Archive for February 15th, 2009

High Density Fruit Tree Plantings


I am nuts about fruit trees! Last weekend, I spent time planting a few new fruit trees in our yard. I planted a Bing cherry, a Rainier cherry, and a Royal Rainier cherry. I also transplanted our small young apple trees and one small pear tree closer together to make room for the cherries. Yesterday, I planted an almond tree. We now have 3 apple trees, 4 cherry trees, 4 pear trees, one yellow peach tree, one white nectarine tree, 2 apricot trees, 1 fig tree, and 1 almond tree. We also have 3 orange bushes and a lemon bush.

Traditional orchards plant fruit trees 15-20 feet apart, because they grow so large when they are minimally pruned. Many publications also recommend that fruit trees in backyard orchards be spaced 15-20 feet apart. The problem is that our yard is only large enough to support about 4 or 5 trees at 20 feet apart and a large distance from the house and fence. Our lot is about 1/5 of an acre.

I have planted most of our fruit trees about nine feet apart. That’s much closer than most traditional orchardists would recommend. However, there has been a growing movement to plant fruit trees closer together in high density plantings. The idea is to plant many more different kinds of fruit trees close together in a smaller area to achieve a larger variety and a longer season of fresh backyard fruit. If the proper varieties are selected, a backyard fruit orchard can produce freshly ripened fruit from May through November. For example, one can plant early season ripening, mid-season ripening, and late season ripening peaches in one yard to get peach harvests from May through September.

In order make a high density fruit orchard manageable, the grower should be committed to size control. Some fruit trees are sold on dwarf rootstocks, but many varieties are not. Most of our fruit trees are grafted onto semi-dwarf rootstocks that will allow the trees to grow to 15-25 feet tall (or larger) and as wide. That’s far too large for a high density backyard planting. Fruit trees planted in high densities need to be keep small (e.g., 6-8 feet tall and wide) so that the branches do not grow together and shade each other.

I have recently read that the key to keeping fruit trees small is to prune them once in the spring (May) and again in the summer time (July-Sept.). Traditionally, fruit trees are pruned only during the dormant season in the winter time. However, if that technique is applied to a high density planting, the fruit trees will grow large root systems during each growing season. Then, if the trees are severely pruned during the winter months to control their size, they will grow back very vigorously during the next growing season, making it difficult to keep them small and manageable.

I have read that spring and summer pruning will keep the root system from storing too much food during the growing season, which will keep the tree from growing too vigorously during the next growing season. I have not tried the summer pruning technique yet, but I plan to start this year to maintain our trees at a height of no taller than about 7-8 feet. We have a few fruit trees that have already grown much larger than that, including a pear and a cherry. I may prune them gradually over a period of a few years to bring their size down.

I have found that large fruit trees (i.e., taller than about 8 feet) are difficult to manage. I have to put netting on many of our trees (even the apples) to keep squirrels from eating all of the fruit. It’s just not practical to net a large tree. Also, it’s difficult to harvest fruit from the top branches of a large tree. Cherries are especially difficult to harvest from tall branches, because the fruit is so small that it cannot be easily picked using a long pole with a wire basket at the end. And looking up for a long time while picking fruit can make one’s neck sore. At this point, I am convinced that growing fruit trees as large shrubs, rather than large trees, is the way to go.

Dave Wilson nursery is one of the suppliers of fruit trees that is promoting high density plantings. See e.g., They recommend planting 3 or 4 trees in one hole at 18-24 inches apart or planting a hedge row of fruit trees 3 feet apart in the row. That seems a bit too close for my tastes right now, because I want to have room to walk between the trees. So I settled on a nine foot spacing, because that left just enough room to allow my current trees to fit into the available space along the back fence, about 6-7 feet from the fence.

However, I am still contemplating the possibility of buying more types of trees, possibly an early or late ripening peach! If that happens, I may have to cram a few of them in a little tighter. 😉

February 15 2009 | Fruit | Comments Off on High Density Fruit Tree Plantings