March 22, 2023
Columns | Kendall County Now

Down the Garden Path – Guest columnist series: Fruit trees have a place even in a small yard

Jonamac Orchard, 19412 Shabbona Road in Malta, is open for the fall season. The orchard has more than 20,000 apple trees with more than 30 varieties of apples.

You don’t need space for a full orchard to plant and enjoy fruit trees in the home landscape. Where you place those fruit trees – whether it’s a whole home orchard or just a few trees – makes a big difference in how they grow and perform. As they say, “location, location, location.” Here’s what to consider:

Soil and moisture

A major factor is the soil. Placing the home orchard where water will drain away very soon after a rain event will help ensure that the roots will have the needed soil oxygen to continue to supply both the moisture and nutrients needed to the canopy. This is important to support continued growth of the foliage and filling of the fruits. Soils that remain too wet will promote root and crown decay, putting further stress on the fruit tree, and causing potential decline and death, especially if crown rot is the culprit. If your soils are on the heavy side, meaning lots of clay, then plant the fruit trees a bit higher in the planting hole. Even a couple of inches can make a difference.

Air and frost

A consideration we may not often hear about is air drainage. Home orchardists can avoid those late spring frosts to a great degree by placing the trees on a slope or at the high point in the landscape, so the cold air settles away from the trees. The challenge is preventing the more frost susceptible flower buds from damage late in the winter and very early spring. By planting our trees in the best possible locations in the yard, we can reduce the risk. Stone fruits such as peaches are the most susceptible to those late spring frosts.

Yard size and tree choice

When choosing trees, homeowners should think about some level of dwarfness, especially if yard space is limited. There are several kinds of fruit trees to consider, such as apple, cherry, peach, pear and plum. As we live in northern Illinois, apple likely is the main fruit tree grown in backyards because it is very winter hardy.

Dwarf apple trees are smaller than their full-sized siblings and are much easier to train, prune and maintain. Fruit trees are dwarf because they are naturally so or because fruit tree growers graft or bud them to a dwarfing rootstock, limiting the size of the fruit tree. If they are naturally dwarf, then the apples listed will be a “spur-type” tree. The smallest fruit trees will be a combination of a spur-type grafted or budded on a dwarfing root stock. These will need support as their root systems are limited, and they can easily be blown over. It should be noted that the catalogs will list a mature size, but that ultimate size of your dwarf tree is up to you.

Dwarf fruit trees are not limited to just apples, so a larger mix can be planted in a smaller space. When buying at your favorite garden center or through a fruit tree catalog, make sure you consider winter hardiness, mature size and pollination needs. We’ll explore more on pollination next time.