Home & Garden

Dwarf trees allow backyard fruit for the home gardener

Take a drive through the heart of Washington’s apple growing region and you might think the industry has gone bust. Where have all the orchards gone?

They’re still there — they’re just Lilliputian-sized.

The state’s fruit industry has just about given up on the big trees that can hold swings in Grandma’s yard, provide shade and require ladders to harvest.

In their place are trees that come eye to eye with the people who grow them. As far as today’s orchardists are concerned, dwarfs are big.

“It was like having Christmas all over again when they brought in dwarf rootstock,” said Brett Drescher.

Drescher is a former orchard manager for Orondo-based Auvil Fruit Co. He now evaluates new varieties of fruit trees for Auvil, among other duties. The company, which sells under the Gee Whiz label, was an early adopter of dwarf fruit trees and high-density planting.

While the backyard fruit grower isn’t going to stick a thousand trees in the ground like Auvil does, the same factors that make small trees appealing to industrial growers can make them a good choice for the home orchardist.

Fruit: The trees may be small but the fruit is regular size.

Height: Small trees make the use of ladders or harvest poles unnecessary.

Density: Smaller trees can be planted closer together, some less than two feet.

Early: Standard-size trees might take 10 years to produce. Dwarfs can cut that time in half.

Disease: Smaller trees are easier to monitor and control for insects and other problems.

Beauty: Dwarf trees can do double duty as ornamentals, even becoming living fences.

The people who come to Sam Benowitz’s Raintree Nursery in Morton buy dwarf fruit trees and shrubs over large ones nine out of 10 times. He’s seen that percentage grow during the 42 years he’s owned the nursery as options have increased and fruit fans became more urbanized.

“More of our customers have small yards. It’s become very important to them to maximize that space, and dwarf fruit trees have become very important with that,” Benowitz said.

Benowitz offers not just dwarf fruit trees but also small raspberries and blueberries that can be grown in pots.

“We’re really trying to figure out ways that people can grow more food in less space,” Benowitz said.

Benowitz will be the first to point out that when it comes to buying dwarf plants of any kind, it’s a case of buyer beware.

“The word dwarf has no absolute meaning,” he said. Rather, it just indicates that a larger, standard version of the plant exists in the nursery trade. A “semi-dwarf” cherry tree could still be 20 feet tall.

Still, even the larger versions of small trees can be pruned to maintain a manageable size, Benowitz said.

A large portion of the dwarf fruit tree revolution is due to rootstock. Typically, almost all fruit trees are two trees merged into one. An upper, fruiting tree (the scion) is grafted onto another that provides the lower trunk and root of the tree (the rootstock).

It’s easy for a consumer to become distracted by the scion and the promise of the fruit it will deliver. But rootstocks are just as important. Rootstocks are often chosen for soil conditions and disease resistance. But they affect the size of the tree that’s grafted onto them as well.

When it comes to dwarf trees, rootstocks speed up the fruiting of the scion. Result: little tree, big fruit, sooner.

The EMLA 27 rootstock is responsible for most of the smallest dwarf apple trees, and the Gisela rootstock takes credit for producing most dwarf cherry trees. But there are hundreds of other kinds. Any reputable nursery will know what kind of rootstock its fruit trees are growing on.

When purchasing a grafted tree at your local garden center or nursery, give the graft a gentle flex, Benowitz said. The nursery might not appreciate it, but it’s a good way to tell if the graft is weak.

In Washington, orchardists were slow to make the switch from large trees to smaller ones. Now, trees are planted 18 inches apart and with densities approaching 2,600 trees per acre. Full-size trees typically were planted 150 to an acre.

“Historically farmers are skeptical about new things coming down the pipeline,” Auvil’s Drescher said. An orchardist for 40 years, Drescher said the shift began in the 1970s. Now, standard-size trees are all but gone.

Also gone are the ladders needed by workers to pick fruit. “It brings the fruiting plane down to a manageable level. (With large trees) two-thirds of your crop is growing from eight feet and up,” Drescher said.

Because the small trees are not as strong as their standard-size counterparts, commercial growers such as Auvil use wires and trellises to support them. The company uses a V-shaped trellis to maintain rows of dwarf Rainier cherries in its orchards. The trees, planted 4 feet apart, average 800 per acre.

The wires and trellises also allow the branches to be trained, which in turn produces fruit that doesn’t get knocked around as much and has fewer blemishes — a key factor for commercial growers.

Understanding pruning is key for anybody who grows fruit trees of any size. But pruning is even more important for dwarf trees than it is for their big cousins, Benowitz said.

“You want it to branch like a bush. Cut it down, but not below the graft. Be brave,” Benowitz said. Buyers who spend $20 on a tree may blanch at the thought of cutting their newly purchased tree in half. “They feel like they’re losing $10,” he said.

In her 2015 book, “Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees,” author Ann Ralph is even more adamant about what she calls, “The hardest pruning cut you’ll have to make.”

Ralph lists four reasons to make that first cut,which can often reduce your newly purchased tree to knee-high: 1) It removes upright growth that hormonally reduces the development of lower limbs; 2) It lets the tree grow its own natural leader (the vertical trunk); 3) It creates a lower scaffold of spreading branches that support the tree and make it more fruitful; 4) It creates lower branches, making harvesting easier.

“If you can’t bring yourself to make this cut, you may as well abandon your dreams of a fruit tree, pack away your pruning shears, and take up another avocation that won’t make such tough demands on your constitution,” Ralph wrote.

Because dwarf trees will produce fruit sooner than standard-size versions, care must be taken so that the trees do not make a fatal sprint to the finish line, Drescher said.

“They are so precocious they will overbear on the third or fourth year. It just about will kill your tree,” he said. Drescher recommends taking some of the flowers or young fruit off a tree before it becomes overburdened. “Once it becomes too stressed, it’s hard to get it going again,” he said.

Auvil grows many of the public’s favorite apples, including Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady (Cripps Pink), Honeycrisp (“Everybody really seems to like that apple”) and one of the newest on the scene, a golden Gala called Aurora.

One variety they don’t grow large or small? That apple left untouched at motel buffets and unanimously trashed by schoolkids across America.

“I don’t think we’ve had a Red Delicious in this orchard in 15 years,” Drescher said.

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