Backyard Orchard Culture by Tom Spellman

Notes from a lecture given at California's Rare Fruit Growers 2004Festival of Fruit

Tom Spellman has 29 years in the nursery business, specializing in the propagation and cultivation of citrus, avocado and sub-tropical fruit trees. He is currently the Southwestern Sales Manager for Dave Wilsen Nursery, servicing So. California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Mr. Spellman shared some of his very distinctive ideas on how to make the maximum use of your backyard space. He started out by describing the natural height of some common dooryard fruit trees. Semi-dwarfing rootstocks can reach 18 ft. tall and dwarfing rootstocks still allow trees to grow to 12 feet. The only way to truly control the height of your trees is to prune them to the height you want; i.e., the height at which you can care for them while standing on the ground.

His byword is K.I.S.S (keep it simple, stupid). Whack the top out of your tree. Prune it to eye level in summer and thin the branches to increase the size of your fruit. Prune again after harvest and winter prune to remove broken limbs and control density. When you plant a new tree, don’t space your varieties 8 or 10 feet apart. That wastes perfectly good growing space.

Prepare a large hole and drop in 3 or 4 trees on 18”- 24” centers or less. By thinning branches appropriately, you can have multiple, controlled size trees in the space that used to house only one. Yes, they will crowd each other but you are striving for efficiency over vigor.

Choose varieties that are compatible. Don’t plant an avocado, a citrus and a sugar apple. Pick 4 types of citrus that ripen at different times. You can plan it to allow harvest from June to March. You will get more fruit in less space, accommodate pollinator varieties, benefit from successive ripening times and it’s much easier to protect a short tree from freezes.

When you prune your tree for height, you have to start correctly. Since your goal is minimal height, you need it to start its scaffolding at 12 to 18 inches. After planting your tree, cut it at about that height so it will start branching early rather than shooting straight up (needless to say, don’t cut below the graft).

Other space saving devices are to espalier a tree along a narrow walk or fence. Prune a tree into a hedge and lastly, one of my favorites, braid several varieties of figs together.