Know anybody with a giant fruit tree that is so large that it’s become a messy nuisance? What if we could keep fruit trees from getting so big? The benefits of a little fruit tree are numerous. A little tree doesn’t require much space, and is easier to care for; pruning, thinning, and harvesting can be completed quickly and don’t require a ladder. Also, they can be easily covered with nets to keep out birds. But, most importantly, harvest sizes are more manageable. A little fruit tree still produces more than enough fruit for the average family. On the other hand, the amount of fruit produced by a large fruit tree can easily become overwhelming. This is particularly the case for stone fruit, such as peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries. Their fruit typically ripens over a short 2-3 week period, and it does not keep well. However, nothing compares to the flavor of a nectarine you have picked at peak ripeness right off your own tree. A large peach tree, even with semi-dwarfing rootstock, can easily produce 500+ peaches. What am I going to do with 500 peaches in two weeks? Instead of 500 peaches all at once, how about 100 cherries in July, 100 nectarines in August, 100 pluots in September, and 100 plums in October? A little fruit tree, with its smaller harvest and smaller space requirement, allows the homeowner to plant different varieties that ripen at different times.
So, how do we keep our fruit trees small? -Summer pruning. Summer pruning reduces vigor. Deciduous trees store energy in their roots when dormant. Late winter pruning does not keep them small because when they break dormancy in the spring their root-stored energy vigorously pushes growth beyond what was cut off. According to Ann Ralph, the author of Grow a Little Fruit Tree (click here to see it on amazon) and my own experience, the best time to prune deciduous fruit trees for size control is around the Summer Solstice. By late June, the most vigorous growth has happened, as the tree’s previously stored energy is now in it’s foliage. Summer pruning removes these resources, and with them, drastically reduces vigor.
If you are interested in enjoying your own little fruit trees, it’s best to start with a young fruit tree. Plant it when it is dormant (March is a good time in Utah), and make an initial low pruning cut. The lower the cut, the lower the branching structure will begin. I’ve started pruning all my fruit trees at knee high, but anywhere between 18 and 30 inches will work. I like to plant dormant, bare-root trees. But, if it is later in the Spring and you have missed the dormant season, pick the tree with the lowest branching you can find and cut just above these low branches, leaving 3-4 branches. Then, around late June, prune off around 1/2 of new growth, making your pruning cuts just above an outward facing bud. Many of our fruit trees pruned this way end up looking more like large bushes than trees. While I think they make great edible ornamental bushes, my favorite way to keep fruit trees manageable is espalier. Espalier pruning and training takes a bit more know how and initial set up, but it turns the tree into a stunning piece of art. See our espalier blog for more info.
Click here for our video demonstration on summer pruning. And for a more explanation and a written step-by-step guide on growing little fruit trees, I recommend Ann Ralph’s book . Another resource I have found useful is Dave Wilson Nursery’s website and their promotion of what they call backyard orchard culture. They have developed an entire youtube (fruit tube) channel with a backyard-style demonstration orchard. I really enjoy their videos and think they’re useful, but I think we should keep in mind that they are in the business of selling fruit tress. While I really think backyard orchard culture works and it makes sense to grow little fruit trees, it doesn’t have to be for everybody. If you have lot’s of space and want to sit in the shade under your fruit tree, that sounds lovely too. Maybe you could sell your extra fruit. If you want a smaller, more manageable tree, like Tom Spellman from Dave Wilson Nursery says, pick a height for your tree and don’t let your tree get any taller. I like to keep my trees around seven and a half feet tall, because I can easily reach that height while standing on the ground.
A final highly recommended source for growing fruit trees in Utah is USU Extension. As far as I know, they do not offer detailed information on keeping trees small, but they are a great resource for everything related to growing fruits and vegetables in Utah (here’s a general link). You can find detailed information on growing almost any fruit or vegetable in Utah. Here is link to the page specific to growing peaches (and nectarines). If you plant a fruit tree in Utah, you should definitely sign up for USU’s Tree Fruit IPM Advisory. They send out email notifications to let us know when to manage insect pests and perform other maintenance.
Just for example, we harvested between 70 and 90 superb pieces of fruit off our little heavenly white nectarine tree this 2017 season. There was enough for each us to eat a fresh nectarine everyday for three weeks, as well as to make nectarine salsa, smoothies, dried nectarines, a pie and nectarine jam. This tree has been kept little with summer pruning, and we still have had a very large reward!