TL;DR: Get some fruit trees. Grafted fruit trees can really save the day. Don’t kill them. Don’t let the birds and deer eat your fruit.
“How can I stop buying fruit every year and be more self-reliant? I don’t have much land…”
If you’ve got a smallish Poser Homestead, like I do, and you want to grow your own fruit, you can. You can have an “enough to can and preserve” orchard if you plant some grafted or dwarf fruit trees.
Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are short and really short trees. If you’re struggling for space or too lazy to get a ladder to pick an apple, you can plant a border of these and call it a day.
If you have even less room, dedicate a few tree spaces to grafted trees–one for each fruit you want. In a few years you’ll have one tree giving you all the varieties of fruit–in that one tree.
Regular versus dwarf trees
Regular “standard” trees are for people who have tons of land or the perfect space for a giant tree. Those are giant apple trees you can climb or the one Newton sat under when the apple bonked him on the head, generating centuries of math problems for kids about gravity and motion. A full-sized fruit tree can be big–a cherry tree can grow up to 35-feet, plum, pear, apricot, and citrus trees can grow to about 20 feet, and my apple tree was a solid 25-feet the day it went to heaven.
You can prune a standard tree, but it really wants to grow.
Two shorter options are “dwarf” and “semi-dwarf.”
Semi-dwarf trees are a mid-grade size, closer to 15 feet. Dwarf trees range from 8-10 feet. If you pay attention to your pruning, you can keep them on the shorter end of the range. They all give you regular size fruit–you won’t be pitting microscopic cherries.
You can get dwarf bushes, too, for fruits like blueberries that can sometimes get 8 feet high. This will help you if you want to net them in instead of sharing your berries with the birds.
How do they do this magic?
Dwarf trees are grafted trees. Arborists fuse “scions” (shoots) from full-sized fruit trees with dwarf rootstock. The arborist takes the dwarf rootstock, cuts off its branch, and fuses the full-sized fruit scion onto the dwarf-growing rootstock, then tapes it up, puts some wax over it, and lets it heal and grow. You magically get a bunch of big fruit on a little tree.
You can do this by ordering the rootstock and hacking up the trees, but, you probably won’t. I ordered my trees from nurseries that specialize in local-growing varieties, then I looked for some sales.
Supergrafting: multiple-fruit varieties on one tree
These types of trees are becoming more popular. It’s still weird to see an apple tree with green, yellow, and red trees, but they do a few things. They save space, and each species helps pollinate the others.
Somewhere along the line arborists probably got bored or stoned. “I bet I can graft two apples on this rootstock.” And so it began–multiple varieties on the same tree. It’s Johnny Appleseed meets Tim Leary.
But, multi-variety grafted fruit trees are your poser homestead lifeline to fruit self-sufficiency if you’re urban, land restricted, or only have a few sunny spaces for a fruit tree.
Most fruit trees need cross pollination to produce fruit. If you only have one apple tree, and it’s alone with no apple tree friends or neighbors with apple trees, it will blossom, but the bees will stick to that tree. Cross-pollinating trees need pollen from another type tree to produce fruit.
There are self-pollinating apple trees but if you’re looking for a specific fruit and it’s not, you’re out of luck. You need two trees or you’ll be staring at an empty fruit tree wondering why it hates you. I’ve done this.
I invested in some multi-variety grafted trees.
Last year, I got a 4-variety grafted apple tree. The dog ate the branches, and it’s fighting for its life. I ordered a new one. It came in yesterday and I fenced it in right away.
Poser tip: Protect anything you plant. Don’t “do it tomorrow.” If you’re going to plant, invest the time in nets or fences, right away. They don’t have to be beautiful–they just have to work. The apple tree is planted and well-protected. I have a 4-variety cherry tree on the way, too.
Another benefit of these trees are the varieties are staggered, with fruit ranging from early harvest to late, which means I’ll get a steady flow of apples and cherries from these trees rather than rushing to eat them all at once and being so sick of apples I never want to see one again.
Protect your fruit or you’re feeding the wildlife
We have a full-grown pear tree. It produces loads of pears, only I never get them–every year, they’re there and underripe one day, then gone the next. Overnight. It was the fruit crime of the century. If it were chipmunks or squirrels–they wouldn’t co-ordinate a single calendar day ambush. I knew Declan wasn’t eating them, because he doesn’t eat healthy food I grow.
So, one year, set out to solve “The Mystery of the Missing Fruit.” I set up a stakeout. I found Gimpy, our three-legged deer, was eating the pears. She waited until one day before they were sweet enough for me to pick, then came on her hind legs, reared up, and knocked them down and ate them. She taught her deer family to do it, and took the dog under her wing. Now, the I catch the lab running around the yard with pears from her “ball tree.” She drops them at my feet to play fetch.
Once, she saw me take a bite out of one. She started eating them, too. “A ball tree? With food?” It doesn’t get any better than that.
Tips for tree shopping
Choose the size and height
If you’ve got the space, and are just plopping a bunch of trees out there, get standard trees. They’ll give you the most bang for your buck. If you want to be a fruit-orchard snob, creating fruit tree espaliers like you were Martha Stewart’s gardener, you can get standard and dwarf.
If you’ve got very limited space, get mini-dwarf or dwarfs, and if you’re really hard up for space, definitely get grafted multi-fruit trees.
There are a number of nurseries that have these. Choose one that has good results in your area. Look through the reviews. Call them up and ask if they ship a lot to your space.
I’ve used Stark, Guerney’s and these latest two specialty grafted trees are from FastGrowingTrees.com
As a rule of thumb, the bigger the tree, the more expensive it is, but, the closer to fruiting it will be. Because I’ve been staring at whips and dead trees for far too long, I sucked it up and invested in some good trees ranging from 4′–6′ tall.
Ask yourself–“When do I want to eat?” An apple tree you hippie up yourself from a seed will give you your first apple in about a decade. Dwarf and semi-dwarf trees can start to give you apples in two to four years after you plant them, depending on their development and variety. By getting trees that are a little big bigger, I pushed that growth time off on the nursery and cheated the clock a little. Still, I’m going to need to give my new tree friends some time to really get their roots set in there and be healthy.
Pruning is a winter chore. Every year, you’ll want to get that done. I never pruned in the beginning because I felt like I was murdering potential plants. Just the opposite is true. I learned one year after a storm–trees broke everywhere, and I cut them back. The next year, trees I thought I killed were fuller than ever, with double and triple branches growing from the cuts.
This is all growth science, and I’m not an expert willing trees in the directions I want them to grow, but if you put time into studying angles of cuts, how to splint early-growth branches into certain direction, you can shape your tree, give it airflow, and maximize fruit production over the life of the tree.
To spray or not to spray?
If you see something odd–rusty leaves, caterpillars, powdery stuff on the leaves… you’ll have to doctor your tree. No one wants to spray, but targeted treatment could save your tree. Don’t be an ultra purist unless you have the skill to organically treat real problems. I’ve killed several trees that way. This year, I’ll be monitoring and treating my trees as appropriate. I don’t know enough about remedies. I’ll be learning and passing that on.
Fruit while you wait, or if you have a bad harvest
Since I’m not yet getting the amount of fruit I want from my land, I have to source it.
Right now, I get the fruit I need to eat and can from local orchards. For “big fruit” (apples and peaches) I wait until the end of the season and look for B grades. Those are all the ones that aren’t shaped right–they’re not perfectly round, might have a bruise, or in some way are not the America’s Next Top Model of grocery store fruit. I can those.
For blueberries, I have two places I go to pick. Blueberries are the one fruit it pays to pick myself. Apples do not. I never go apple picking any more. Most orchards charge premium prices to people for the experience of apple picking. It makes sense–this is the one season people flock to my tiny town, and I’m glad to see farms making money. They have to pay for all the people damaging the trees, eating while they pick, and picking and tossing apples that they didn’t think were perfect. Allowing the public in to a farm–I hate to say–comes at a cost.
It’s important. But, things get damaged. Besides–why would I want to pay double for the honor of working all day when at the end of the day there’ll be a box of funny shaped fruit there for free?
Blueberries–they’re the opposite. It is fun to pick them, for about twenty minutes. After that, it’s hard. There are mosquitoes, it’s hot, and you need to pick a million blueberries before you get a pie, let alone a season’s worth of blueberries. I do this in two days. I block off a solid few hours, I podcast my ADHD, and I pick those suckers. Then, I freeze and can them right away. I can usually get them for about $2.25 to $2.50 a pound. In the store, they’re double that for a pint.
Farm stands sell blueberries here, but there’s no discount or B-grade. They’re premium priced. This is because farm workers get up early and pick them for the rushed, lazy, and uninspired. When possible, I try to latch on to an agricultural worker or immigrant grandma when I go picking. I don’t invade their bush (berry etiquette forbids bush squatting) but sometimes I get a great conversation, and they speed me up in my picking. It’s like when I go to the gym and peek at Fast Dude’s treadmill speed–positive peer pressure.