Mini fruit gardens can fit within a variety of spaces.
What type of areas do you have to work with?
Do you have a 2-3 feet wide strip along a house, driveway, or fence? You can espalier fruit trees (prune in a flat plane on a trellis) and produce a lot of fruit within that narrow area. I’m estimating you could harvest 60-100 apples or pears or more from an 8 foot long section, 4-6 feet high. I’ve harvested a total of 60 apples from three young 4-year-old miniature apple trees growing together within that size area. A good-size espalier tree should produce much more. You can also grow vines on trellises along narrow strips.
Do you have one or more small 4 foot wide spots? You can fit blueberry bushes or miniature apple trees in that small area, and harvest 4-6 quarts of berries or 20-25 apples. You could even grow a grapevine on a 4′ wide trellis and harvest about 8-16 bunches of grapes.
It’s possible to prune some plants, such as gooseberries, to fit within a tiny 2′ x 2′ area.
If you have a circle about 8 feet wide, you can plant a cluster of 2-4 fruit trees close together inside a 4 foot bed. By crowding the trees and pruning them 2-3 times during each growing season, you can keep this group of trees less than 6 feet high and 8 feet wide. Multiple trees can also help cross-pollinate each other, and extend the harvest season for weeks or months.
Odds and Ends, and Containers. You can tuck strawberries almost anywhere. I have planted them underneath the south side of my espalier apple trees, or in small raised beds of their own. But my current favorite spot is in waist-high containers made from 8” deep concrete mixing trays. I can sit or stand to work in them, which makes it easy to harvest the ripe strawberries.
You can grow vines for grapes or kiwis on an arbor over a patio. Some people, especially those in milder climates, can grow fruit trees, grapevines, and blueberry bushes in containers. Except for strawberries, I personally feel that the harvest from most container-grown fruit is too small to be worth the extra effort involved in taking care of the containers, but this may still be a good option for some people.
Sheltered spots. If you want to grow fig trees and your climate is a little too cool for them, you could tuck one up against the south side of your house, protected from the winter winds. The micro-climate in that spot may be up to one zone warmer, especially if you have a brick wall.
But if you have late spring freezes like I do, I don’t recommend planting most fruit trees in that warm sheltered spot, as it would cause them to bloom earlier than normal and you risk losing your crop to frost damage. However, fig trees bloom later than most other fruit trees, and will benefit from a sheltered location.
Edible Landscaping. You can also design an attractive mini fruit garden for your front yard – if you don’t have serious deer issues. However, it’s pretty easy to protect your plants from rabbits in an attractive way. Here is a short video of one edible landscape:
When to choose raised beds:
If you have nice, deep well-drained soil, there’s no particular reason you need a raised bed for your fruit garden – other than the edge of the bed can protect your plants from being damaged by a mower or weed wacker. If you are using a wheelchair, however, a raised bed may prevent you from getting closer to your plants.
If you have heavy clay soil, it’s a good idea to create a raised bed with better quality soil up to one foot high. Many fruit plants will grow poorly in heavy, badly drained soil – if they survive at all. It’s also not usually a good idea to dig a hole into heavy clay soil and fill it with improved soil, as the clay surrounding your hole could hold water like a pond during wet weather and drown your plant.
You can create raised beds with wood, concrete blocks, stones, or decorative retaining wall blocks. I tend to avoid using treated wood in my gardens, and since most untreated wood only lasts about 5-7 years, I usually choose some type of concrete product for my fruit garden beds.
Another reason to choose to use raised beds is if, like me, you have difficulty in squatting or kneeling for very long. I chose to make most of my fruit beds about 10 inches high from inexpensive concrete blocks. Retaining wall blocks would also work and are more attractive, but cost up to 3 times more.
I can sit on the edges to do light weeding or mulching in the beds, and pruning or harvesting on lower branches. Our topsoil is only 3-4 inches deep above heavy clay soil, so the added depth of the beds provides great growing conditions for my plants.
What are other important factors?
Sunshine – Most fruiting plants need at least 6-8 hours of direct mid-day sunshine for best production. Gooseberries can still produce with just a half-day worth. Taking a chance, I planted my fruit garden on a site with 5.5 hours of direct sunshine, from 11:30 am – 5 pm, and my plants seem to be doing just fine. But I did put my grapevines where they will get 8-10 hours of sunshine.
Tip: How do you know where the sun will shine during the growing season if it is winter when you are planning your garden? Easy – the full moon in winter-time matches where the sun will shine 6 months later during the day. Go out at night to observe the moonlight. Just be careful to see where bare branches are showing shadows in your garden, as those branches will be covered with leaves in the summer and shading that spot.
Water – Put your mini fruit garden close to a water spigot and garden hose. Although you can use a 100 foot garden hose, I still wouldn’t recommend having your garden that far away, if you have a choice. You will be less likely to visit it regularly, and dragging that large of a hose around is a pain. The more difficult it is to water your garden, the less often it will be watered when needed.
Close to your daily outdoor activity areas – Put your gardens near where you regularly walk or relax outside (house entrances, driveway, patio, favorite backyard area, etc). Mini fruit gardens need more frequent care than the larger trees in fruit orchards. I used to say “plant close to your house”, but it won’t help to put it next to your house if it is on the side that you rarely visit.
This is definitely a case of “out of sight” means “out of mind.” Because of my space limitations and their sunshine requirements, I had no choice but to put my grape vines on the other side of my shed. I rarely see them unless I intentionally go there, so I am constantly forgetting about them! As a result, they aren’t getting the quality of care that they deserve.
Plan for pest protection – I tend to keep my gardens close together and compact, so that I can put a fence or netting around them to keep out animal pests. Rabbits and deer can both cause serious damage year-round to a mini fruit garden. Be sure to install the fencing or other control methods for these pests before you put your plants in the ground.
An animal eating your vegetable garden can destroy a few month’s worth of work, but damage to fruit trees can destroy several years worth of growth, if not kill a young tree or bush outright! Also, if you have ever tried putting bird netting over an 8-10 feet tall cherry tree, you will understand the joy of covering a 5-6 feet tall one instead.
Relax! – Put a chair or bench where you can relax and enjoy a close-up view of your garden! Don’t create a garden that is all work and no play. Adding a bird bath, bird feeders, and small flower beds will add to your enjoyment and encourage you to visit often.
Sources for more ideas:
The book American Horticultural Society Pruning and Training, by Christopher Brickell and David Joyce, provides detailed information on many different ways that you can train and prune your fruit garden – anywhere from small and round, tall and narrow, flat on trellises, and more. It offers a lot of photos and drawings to help you decide what options may be best suited for your own garden.
A California wholesale nursery – Dave Wilson Nursery – has a great website that explains in more detail how to plan, plant, prune, and care for dwarf fruit trees in your yard. It includes photos of compact orchards, multi-planting, hedgerows, containers, espalier, raised beds, and other special solutions. Photos of Backyard Orchard Culture
They also have many videos that I found very helpful: Dave Wilson Nursery Fruit Tube videos. You can find an index for many of their videos here: Fruit Tube Video Index. Just be aware that some of their information (such as variety recommendations and pruning schedules) is best suited for the West Coast climate.
I also learned more about growing miniature dwarf apple trees from a Midwest Fruit Explorers website that includes a virtual tour of a member’s backyard orchard. I found it very inspiring: Gene’s Backyard Orchard
There are a number of books on edible landscaping that could give you suggestions on how to attractively include fruiting plants in your landscaping, though they often don’t go into much detail on how to grow miniature fruit trees. Two of the more popular books include: Edible Landscaping, by Rosalind Creasy (2010 edition), and Landscaping With Fruit: Strawberry ground covers, blueberry hedges, grape arbors, and 39 other luscious fruits to make your yard an edible paradise. (A Homeowners Guide), by Lee Reich. I urge you to read the customer reviews on Amazon.com to learn about the pros and cons of each book.
Next Page: Selecting Varieties