First time with backyard dwarf apples - seeking input and advice!

Hi, I am putting together a plan for our backyard “orchard,” and I would love to get some advice and double check some of my understandings/assumptions.

Really, the biggest question I have is this: What makes the most sense in terms of pruning/training dwarf apple trees for a simple backyard set up? I’ll list some details to help unpack that question:

-I have a space of about 45’ X 12’, with the 45’ length running east-west. I’m on the outskirts of Portland, OR, Zone 8b.

-I pre-ordered a handful of trees from Cummins (mostly g.11 & g.41) – I saw their pre-order stock running low on some varieties and I may have jumped the gun on this (the FOMO was hitting hard!). If it’s helpful, I’ll list the varieties at the end.

-I ordered these dwarf types with the assumption of “oh, I have a small space, I need dwarf trees.”

-I am beginning to suspect the “permanent support” requirement for dwarfs may not be what I was hoping for when envisioning a backyard orchard.

So, to circle back to my main question, I have seen pictures and videos of what I understand to be some sort of “spindle” method, with either a trellis or 10-12’ stake supporting tightly packed trees growing straight up. I don’t love that idea for our backyard, though I am entertaining the possibility of a trellis for some sort of angled cordons or Belgian fence set up.

What I am trying to find are examples of these dwarf trees grown as just that- small trees. I am picturing something around 8’ high with a 6’ spread (6’ based on Cummins’ rootstock info page). What I can’t picture is how the supports would work. Obviously one permanent stake for the center, but would individual branches need to be supported as well? Can I just tie support lines from the center stake to the branches during fruiting, or would I need multiple stakes per tree for the branches?

What I picture is something that I think is more of an “open center” shape, but I think I am gathering that that shape does not do well for trees that need support.

If I feel ambitious and go for the cordon/Belgian fence set up, I may need further advice there, in terms of ideal height, tree spacing, etc.

For the past several years, we’ve gone to a nearish orchard to get a bunch of apples (usually 200 lbs or so) to do a cider pressing with friends. I’d love to grow at least that much; my understanding is maybe 20 lbs per dwarf, or more with a vigorous variety, though I would think training method would affect yield as well. Is this correct?

I appreciate any and all input, even if it is simply to refer me to answers elsewhere that I haven’t already found during my obsessive Googling sessions :slight_smile: I feel like the answers exist, and certainly Cummins and other sites list the details of tree size/training shape/etc, but I feel like I just can’t visualize what these things look like (and the only visuals I find are those tall spindle things).

Thanks, and if it’s helpful, here are the trees I currently have on pre-order:

G.11:
Macoun
Yarlington Mill
Gravenstein
Hudson’s

G.41:
Arkansas Black
Ashmead’s
Spitzenburg
St. Edmund’s

And:
Wickson on G.210
Dabinett on G.935

(I guess a follow up question should be: should I upgrade these dwarfs to the next larger rootstock and just prune to keep small, so as to avoid needing complex support? I don’t think I’d want anything more vigorous than M.26 equivalent, especially with 10 trees in this space…)

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IMO, using dwarf rootstock only makes sense if you aren’t going to prune. if you are going to do pruning anyway, they i would use a semi dwarf rootstock or even standard (longer lived trees this way) and keep them pruned to the desired height. However, i wouldn’t cancel the order just from this.
In terms of pruning, i would not go open center for an apple tree, there isn’t really a benefit here and i don’t like the look of an apple tree with blocks under the lateral branches for support.
I don’t know that i would go for a Belgian fence either, i think a more traditional espalier would do better (to keep the Belgian fence aesthetic, you would likely reduce production too much). If you grow them more in a central leader fashion, you should be able to get closer to 40lbs/tree at maturity. if you thin, you will get less, but sweeter, and bigger fruit.

I know i have seen some really good pictures of mature dwarf apple trees, but for some reason I can’t find them now.
Here is a picture of a dwarf:
image

and here is the more standard espalier:

I am a firm believer of cramming in as many fruit trees as possible into a smaller space.

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Good book: Grow A LIttle Fruit Tree

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If it were me, I would probably go with the Belgian Fence, especially given that your area is long and narrow.

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Ultimately the heighth of the tree depends on the person with the scissors in their hands. Probably both semi and full dwarf can be kept the same size. In fertile soil the semi would probably need to be pruned more aggressively. If you want an eight foot tree with six foot spread, the G-11 can be easily maintained to that. (I have G-11 experience). I have some G-11 cordon espalier and I maybe should have gone with a semi dwarf instead. They are planted in a gravel parking lot and I don’t know long range if they can handle the situation. They are five feet apart. I could have gone semi dwarf on seven foot spacing and had a bigger engine.

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As someone who started out as a novice with a similarly small space to work with, I went with the Belgian fence approach and I think it can work really well.

For reference, the first Belgian fence I set up runs 48 feet east to west. There are twenty-five trees planted two feet apart. I think all of them are on G41. I used eight foot black locust splits for the end posts and green garden t-posts for the intermediate supports, set eight feet apart. I made the trellis by tying bamboo to the support wires (my dad grows bamboo so I was able to get that for free), and I train the trees to the trellis with green velcro garden tape. I have to fiddle with it now and then, but it’s worked out pretty well so far (probably better than I had any right to expect).

The fence has not completely filled in yet, and we’re just starting to get fruit (started with bench grafts so it was going to take a little longer). But I’m happy with the way things are going so far, and it looks like most of the trees are ultimately going to be fine in terms of filling in the space.

Pros of the Belgian fence from my experience:

It takes up minimal space in a small yard.

It makes it comparatively straightforward to manage a lot of varieties in a small space. (Compared with a multi graft tree.)

As a novice, I haven’t found it especially difficult to train the trees. While there was definitely a learning curve, training the trees was much more straightforward than it would have been with more demanding forms of espalier or with free-standing trees.

Also speaking as a novice, I feel like it’s made it easier to take care of the trees overall.

It looks cool.

Cons:

It involves a certain amount of fiddling and fussing, what with multiple rounds of summer pruning and tying the trees to the trellis and straightening the trellis when it gets a little out of whack, and of course setting the trellis up in the first place. (I enjoy working on it, actually, but I can understand why some people wouldn’t.)

More trees = more start-up cost. (I mitigated this significantly by buying rootstock and grafting my own. The materials for the trellis itself were not especially expensive.)

Dudeness suggests that espalier pruning reduces overall production. That may be the case, but I’m not sure. (Tall spindle systems and the like are supposed to increase production compared to traditional free-standing trees. Espalier offers some of the same benefits, and the Belgian fence is particularly advantageous form of espalier in terms of maximizing scaffold length in a given space. (Thank you, Pythagorean theorem.)

But honestly, I don’t know how the productivity of a Belgian fence compares with that of freestanding trees, and I’m guessing it might depend a lot on your particular situation.

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What do you have on the outside of the dimensions listed? ie. are the trees able to overhand that area or is it a wall/fence? I recently did a planting of trees on a fairly similarly sized area - you can see my plans and planting. I am doing all my trees open center for what its worth. I managed to get some with interstem roostock B118/B9. Seemed the best balance between dwarfing/good roots.

I am not sure how much tree research you have done so far but if you have not do some research into disease resistant apple and your local pests. Consider what you are willing to spray to make this work. Although cider can still be made from buggy apples!

As for wanting to do open center - @Jsacadura seems to keep his open center and has lots of good videos - I found his videos some of the easiest to understand for a beginner. There is also Stephen Hayes who is a bit of a legend here who keeps his trees open center. Standard thinking against open center is that it produces less per unit area (which is why I think most commercial growers abandoned it) as well as prone to branch breakage due to all the scaffolds coming from the same location (can be reduced by a modified center leader or modified open center approach or just being mindfull with fruit load)

+1 for reading Grow a Little Fruit tree - I have found it inspiring.

Most of my knowledge is theoretical. With any luck I will have my first peaches this year and apples next year.

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All dwarf apple trees need permanent support. For a backyard orchard the simplest system is to use a single stake to support it. People use 8 foot metal t-stakes, 10 foot EMT conduit and the top rails for chain link fences with good results. You attach the leader of the tree to the stake at 3-5 points spread along the leader. You don’t support individual branches.

In commercial orchards dwarf trees are spaced 3 feet apart and rows are 13 feet apart. The target yield for each tree is about 40 lbs and the trees are trained to the tall spindle system. Tree height is kept at about 10 feet.

In a backyard orchard you can train the tree to a central leader, tall spindle and a bunch of other systems. Central leader is pretty easy and you get a traditional “tree shape” with tree spacing in the 6-10 feet range if that is what you want. Tall spindle is good as well and makes the trees easy to prune, spray and harvest. I have trees trained to tall spindle and I have 10 foot spaced trees that I originally planned to train as central leader trees but ultimately I trained the trees to the vertical axe system which is sort of a wide somewhat taller version of the tall spindle system.

I think cordons, Belgian fences and espaliers are more complicated and sacrifice yield. They work best when you have a trellis or want the trees against a wall or fence. They’re basically a good choice when you have a very narrow, long space. This system is also more vulnerable to deer damage if you have high deer pressure.

I would suggest you look at this tree calculator and play with the variables. It will show you how soil type, irrigation, rootstock, scion, and training system all interact and effect tree spacing. I don’t think you need larger rootstocks but if you have a sandy, droughty soil you may want to go with higher vigor rootstocks. Soil that is sandy loam or heavier should be fine with dwarf rootstocks. Again use the calculator below to get a feel for how all of this works.

http://fruitadvisor.info/tfruit/clements/appletreespacing.htm

Do you have any experience with fruit trees? Have you thought about diseases or insects? Certain cultivars are disease resistant but many are not. There are no apple trees that are resistant to insects especially the fruit. To protect the fruit from insects you will have to bag the apples or spray Surround ( a type of clay) or spray insecticides. We have spray guides on the site (organic and non-organic) and also charts of the disease resistance of apple cultivars see below:

Spray Schedule- Synthetic Materials

Low-Impact Spray Schedule (2019 Edition)

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in the willamette valley you want scab resistance if you want clean apples without spraying. fire blight and cedar apple rust are less common. most apples should grow well other than scab including long season apples so I’d guess your choices would do ok

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Oh wow, they said this would be a good place to find answers, and I sure got some! Thank you all for the replies. I’m going to pour myself some coffee while I read through all these, haha

Ok, I’ve mostly digested everything here!

First off, I think I’ve misused the term “open center,” and so I’m not totally sure the name of the shape I’m picturing. I’m throwing around new terms to me, so there’s always a danger there. I’ve been using rootstock descriptions from Orange Pippin, wherein each type is listed alongside attributes, spacings, possible shapes, etc.

I think when I picture a “small tree,” I am picturing a dwarf trained as central leader (I think). I’ve seen some other folks call this a Christmas tree shape? @mroot gave me the answer that my roundabout question was looking for: Leader attached to single post, individual branches not supported.

I have done a good deal of “research” in terms of scouring the web, but that seems to only be taking me so far. For one thing, without any practical experience with fruit trees (though plenty in terms of general gardening), I don’t have the experiential context in which to situate the varying opinions/advice/etc that I come across. I need to start interacting with folks to get these reality checks in place during the planning stages. Hence why I came here.

I do have a neighbor on the street who happens to be a professional orchard and vineyard consultant. While he’s given me some good advice, I’m trying not to rely too much on taking for free what he charges $$ for! So far my takeaways from him are:

  1. m106 equivalents and above will be too vigorous for my site, doable, but it’ll be a battle of pruning.

  2. pick scab resistant varieties (as others here have suggested). It looks like I’ve already ordered some scab susceptible varieties, so we’ll see how that goes. I’m ok with doing what needs to be done to combat scab and other maladies, but check back in five years and we’ll see if I’ve changed my tune :slight_smile:

  3. don’t overthink it. Easier said than done!

@Piblarg asked about my overall space: I’m somewhat fortunate-- the space I listed actually has a good 5-15’ (depending on the side) of additional blank space on each side. The closest boundary is the property line running east-west on the north side of the rectangle, about 5’ away. There’s no fence there now, but maybe someday if those neighbors leave (we have a good relationship with them, no fence needed).

I think my plan for now will be the central leader as @mroot suggested. According to Orange Pippin, I should be able to keep my G210 and G935 at the same spacings as the 11/41 trees, so that’s helpful. I’m going to opt out of the belgian fence for now, though I am impressed with @JinMA’s fence. I think I’ll get the regular trees going, and I might plan to espalier in the future after I get some more experience (including grafting experience – I see the value there for sure).

Really, my more immediate plan is just site preparation (heavy clay grown over with weeds), but what with tree pre-orders happening now, I’ve been fixated on that aspect for a while.

Thanks again, everyone, especially with the links and book recommendation! I’ve seen the Grow a Little Fruit Tree referenced before, so I’ll definitely check that out.

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You want a central leader tree from what you have said. You probably can alter you order with Cummins if you think you need changes. I would do some research and then if you see some trees are not a good fit for you make the changes to the order.

Try to plant the best trees you can for your needs and the local climate. If you can avoid taking care of a tree for years only to find out the fruit isn’t good or the tree has problems you’re better off. It’s not the money so much but the time. You never get the time back.

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Here is one of many articles of advice and pruning for size and shape. Also check the Reference and Guide categories of this forum.
Training and pruning PNW.pdf (495.5 KB)

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By any chance, do you have deer? I ask because I’m in the process of building 7.5’ fences to keep them away from my apple trees. Last year a 4’ fence kept them out, but I knew it was inadequate. This year they jumped the lower fence and ate everything under 5’.

I’m only two years in and I’m already ready to ditch my one scab-susceptible variety. there are enough scab-resistant types available that there’s something in almost every niche and harvest window. once you have scab resistance then you can no-spray apples by just bagging them at golf ball size or a little earlier (the main insect pests are codling moth and to a lesser degree apple maggot and these are defeated by bags). so scab resistance is kind of the key to making apples really carefree here

powdery mildew is maybe 2nd most important but the nice thing about scab resistant apples is a lot of them have multiple resistances. here’s a good article about the PRI breeding program that did a lot of work on bringing about scab resistance Breeding Apples for Scab Resistance 1945-1990

apples are easy to graft so you can always change your mind later

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@ScatkinsPDX @z0r Both of you would probably benefit from reading “Apples for the 21st century” by Warren Manhart. It covers about 50 apples that author grows and recommends as well as bunch of general advice.

His orchard is 10 miles South of downtown Portland, Oregon and a 1/2 mile from the Willamette River. So his advice I would expect is very good for you guys since you share the same maritime climate. Your library may have it or if not maybe it’s available via interlibrary loan. Used copies are also on amazon.

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thanks I ordered a used copy on amazon. I’ll put a review here when I’ve looked through it

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Great, thanks! Powell’s has a used copy of Manhart that I might pickup when I head downtown next.

@z0r – how does the apple bagging go over in terms of time/labor? I realize some prefer it to spraying, but I can’t imagine bagging every fruit/fruit cluster on a dozen or so trees. Seems like a trade-off either way. I talked to a commercial/u-pick orchardist down in Scholl’s who uses pheremone traps for pests, and he says that’s enough to keep his apples bug-free. Seems too good to be true: as far as I understood, traps were more for detection than control, but maybe there’s more too it than I know.

No deer, though we do have healthy rabbit and vole populations. I use castor oil with some success to combat the voles in my raised beds, but I plan to put some hardware cloth around the apple trunks come planting time.

This is probably the best advice. Something about turning 40 is putting “time” into perspective for me.

I might ditch my scab susceptible varieties, particularly Macoun. Looks like I could replace it with a Spartan for a similar apple with better resistance. McInstosh (and related) has always been one of my favorites, though I realize they’re more of a northeast apple. Another of my scabby varieties is Wickson, and I’m not sure I can give that one up. I’ll probably keep at least the one and we’ll see how it goes.

This brings up my ongoing existential struggle with gardening: do I “listen to the land” and plant what does well here, accepting that may not get exactly what I want, or do I alter the land and adopt high-input practices to grow things that would not otherwise thrive??

And that question is too easily applicable to any other area of life that I prefer not to think too hard about it, especially these days! I’m trying to plant apples to get away from such angst, ha.

bagging is pretty quick with apples because the stems are usually long enough to make the bag go on without any fiddling like you can have with short stemmed stone fruits. I only had ~120 apples total this year and I got it done in maybe 45 minutes. a downside to the bags is they can give protection to other insects like earwigs that wouldn’t normally be able to find refuge near an apple so it isn’t a clean win

90% of commercial apple orchards in the northwest use codling moth mating disruption (not exactly a trap). this is considered the key breakthrough that allows “organic” apple farming to even work here. it works best with larger plots, in a residential setting the codling moth will just mate down the street where the pheromones aren’t present so they aren’t as effective. so I wonder if this is what the orchardist you talked to was using

this is a great video on apple protection, at the linked time the speaker mentions codling moth traps enabling organic production

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I should mention my thinning strategy this year was almost all clusters went to one apple, in two waves so I allowed for some drops. for all but one of my trees that was a good load. that makes bags even easier since the apples are nice and isolated by the time the bags go on