Small Space Options: Miniature Fruit Trees

Just because your yard is the size of a postage stamp, your days are spent running after the kids or commuting to and from work, or the ol’ back isn’t what it used to be, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the rewards of growing and harvesting fresh, sun-ripened fruit from your own trees.

Years of careful, selective breeding have resulted in a new line of miniature and genetic dwarf fruit trees that can be grown successfully in very limited space–even containers! These trees are TRUE dwarfs, unlike traditional dwarfed and semi-dwarfed trees that have full-size tops grafted onto dwarfing rootstocks (usually of a related, but not identical species–if the top of a grafted tree is killed, the root will re-sprout in an entirely different form.) True miniatures, like ‘Stark’s New Colonnade,’ ‘Royal Gala,’ and ‘Jon-a-Red’ apples; ‘GoldenGlo’ apricots, and ‘HoneyGlo’ and ‘Miller’s Garden Beauty’ nectarines; ‘Garden Gold’ peaches; and ‘X-tra Dwarfed Bing Cherry’ trees, reach mature heights of only about 4 to 6 feet. These are real space savers when compared to grafted dwarfs that may grow as tall as 10 feet; semi-dwarfs that grow easily to 15 or 20 feet; or standards that tower near 30 feet!

Their small size makes the seasonal tasks of thinning fruit, spraying for pests, harvesting, and pruning a snap as well. It is possible to completely spray an entire mini in less than 10 minutes, using nothing more than a hand-held spray bottle! Thinning, harvesting, and pruning can all be done in record time, too, and without ladders, climbing, and neck-breaking overhead work.

Despite their tiny size, these small trees yield full-size fruit, every bit as big and flavorful as that of their bigger sisters. And yields are astounding, too. A mature miniature peach like ‘Stark’s Sensation’ (recommended for our area) can yield nearly a bushel of fruit per tree at maturity.

Less space, less work, high yields…what more could you ask for? How about faster maturity, earlier fruiting, and better winter-hardiness? Because of their small size, minis mature at a much faster rate than full-size fruit trees. You can expect to begin harvesting some fruit from the average miniature tree when it is four years old–which translates to about two years after planting, since most fruit trees are at least two years old when they are sold. By five years of age, most miniatures are mature and bearing heavily year after year.

Container-grown miniatures often bloom and set fruit several weeks in advance of full-size and field-grown fruit trees, since the soil they grow in warms up faster in the Spring and is usually more fertile, more water retentive, and more aerated than regular garden soil.

And because small and container-grown trees can be covered or even moved to sheltered locations during harsh winters, the chance of losing an entire season’s harvest to sub-zero cold or a late hard frost is very slim.

To container-grow your miniature fruit trees, you’ll need a pot at least 18 to 24 inches wide and at least 24” deep. Use heavy, unglazed clay; concrete; wood; or heavy-duty plastic–anything flimsy will burst under the pressure of vigorously growing roots. Container-grown trees that will sit in an exposed location should be double-potted, using sphagnum moss tucked between the pots as an insulator against extremes of heat and cold.

If you plan to move your trees around, set the pots on sturdy wheeled-plant-dollies BEFORE you fill or plant them. Use a high-quality commercial potting mix (not regular garden soil), with an added helping of vermiculite or perlite to increase water-retention and decrease weight. Plant as you would any tree: trim away burlap or string, prune broken roots and branches, and plant only as deep as the tree grew in the nursery. Wrap trunks with tree-wrap to prevent sunscald, water in well, and place in a shady, sheltered location for a few days to allow the new transplants time to recover. Potted trees, because of their small root mass, require lots of water during the growing season. During hot, windy, dry weather, you may need to thoroughly soak the trees several times a day to keep soil uniformly damp but not soggy. Feed your container-grown trees with a good, all-purpose fruit-tree fertilizer in the Spring and Fall, or with a 2-inch layer of compost mulched over the surface of the soil several times a year.

Garden-planted miniature fruit trees should be sited in sunny, well-drained, fertile locations well away from the encroaching roots of larger trees. Space garden-grown minis 3 to 4 feet apart for best growth, either in orderly orchard-like rows, or spot planted with ornamental landscape trees and shrubs; because of their small size and attractive form, they can even be used as accent plants in perennial borders and vegetable gardens. Miniatures also make excellent candidates for espaliering against walls, training to fence rows, and when carefully pruned, they make a uniquely beautiful–and fruitful–hedge.

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