one or two of your favourite varieties.

If you have the space, go ahead and plant your orchard, but if space is limited be extra careful about which trees you select. Luckily for gardeners, plant breeders have selected trees for commercial farmers, not only for their bearing capacity and flavour, but also for their compact growth habit which allows for easier harvesting. Many of these more compact fruit tree varieties are available to gardeners in South Africa.

Dwarf Banana TreeDwarf Banana TreeDwarf trees are also becoming available, for example there are dwarf citrus varieties which only grow to about 2m tall, and even dwarf paw-paws. Most of these dwarf fruit trees are genetically modified, and have not been grafted, but rather have their short stature bred into their genetic makeup. On average, they stay between 1 and 2m tall, but unfortunately these dwarfs often lack vigour and have a shorter lifespan. When a fruit tree is bred for one quality only, like size, then other traits such as flavour, climate adaptability, and overall vitality, become necessarily secondary. By selecting your fruit trees for size only, you may miss out on the tastiest varieties.

Other dwarf fruit trees available are grafted onto ultra-dwarfing rootstocks. These trees also grow 1 to 2m tall, but because of their extremely small root systems, ultra-dwarfing rootstocks present many of the same problems that genetic dwarfs do in terms of short lifespans and overall plant health and vigour.

Many nurseries offer fruit trees grafted onto semi-dwarf rootstock, and many people seek these out expecting small trees, but remember, semi-dwarf only means ‘smaller than standard’ and many will still grow too large for small gardens. However, if you adopt the pruning method detailed below, you can keep them small.

Pruning and training young apple trees. Picture courtesy Apple and Pear Australia Ltd - see flickr linkPruning and training young apple trees. Picture courtesy Apple and Pear Australia Ltd - see flickr linkCreating small fruit trees by pruning

The vast majority of fruit trees, including semi-dwarf varieties, can easily grow to 4.5m tall or more, and anyone who has tried to manage one of these large trees in a regular sized to small garden will instantly appreciate the value of small fruit trees. They require less space, are easier to care for, and still produce fruit abundantly, but in manageable quantities. Growing compact trees by pruning allows you to tuck more varieties of fruit into your property. Nearly any standard and semi-dwarf deciduous fruit variety, including pears, peaches, plums, apples and apricots can be trained to stay much more compact.

Fruit trees grown in this way will also need regular pruning throughout the year and the key to this technique is in understanding how fruit trees react to pruning, depending on the season in which they are pruned. The trees’ response is determined by whether the tree is actively growing (spring), gathering nutrients (early summer), preparing for dormancy (late summer), or fully dormant (late autumn and winter).

In June and July garden centres around South Africa sell deciduous fruit trees, either bare rooted or planted nursery bags. The first step to growing a small fruit tree is to buy small specimens like this. Select trees with a stem that’s about as big around as your thumb. These young saplings are usually up to 1m tall, and the trick is to cut the stem right back when the tree is still totally dormant.

The first cut is the most important and is called a “hard heading cut”. This cut removes the growing tip, and can be done before, or immediately after planting your tree. While such a cut may seem extreme, you will need to prune off about the top two-thirds of your new tree. This pruning cut is critical because it will create a low scaffold of branches and keep the canopy of the mature tree within reach.

Here’s how to handle the first cut. Choose a bud at knee-height, and about 45cm from the ground. Be very careful that you leave several buds between where you want to cut and the graft. The graft is that knobby place low down on the trunk where the scion (the graft that determines fruit variety) meets the rootstock. Make a clean 45-degree cut that angles away from the bud, cutting close enough to the bud so it can heal cleanly, but not so close that you cut into the bud itself. This works well for most deciduous fruits, however, peaches and nectarines will sprout more reliably if you cut just above what is called a “nurse limb” - a small branch which is left on the stem. In spring this little branch will quickly sprout new leaves, which in turn will provide nutrients to the little sapling.

If the tree you bought has a stem thicker than 2cm it may have a harder time pushing out buds if you cut it down too low, so in this case make the first dormant hard header cut where the ‘caliper’ (width of the stem) is thumb-sized. As soon as the buds begin to develop, and after the sprouts get going, you can cut the scaffold as low as you prefer.

This hard heading cut will encourage the tree to quickly put down roots, and vigorous growth and branching will occur in spring when the plant directs its energy to the remaining buds, and they will eventually develop into new limbs, each with a growing tip of its own. The resulting open-centred tree will be shorter, stronger, easier to care for, and most fruitful.

In the first spring of growth, after the first buds start to break, take a good look at the spacing of the branches and if you do not like the arrangement of the top buds, simply prune down a bit more on the main stem until the configuration of leafing buds suits you. This place will eventually become the crotch of the tree, and the lower down the crotch is, the easier it will be to keep the tree small. And, the earlier in the season you make this cut the more vigorously new limbs will grow.

Dwarf Cherry Tree. Picture courtesy Brett and Sue Coulstock - see their flickr pageDwarf Cherry Tree. Picture courtesy Brett and Sue Coulstock - see their flickr pageAlso, in early spring of its first year of growth, just as the sprouts reach about 2.5cm to 5cm long, and before woody branches begin to form, check your tree once more. Look for multiple sprouts growing from a single node and pinch them out, leaving only one to continue growing. Remember when pruning fruit trees, the idea is to create an open framework of branches which are reasonably evenly spaced, to allow sunshine and air flow around the branches. 

In early summer you may be alarmed at how aggressively your tree grows, but let it do its thing until around the summer solstice.  Traditionally deciduous fruit trees are pruned in winter when they are totally dormant, and during the following spring they can grow as much as 2m. However, if the same cuts are made in mid-summer around the time of the summer solstice, the resultant growth will only reach about 30cm in length, a desirable result for compact fruit trees.

By late summer, as your tree begins the shift into dormancy, the nutrients collected by the leaves will have already begun to move into the trunk and roots, so the closer to the summer solstice you prune, the greater your size-control effects will be. Pruning at this time removes some of these resources and therefore the late season root growth will be reduced. Reducing root growth with this method of summer pruning is used to slow a tree down, and is most important to do every year, but is especially important in the trees first year of growth. Cuts made while a tree is actively growing will also heal quickly, so do not worry.

Also in late summer in the first year of your trees life you can do another heading cut if you so desire and you can also remove any branches you do not want, and after doing so, prune all the remaining scaffold branches back by at least half. Cut back to a plump bud which is pointing in the same direction as you want the branch to grow. Very aggressive growers like apricots and plums can even be pruned back by two-thirds. Also, remove any suckers growing from the base of the tree.

The key to pruning is to envision how the branches will grow in the future in relation to one another. Ideally a young tree would have three or four branches evenly spaced around its trunk, but nature is not perfect so prune to remove the smaller weaker branches to allow evenly spaced branches which will allow sunlight in and good air flow around the branches. An ideal branch angles upward at 45 degrees, so if you want to keep your branches vertical, consider another heading cut to encourage horizontal growth, or hang weights on the branch to direct its growth downward.

Because most of your hard pruning was done at the summer solstice, in winter when your plants are bare and you can see the structure of the branches better, you only need to make structural and aesthetic decisions, and remove any dead or diseased wood.

Heading cuts are not usually done in winter, because the tree will respond with extremely vigorous growth in summer, however, it can be done if you’re trying to rejuvenate an older tree. Prune heavily in winter only if a tree has stalled, if pruning has been neglected and needs correction, or if you were too timid last time and want to generate some better choices this time around.

After this very intensive pruning in the first year of your trees life, in subsequent years, just keep pruning by making architectural decisions in winter and taking the height down on the branches around the summer solstice.

Depending on the variety of fruit you are growing, you may start harvesting by the third year and your harvest will continue to grow each year. When you tree starts to fruit and the fruits are about the size of the end of your thumb, thin the clusters down to a single fruit.

Do not be scared to prune, fruit trees are very forgiving, decide  what to keep and what to prune and just do it.  Your tree will continue to grow in its own way and you can always make adjustments next season.

Image by Pixaline from PixabayImage by Pixaline from PixabayThe science of espalier

The art of espalier is all about selectively pruning and training a plant into a desired shape, and an espalier fruit tree is the result of intensive training, so if you want to adopt this technique, bear in mind that that any espalier undertaking will be time consuming and can take years to complete. However, once established this method can make an exceptional focal point in bare areas of the garden, and especially along the large bare outdoor walls of your home, or perimeter walls. When trained on a free-standing trellis, these plants can also serve as attractive screens to hide unsightly views or to add privacy. Many plants can be trained this way, including climbing roses, but fruit trees are a favourite to use.

Historical records show this technique dates back to ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphs of espaliered fig trees have been found in tombs dating back to 1400 BC. This method was also used extensively in Europe during the Middle Ages to create outdoor ‘walls’. Fruit trees were also trained up interior courtyard walls to help protect the trees from late frost bud-kill. A wall offers protection from the elements and generates warmth, enabling gardeners in very cold regions to grow more tender fruits in their gardens. The French word "espalier" was originally a noun that referred to the trellis or support upon which the tree was grown but today it refers to the technique itself.

The art of espalier is a lot of work but can be great fun and most rewarding. A few of the benefits include being able to grow fruit at home in a narrow space, and where the fruit is easy to pick and maintain. This method can also be very artistic, and if done correctly, is guaranteed to have your neighbours talking.

Apple fan shaped espalier. Image by Andrew Martin from PixabayApple fan shaped espalier. Image by Andrew Martin from PixabayThere are several ways to espalier plants, and you can virtually create any pattern you like, from simple informal designs using vertical, horizontal, or 45-degree angles, to form intricate designs and patterns like basket weave or fan and candelabra shapes. Even totally random patterns can look wonderful. Do your research before deciding on a pattern to use because some fruits like apples have supple stems which are easy to train and which also produce better when horizontally trained, while others have wood which breaks more easily, making them harder to train horizontally. These types of fruit trees will do better if grown in a fan shape.

Espalier fruit trees will need a strong support to be trained up initially and this can be done against a wall, along a fence, trellis or pergola, or simply across a set of sturdy free-standing posts with horizontal wires, as many grape vines are grown. Various materials can be used like solid wooden frames or wires, even fencing wire can be used, so use whatever suits your pocket. 

Apples and pears are extremely popular for espalier and are easy to train because their new stems don't harden as quickly and are easier to bend. Apple trees are the most forgiving, and this is one of the reasons that they are so popular for espalier.  Since apple and pear trees are a common choice for espalier, it is important to note that a few varieties are tip bearers, and if you want more fruit from your living fence, spur-bearing varieties which fruit repeatedly on the same spurs are a better choice. And, if you're only planting one tree, make sure it's a self-pollinating variety.

Peaches, quinces, figs, olives, crab apples, almonds and pomegranates also espalier very well. Tamarillos, although not typically used in espaliers, can be cut low and trained into a fan shape. Stone fruits like peaches, plums, nectarines and cherries are also best trained into a more upright or fan shape as their wood is more brittle and difficult to train horizontally. See some great examples of espalier here

Informal espalliered fruit trees. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking see her flickr pageInformal espalliered fruit trees. Picture courtesy Leonora Enking see her flickr pageAlmost any fruit tree can be trained in espalier but location is the key and you will only succeed if the variety you have selected suits your climate, your soil is well-drained, and if your trees receive full sun, or at least six hours per day. The method you use will often be determined by the type of fruit tree you are using and on how much maintenance you are prepared to do. For instance, informal patterns can accommodate many types of plants and are less time consuming than formal espalier patterns, which have fewer plant choices and require frequent maintenance.

Various pruning techniques are used to espalier fruit and the types of cuts you make will be depend on the shape you wish to create, so do some research first, before you decide on a pattern and before you start pruning. Traditionally the pruning of espalier trees is done during the pruning season for the type of fruit you are growing, and for deciduous fruits this is in June and July in South Africa, when the trees are completely dormant. However, pruning at the summer solstice, as described above (Creating small fruit trees by pruning), would also work extremely well with espalier, and touch-up pruning can be done as required throughout the growing season. Remove any unnecessary branches and loosen the ties as needed for growth. Also, remove any flower buds during the initial training period to allow the plant to reach its desired height more quickly.

Because espalier trees can only be trained while the branches are still young and flexible it is important to select small bare rooted or young saplings growing in nursery bags to start with.

Fruit Espalier. Picture courtesy Gail Langellotto - see her flickr pageFruit Espalier. Picture courtesy Gail Langellotto - see her flickr pageA very simple example of espalier which uses horizontal lines is achieved by training lateral growth, as with grapes, and is actually easy to do. First build a sturdy trellis by setting posts about 2.5m apart. The total length of the row will depend on how much space you have available to you and how vigorous the fruit variety you have chosen is. However, length is not that critical, because as soon as the branches reach the end of the wire, the growing tips are pruned. Do not prune out the growing tip of the branches you have selected for your pattern until they reach the desired length, because cutting will just encourage more side shoots.  

Once your posts are planted, attach and stretch 12-gauge, or heavier galvanized wire between them, starting about 50cm from the ground. Typically three horizontal layers are grown, each 50cm taller than the other, but each layer will take an entire season to grow, so you can wire everything at once, or start with one line and add the others as the plant grows.

Plant your tree in the middle of the trellis, and if it already has small lateral branches, tie them onto the first level of wire, one going left and one going right. The next cut is the most important and is called a “hard heading cut” which removes the growing tip, and is done after selecting your first two lateral shoots. Perhaps your tree has no lateral branches, and if it has a stem thicker than 2cm it may have a harder time pushing out buds if you cut it down too low, so to be safe, make the first dormant hard header cut where the ‘caliper’ (width of the main stem) is thinner and about thumb-sized. As soon as the buds begin to develop, and after the sprouts get going, you can select your laterals and cut the scaffold as low as you prefer.

How to make this cut is described in detail in the section above: (Creating small fruit trees by pruning). Read this section in full as the pruning techniques described here can also be used on espalier.

This hard heading cut will encourage the tree to quickly put down roots, and vigorous growth and branching will occur in spring when the plant directs its energy into the lateral branches. Also appearing will be stubbier shoots called “spurs”. Leave one spur about every 15cm along the branch and cut off the rest. As the spurs you left begin to grow, prune them down to three leaves - this is where fruit will form after two years. As the season progresses, weak branches  called “suckers” will grow straight up and all these need to be removed regularly.

In the second year in the life of your espalier, start another level by training two lateral branches up and along the next level of wire, one growing left and the other right, and remove any additional branches. In the third year add your last level, or perhaps you wish to add four levels, it’s totally up to you.

The first level will naturally bear fruit first, and to keep your branches producing well, after four years, cut off all the spurs along one of the branches, either the left growing branch or the right one, at the first level. This allows new ones to form. The next year, prune off spurs on the branch facing the opposite direction on that same wire on the first level. In subsequent years, continue to do the same thing, working your way up each level of the espalier.

While it usually takes about four years to get the full artistic effect of your efforts, you may actually see fruit as soon as the second year, but it is advised to remove that developing fruit for a year or two in order to first develop a strong and vigorous plant which will bear even more prolifically.

The reward of your patience, persistence, and attention to detail will provide you not only with a fine fruit crop, but also with a rather spectacular living sculpture that will set your fruit garden far apart from the ordinary!

Fruit salad tree with 2 types of plums. Picture www.starkbros.comFruit salad tree with 2 types of plums. Picture www.starkbros.comThe science of growing fruit salad trees

In countries like the USA, Europe and Australia, some innovative commercial fruit growers supplying the gardening industry developed methods to induce a single fruit tree rootstock to bear several different types of fruits, by using multiple grafts. With this method a variety of fruits can be grown in a single corner of the garden, in pots, or even trained as espalier. This is very exciting news for gardeners with small spaces, and perhaps it is used by a few gardeners in South Africa who are familiar with grafting and budding techniques, otherwise it is virtually unheard of here.

Hopefully the fast-growing worldwide trend towards self-sustainability by growing more edibles will motivate South African gardeners and growers alike to perfect this method with fruit varieties suitable for our climatic zones - it’s not rocket science and can easily be done at home. For gardeners with existing fruit trees, new branches can even be grafted onto existing trees with this simple technique, and if you are a commercial grower, a lot of money could be made using this novel concept. Fruit salad trees will give you the orchard you always dreamed of - a magical miniature one which is sure to intrigue and delight!

The trick to creating a multiple fruit-bearing tree is to graft several compatible varieties or species onto the same rootstock. Remember, most fruit trees are compatible within their species, but many are also compatible within their genus. That means that Prunus species such as plums, nectarines and peaches can be Fruit salad tree with 2 types of apples. Picture www.starkbros.comFruit salad tree with 2 types of apples. Picture www.starkbros.comgrafted onto the same tree, and why apples and crab apples are often grafted together to create a tree that can self-pollinate and therefore prolong the apple harvest. Another popular "fruit salad tree" is created when many types of citrus are combined on a single rootstock.

The grafting procedure most commonly used for fruit salad trees is known as budding. Buds are harvested from donor trees and kept moist to encourage them to swell before they're slipped into a slit in the rootstock's bark and nestled against the constantly growing cambium layer inside. The bud is then taped or banded into place until it begins to show signs of new growth. This causes very little stress to the rootstock and allows multiple branches to be added at the same time.

The main advantage of multi-graft plants like fruit salad trees is the convenience of having a miniature orchard in a small space, and rather than having individual trees which produce more fruit than your household can consume, preserve, and even give away, there is only one tree with more than one variety of fruit. Varieties can be selected which will ripen all at the same time, or early and late season fruits can be combined to spread the harvest over several months – genius!

Because each graft grows independently from the others, the various fruits will always retain their own characteristics, for example, flavour, appearance, and ripening time, and will continue to produce for many years. Various pruning methods can be used to control growth even more and the reason fruit salad trees do so well in containers.

The Tree of 40 Fruit was grafted with 40 different local stone fruit varieties by artist Sam Van Aken, at the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose

Fruit Tree of 40 Fruits. Picture courtesy  Rick Berg - see his flickr pageFruit Tree of 40 Fruits. Picture courtesy Rick Berg - see his flickr pageFarmers have been grafting fruit trees and other crops for thousands of years, but most grafts involve only two plants. The basic idea is to attach whatever kind of plant you want to grow onto a root system that is well adapted to the local soil etc. For example: In California, nearly all lemon trees are grown on orange roots, while in Florida most orange trees are grafted onto lemon roots. With stone fruits there is more latitude, and plums can be grown on cherry trees, and apricots grow happily on peach trees. Citrus are perfect to grow in this manner too, and a single citrus tree can be turned into a veritable carnival of fruits.

In addition to increasing yield, grafting can improve resistance to bacteria, viruses and fungi, and in many cases, grafting is the most reliable way to propagate fruit trees because apples, citrus fruits and many others are not "true to seed". This means that if you plant the seeds from the fruit, the new generation will not always produce the same fruit as their parents, and you may even get something completely different like a grapefruit from a lime, or perhaps a lemon from an orange.

Over 28 years ago one remarkable couple in Australia, James and Kerry West, created their first ‘fruit salad trees’ by learning the craft of grafting. Purely out of curiosity James started grafting several different fruits of the same family onto one tree, and waited to see what would happen. The results were amazing and he was so blown away that they started growing and selling four types of fruit salad trees. Read more here…

Stone fruit salad trees grew peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots together, and citrus fruit salad trees offered a wide range of winter and summer fruits like oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes, grapefruits, tangelos and pomelos. Multi-apple trees boasted between two and four different kinds of apples, and multi-nashi trees, also called “Asian pears” produced between two and four different varieties. The fact that they are still producing and selling these trees is testament to the success of this technique.

Other nurseries around the world also offer similar multi-graft trees: Ison's nursery in Georgia still sells fruit salad trees which they call “combination fruit trees”. You can select your own combo of four types of apples, or three varieties of pears and Asian pears, as well as cherries, plums, and of course their one they call their “fruit salad tree” which includes four of the five varieties they have available, and includes two types of peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines. See their wonderful combinations here..

Image by Dieter G from PixabayImage by Dieter G from PixabayYamagami's nursery in California has a wonderful selection of what they call “multi-graft” fruit trees. See their 2020 selection here.

And Stark Bro's in Missouri also sell a delicious selection. Read more here..

I hope you have enjoyed this article and that it has inspired you to grow some fruit at home, whether it’s a single pot of oranges on a balcony, a small orchard of fruit trees which have been pruned to keep them dwarfs, espaliered fruit in neglected spaces in your garden or along empty walls, or even a single fruit salad tree - growing your own fruit is so rewarding and a such a lot of fun, it is sure to inspire everyone around you to do the same.

I hope you found this article helpful, and if you could please rate it on top as this gives me a good indication on which articles resonate with you or not.

Keep well and keep on gardening South Africa