A gardener's guide to dwarf fruit trees: what you can grow in small spaces and pots
Short in stature but tops in flavour – it's a great description for the dwarf fruit tree varieties that make fruit-growing at home possible for those with small gardens and urban courtyards as well as apartment dwellers.
No ladders are required to pick or prune dwarf fruit trees, as the entire tree is within reach from the ground – perfect for children and older gardeners alike. And not only are the trees productive, they are also very pretty with abundant displays of spring blossoms. Plant them near your house to view the pretty blooms and to be handy to pick the ripe fruit.
My old copy of the Duncan & Davies Nursery Catalogue from 1962 features the dwarf peach 'Rose Chiffon' in pride of place in one of the few colour plates through the book. The advertisement describes this variety as a dual purpose peach with "sparkling rosy-red" blossoms and "large white fleshed freestone fruit". This variety has stood the test of time; it is still grown today.
In fact these days there is a plethora of dwarf varieties available for home gardeners. Fruit breeders and nurseries have recognised the need for smaller trees as property and house sizes shrink, especially in urban areas. The Zaigers breeding programme in California has been the most prolific producer of dwarf varieties (as well as many hybrids such as Pluots), as has Delbard Nurseries in France, East Malling Research Station in the UK and New Zealand's Plant & Food Research.
WHAT FRUIT TREES HAVE DWARF VARIETIES?
Most deciduous fruit trees have a dwarf option (except plums). Most distinct are the dwarf peaches and nectarines which grow with a cute mop head, grafted onto a short standard rootstock.
* Peaches: The peaches are mostly yellow-fleshed. The earliest to ripen is the appropriately named 'Pixzee', followed by 'Bonanza', 'Honey Babe' and 'Garden Lady'. The white-fleshed peach variety 'Rose Chiffon' is very late to ripen, so much so that's best in the warmer Nelson/Marlborough north climate.
* Nectarines: If you prefer smooth-skinned stonefruit, check out yellow-fleshed nectarines 'Flavourzee', 'Garden Delight' and 'Nectar Babe'.
* Apricot: The dwarf apricot varieties are best in the colder regions such as Otago and Canterbury where there is plenty of winter chilling to promote floral growth. Self fertile 'Aprigold' is more widely available, though 'Golden Glow' is also sometimes available.
* Apples: Dwarf variety 'Blush Babe' is grown on a standard, producing very tasty, crisp and juicy fruit. The naturally smaller-growing 'Autento' is a good cropper of apples with a sweet/tart flavour balance. Both 'Blush Babe' and 'Autento' are naturally resistant to the fungal disease black spot (also known as apple scab) so are really easy to grow organically. For particularly narrow spots such as garden edges or alongside a path, columnar apple varieties are perfect. These trees will only grow to around 30cm wide and 2-3m tall. Varieties include the Ballerina series from Waimea Nurseries which comprises 'Polka', 'Waltz' (both red-skinned fruit) and 'Bolero' (green fruit). A couple of varieties grown by Thirkettle Nurseries are 'Crimson Spire' which produces good crops of dark red fruit with crisp, tangy, white flesh and 'Scarlet Spire' which has scarlet-red fruit with crisp and juicy flesh, that has excellent flavour with a slight tang. The range of dwarf KiwiApples from Incredible Edibles comprises four varieties, which all grow into a small tree just 1.5m tall. The red-skinned varieties 'Little Rascal', 'Teacher's Pet' and 'Scallywag' are great paired with the green-skinned variety 'Mischief'.
* Pears: The gourmet 'Garden Belle' only grows to around 2m tall and 1m wide. Unfortunately it's not self fertile so needs a different pear or nashi variety nearby. You can espalier the pollinating mate against a wall to keep the size down.
* Citrus: Dwarf citrus is a bit different from other types of dwarf fruit trees, being grown on a dwarf rootstock called 'Flying Dragon' which provides compact growth to the variety grafted onto it (rather than being dwarf varieties). Almost every type of citrus is available on this dwarfing rootstock, including lemons, limes, mandarins and oranges.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR DWARF-CHARD
A few years ago, comedian Te Radar used the term "dwarf-chard" to describe his home orchard on the show Off the Radar and I still use it!
When planting your own dwarf-chard, choose varieties which spread out your picking season as it's not much use having four trees all ripen at the same time. The table on the next page shows the sequence of ripening time. (Note that the maturity month is based on ripening in Nelson, so in a more northern location, the fruit will ripen one to two weeks earlier, and one to two weeks later in regions further south.)
WHERE TO SITE YOUR DWARF FRUIT ORCHARD
Like regular fruit trees, dwarf varieties grow best in sites with full sun, free draining soil and protection from strong wind.
Dwarf fruit trees should be spaced around 2m apart, so that even when the trees are fully grown, you can still pick and move around each tree.
Dwarf citrus trees should be in sites that are protected from frost, especially in early autumn and early spring.
CAN I GROW THEM IN CONTAINERS?
Dwarf trees make a great home orchard in the ground, but are in fact equally perfect for pots.
A large pot such as a wine barrel or equivalent is recommended, with good quality potting mix that has controlled release fertiliser and water-retaining crystals.
Regular watering and liquid feeding is always recommended. This ensures a healthy tree and bumper crop. Trees in pots can dry out very quickly in the hot summer months, so keep the tree well watered, especially when the fruit is developing.
Equally, don't let the potting mix get saturated during the winter months as this can cause the roots to rot. It can be handy to pop caster wheels on to the bottom of the pot before planting the tree, so that the pot can easily be moved around the garden or taken with you when moving house.
HOW DO I CARE FOR MY DWARF FRUIT TREES?
Dwarf fruit trees are generally fuss-free and very easy. They rarely need pruning as there is more fruit production than vegetative growth. Prune only to shape it and thin out growth if the branches are getting too dense – this is quite common with dwarf peach and nectarine trees, for example. For each cluster of branches, take out the middle branch to "open up" the growth. This will provide more air movement to keep the tree healthy while also providing more space for developing fruit.
Dwarf peach and nectarine trees can be susceptible to a fungal disease called leaf curl in spring. You can identify it by the red blisters and severe leaf curling on the emerging foliage. A simple fungicide programme of copper oxychloride will help counter this. Read more about how and when to spray fruit trees.
Dwarf varieties are grafted onto vigorous rootstocks which can produce "suckers" from around the base or up the tree. Snip the sprouts while they are still small – otherwise the growth can swell vigorously and overtake the dwarf part of the tree.
HOW MUCH FRUIT WILL I GET OUT OF DWARF TREES?
Despite their diminutive appearance, dwarf fruit trees are very productive. After two or three years, each tree should produce 10-20kg of fruit in each season.
An exception might be the dwarf apricot 'Aprigold' which is a pretty wee tree that flowers prolifically, but from what I've seen, only produces a few fruit each year.
My own dwarf apple tree ('Blush Babe' variety) produced 80 small- to medium-sized apples in its third season after planting – and that was in a big pot.
Usually the fruit is full sized, unless the tree has an extra heavy crop (then the fruit will be small).
Thin the fruitlets in early to mid summer to remove a portion. Leave one or two fruit per bunch, allowing for space between each fruit to "size up" and not touch each other.
- NZ Gardener