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Small Is Beautiful
"Why not go out on a limb? That's where the fruit is."
— Will Rogers
At heart, we are still a nation of yeoman farmers. We owe our American backyards in part to Thomas Jefferson, who believed that small property holders with modest farms held a stake in the new republic and so propelled it forward. Citizens care for what belongs to them. As we build our lives to suit our needs and inclinations, we look to the future and to the health of the wider community. Small is a big idea. After World War II, this simple principle — that people invest in and build on what they own and know — led to Federal Housing Administration home loans, the GI Bill, and the greatest expansion of the middle class in our economic history.
In this context, the American backyard and its attendant fruit tree reside firmly in our national DNA. No wonder we find home ownership, backyards, and fruit trees so irresistible. Walk around most established neighborhoods and you're likely to spot a fruit tree in almost every backyard. Count the fruit trees in your own neighborhood.
We create our Edens in any corner we can find. If we don't have land of our own, we borrow some. We establish community gardens. We find a place for a fruit tree to put down roots, even if we can't manage to put down roots of our own. When we plant these trees, we dream of harvest and self-reliance. We want to free ourselves from pesticides and chemicals, and we want to control at least some of what we eat. We plant for flavor and quality, for fruit that tastes like the fruit we remember, or the rumors of fruit we've heard about from people who are old enough to remember. Perhaps most important, we plant for a simple and elemental domestic satisfaction — the singular pleasure of harvesting and eating food we've grown ourselves.
Too Much Tree
Let me begin by stating the obvious: a small fruit tree is easier to care for than a large one. One of the best reasons to keep fruit trees small is that big trees are so hard to care for. Big or small, most deciduous fruit trees need a few annual attentions to stay well-formed, healthy, and capable of producing and bearing fruit. Fruit trees require pruning twice a year. Fruit will need to be thinned and harvested. Pests and disease, if present, might need mitigation. None of these tasks is inherently daunting. In truth, these simple chores provide much of the pleasure of attending to a fruit tree.
The difficulty of seasonal routines, however, grows exponentially with the size of the tree. Pruning a small tree takes about fifteen minutes. Pruning a twelve-foot tree probably requires professional help at professional prices, and not just once or twice, but every single year.
Pruning a small tree takes about fifteen minutes. Pruning a twelve-foot tree probably requires professional help at professional prices.
Why, then, did we learn to manage fruit trees and prune the way we do?
Two centuries of industrialization changed the character of farming, and fruit growing was no exception. Tree size, spacing, and alignment adjusted to accommodate farm machinery. What we think of as classic fruit trees — the fifteen-footers — were winter pruned when the trees were dormant and a farmer had time to do it. Pruning trees to have open centers instead of a single "leader" allowed sunlight to penetrate the interior branches of trees that were shaded by an orchard around them. In the late 1940s, chemical pest control and soil enhancement with chemical fertilizers came into vogue.
These rote practices relied on machines and schedules to keep Nature in line. They promoted maximum size for maximum yield. Farmers need the yield on which their livelihoods depend. But when home gardeners borrow tactics from farmers, they get more than they bargained for; namely, outsized trees and impossible quantities of fruit. Most backyard growers don't have the space or equipment to manage commercial-size trees, and even if they do, from pruning to harvest, the work these trees require overwhelms even the most dedicated family orchardist.
Old-fashioned fruit trees command garden space like, well, trees. Planting any tree in a small garden is not a step to be taken lightly, and fruit trees are no exception. Even if kept to only twelve feet — a tree that is twice as tall as you are with the crown of the tree at an equal spread — fruit trees create a substantial presence in the urban or suburban garden. The late and essential Henry Mitchell, Washington Post garden writer and author of The Essential Earthman, wrote in his essay "Bad Trees and Good Trees" that trees belong "in gardens in extremely limited numbers." The italics are his. He makes a crucial point. Sun is worth preserving in a garden. People generally underestimate the ultimate size of a tree, a tree's capacity to crowd its neighbors, and the amount of shade and debris that trees usually produce.
Many modern farmers now adopt the logic of growing smaller trees. The classic vase-shaped orchard tree is rightly and rapidly disappearing from commercial orchards for the same reasons it ought to disappear from our backyards: big trees are hard to care for. When you drive past orchards these days, you see short trees of all varieties planted in close proximity. What farmers do is only partially relevant to the home gardener, however. Home gardeners have different purposes from farmers, and different rules apply.
Too Much Fruit
In most cases, reducing fruit production in a backyard tree is an excellent idea. People often radically underestimate the fruit-producing capacity of the average-size fruit tree and overestimate the amount of fresh fruit they actually use. A realistic appraisal of your fruit consumption is an excellent place to begin. Consider this: a twelve-foot apple tree — remember, that's a small one, twice as tall as you are — can easily set fifteen hundred to two thousand apples.
To thin the fruit, you need to climb high into the tree. This fruit thinning will take a good bit of your spare time, if spare time is an option you can entertain. But let's say it is, and you do. Apples usually set four to five fruits per cluster. You reduce the clusters to one apple each and bring your crop down to, say, six hundred apples. That's six hundred Fujis ripe right around Thanksgiving.
Now, apples that fall to the ground may still be edible, but only if they have a soft landing. Collecting apples before they drop means climbing high into the tree again, over about a three-week period. Okay. You lose some apples to birds and codling moth. You're diligent, though, and a member of a family of four. Let's say you collect most of the remaining apples. A best-case scenario gives each person in the family one hundred and twenty-five apples apiece to use as he or she chooses, or about three per person each day over a period of two months.
Fujis are basically a single-use apple. They're terrific, especially homegrown, and, as the apple people like to say, great for eating out of hand. They're good keepers, too, meaning that their quality holds up well if you store them in a cool place like the basement or garage. To my taste, they're a bit sweet for alternative uses like baking and applesauce. With one big tree, though, you have nothing but Fujis. You probably want to use them fresh. The people at your place of work will be happy to see you coming in with bags full of tree-ripe apples.
However, the more likely scenario is that you collect about sixty to a hundred smallish apples from the lower parts of the tree because you never got around to thinning them, and the crop remaining will fall to the ground to bruise and rot. You harvest low-hanging fruit, but midway through apple season, you tire of reaching higher and higher into the tree. The apples you don't pick fall to the ground, creating an even worse codling moth problem next year as the caterpillars reproduce in the fallen fruit. Saddest of all, exasperated by these unending demands, when apple season is past, you're happy to see it go.
One of my colleagues, Jean-Marie, told me of an ancient apple tree in his in-laws' backyard in Utah. The tree had been neglected. Over the years, it grew to twenty-five feet high with an oaklike trunk, as tall as the sycamores that line streets of old downtown neighborhoods. Jean-Marie said that every October overripe apples, too far out of reach for harvest, rained from the tree with such force they exploded as they hit the ground. You could hear the explosions from inside the house, he said, where you safely retreated from the bombing fruit and the consequent mess and stench of hundreds of rotting apples lying worthless on the ground.
From a twelve-foot, thirty-year-old Golden Delicious apple tree in Richmond, California, my sisters fill the green bin three times every harvest season with wormy windfalls they can't possibly use. They employ a long-handled tennis ball tosser called a Chuckit! to retrieve the apples from the ground, but this apple retrieval is still a huge job. If you have a troublesome tree like this, you can reduce the amount of fruit set by spraying the blossoms with water from the hose while the tree is in bloom. This halts some fruit production, but the tree still requires pruning and care. Nor does it address the problem of managing the fruit that remains.
Use It or Lose It
Ripe fruit also expresses a very real urgency. Stone fruits like apricots, peaches, and plums have a much higher urgency score than apples. Most fruit crops tend to ripen all at once and not necessarily on a schedule that accommodates a busy life. In summers, my dad graded peaches to supplement his teacher's pay. Free peaches came with the job. I well remember my mother's misery, the swamp cooler blowing down the hall in the heat of August, as she worked morning to night for several days to can quarts of peaches before they went bad in the lug box.
And as much as we might like cobbler, how many of us are really prepared to process and clean up after a thousand dead-ripe apricots? One June, when I was a college student in Fresno, roommate Luann and I, short of funds, cooked apricots from a backyard tree every way we could think of, short of canning. We made pies, cobblers, syrup, quick breads, crisps, and jam. We used maybe an eighth of the crop and made ourselves sick in the process. The remaining apricots turned into a stinky, gooey, insect-laden fruit tar as they dropped and coagulated underneath the tree.
Proper pruning doesn't just keep trees small; it limits crop size to fruit you will actually use. Home gardeners typically do better with reasonable amounts of fruit.
Dwarfs and Semidwarfs
Most nurseries offer fruit trees grafted (see A Brief Glossary) onto semidwarfing rootstocks. I give closer attention to rootstocks, grafting, and rootstock selection in chapter 2; just note here that dwarfing potential is the least important thing about a rootstock. People seek out fruit trees on semidwarfing rootstock with reasonable expectations of smallish trees. How mistaken they will find themselves to be.
While somewhat smaller than standard-sized fruit trees, many of these so-called semidwarfs grow rapidly to be at least two stories tall, three times too tall to be managed by the average five- or six-foot person. Fruit trees sold as semidwarfs require pruning for realistic size control. In fact, the term "semidwarf" is so misleading I wish I could drop it from my fruit tree vocabulary entirely. Semidwarf means only "smaller than standard." If a full-size fruit tree is thirty feet tall, then a semidwarf might grow to be as high as twentyfive.
In contrast, genetic dwarf trees have their short stature bred into their genetic make-up. Genetic dwarfs aren't grafted like semidwarfs. They grow on their own roots. On average, they stay between six and eight feet tall. When you breed a fruit tree for one quality, such as size, then other traits like fruit flavor and overall vitality become necessarily secondary. My dad planted a dwarf peach that grew to four feet tall with an elegant weeping habit. It produced stunning double pink blossoms, followed by fruit so bland and mealy that nobody bothered to eat it.
While a few genetic dwarfs produce fruit of admirable quality, they don't offer much in the way of choice varieties or climate adaptability. There's no such thing as a dwarf greengage plum, for instance. In addition, a dwarfed root system tends to compromise the overall health and longevity of the tree. A genetic dwarf variety of apple called Garden Delicious produces spritely fruit, but the tree lives only twelve to fifteen years.
Some fruit trees are available grafted on ultra-dwarfing rootstock. These trees stay quite small, four to six feet, but because of their extremely small root systems, ultra-dwarfing rootstocks present many of the same problems genetic dwarfs do in terms of short life and overall plant health. Bigger root systems make for healthier plants and better anchoring. Ultradwarfs require permanent staking so they don't tip over.
You don't need to buy dwarfs or ultra-dwarfs if you want small trees. Europeans have used pruning to keep ordinary fruit trees small for centuries. Take a visit to a historic garden in the United States, and you will discover that our own Founding Fathers often kept their fruit trees small. Once you understand the simple logic of pruning, keeping a fruit tree appropriately scaled is easy enough to do. In fact, regular pruning is the best way to control the size of a fruit tree.
Whenever I give a pruning talk, I repeat that statement to make sure nobody missed it, and so, here too, once again: regular pruning is the best way to control the size of a fruit tree. When tree size is a factor you control with pruning, your options change entirely. You can base your fruit tree selection on the single most important criterion — the desirability of the fruit. Resolve the size issue and one key issue remains: What kind of fruit do you want to grow?
ANATOMY OF A FRUIT TREE
Any type of deciduous fruit tree responds to the keepit-small pruning treatment — the oldest heirloom or the most recent introduction. Choose whichever variety of apricot, apple, cherry, fig, quince, persimmon, plum, or pluot — a plum-apricot cross — is most ideal for your palate and your climate. Keep it small. Put away the ladder. You can plant more trees than you planned to, either singly around the garden, or in a hedgerow along a sunny fence, or even three little trees closely spaced and pruned to grow apart from one another (three fruit trees together where you thought you had room for only one). You can work fruit trees into an existing landscape. You can accommodate favorite fruits that need another tree for pollination. With attention to ripening times, you can harvest fresh fruit in reasonable quantities from your garden from late spring well into winter. Factor in citrus if you live in a citrus-friendly climate, and you can harvest fresh fruit from your garden year-round.
Regular pruning is the best way to control the size of a fruit tree.
How big should you let a fruit tree grow? And make no mistake, your fruit tree will grow if you do nothing to stop it. People are essential players in any fruit tree equation. Tree size is entirely your choice, of course. You can have a big tree if you want one, and the work that goes with it, too. To my mind, though, human-size trees are a better fit for both the garden and the gardener. Ed Laivo puts it this way: "A good height for your fruit tree is as tall as you can reach while standing on the ground."
A Few Words about Citrus
In the 1950s, my parents planted a Meyer lemon hedge in front of our Modesto ranch-style house and pruned it square. For as long as I can remember, we harvested fresh lemons from the front yard most of the year. Ripe fruit held reliably on the plants through the bloom cycle and almost as long as it took for the new fruit to begin to ripen again near Christmas. One of the advantages of life in a Mediterranean climate is the luxury of citrus in the garden.
Citrus is an evergreen tropical that doesn't require an initial hard prune or routine pruning the way deciduous fruit trees do. It grows as a large, round fruiting shrub. Dwarfing rootstocks work well with citrus. In fact, citrus became a temperate-climate garden staple because of the success of dwarfing rootstocks. Standard-size citrus trees can get much larger, twenty-five feet high and as wide, and make, to my mind, a difficult proposition for a backyard plant.
Prune citrus if you want to. Shape citrus as you see fit. My parents' Meyer lemons would have easily grown as tall as ten feet had they been allowed to do so.
Excerpted from "Grow A Little Fruit Tree"
Copyright © 2014 Ann Ralph.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsIntroducing the Little Fruit Tree Chapter 1 - Small Is Beautiful Chapter 2 - The Short Fruit Tree Method Chapter 3 - The Elementary Principles of Pruning Chapter 4 - Choosing Varieties Chapter 5 - The Fruit Tree Comes Home Chapter 6 - The Conversation Begins: The Hardest Pruning Cut You'll Ever Have To Make Chapter 7 - The Conversation Continues Chapter 8 - How Much Water Does a Fruit Tree Need? Chapter 9 - Working with Mother Nature Chapter 10 - Ripe Fruit Chapter 11 - Entering the Zone of Equilibrium Appendix
What People are Saying About This
“This backyard fruit tree owner's manual should come with every fruit tree, or, better yet, get it while you are still deciding what trees to plant.”
"Beautiful and essential. Ann Ralph is your good-natured guide to the sometimes intimidating task of planting bare root fruit trees, thinning fruit, and that nail-biter of them all: pruning."
“Ann Ralph argues her case for pruning with such deep knowledge, and wit, and obvious affection for fruit trees, that you cannot help but be converted. A delightful and useful book!”