Recommendations for space efficient breeding/ trial nursery

First time poster. I’m about a year and a half into my fruit-nerd journey. Primary interest now is apples but will likely branch into other crops too. Getting nerdier by the day, but take it easy on me if I get some terminology wrong or my assumptions are faulty. Skillcult recommended this forum.

A couple projects of mine are converging. I’m currently constructing a proper fence to keep chickens and deer out of the veg garden. Which got me thinking about another project and where to put it…a small scale apple breeding/ variety evaluation nursery. I’m actually not space-limited except by choice. We own a few acres and there are plenty of places I could go do a larger scale breeding orchard of some sort. But the wife would prefer to keep the open land open (and she has a point), and then I’d have to think about a really large fenced off area, and it’s likely I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it anyway.

So here’s my rough plan and where I need some advice. I’m gonna have a couple sections inside the garden fence…conservatively 20 feet each. Thinking I could do some sort of cordon system or espalier thing with lots of places to graft on crossed seedlings, and/or scions of heirlooms or stuff I want to check out. The idea for the seedlings would be plant a few each year (in a different spot)…grow them one year, harvest/graft a scion onto my espalier/cordon fence, tear last year’s seedling trees out and plant some new seeds. Already have some crossed seedlings growing in containers (from skillcult’s project)

My first thought was doing a pretty closely spaced diagonal cordon row inside the fence. But I’m guessing those don’t favor grafting multiple varieties on each tree…other than just maintaining some short stubs? I’ve since sketched out an idea where I do “horizontal” (forgive my terminology) espalier…and every other plant has branches staggered at different heights. I can add a pic of that concept later (if that’s possible here). If you think of each tree as a double-crossed “T”…each horizontal branch would be a place for a variety. 4 on each tree. Adjacent tree looks the same but the horizontal bits are staggered at different heights. System is modular and continually changing. If a variety is deemed to be a loser, it gets hacked off and grated to something else. Trees spaced roughly 2.5 feet apart to allow for a 2 ft branch. 28 varieties in a 20 ft section of interior fence. I’d be building a wire trellis just inside the actual garden perimeter fence.

Ramblings of a newbie. I figure someone here has already tried something along these lines and could make a suggestion on what works and what doesn’t? I have grafted on my frankentree now for two years, but have little frame of a reference for these high density systems…what you can get away with, and what mistakes to avoid.

Thanks for having me!


I like it but the more you space them possibly the easier your life would be and if you have the space, why not? maybe just like 4ft instead of 2.5 ft, If watering is not a issue for you and you enjoy being out there im sure it would all work out. I probably would not remove them immediately like you are planning on doing in case you lose any scions or want more of a variety? If i went to that effort i would leave them a few years.


Yeah I hear ya. And you’re probably right about leaving the seedlings. The main reason I’d prefer to do it this way is the fence issue. Chickens and deer will make a mess of anything I do out in the open. Not to mention my wife already thinks my apple habit is out of control.


She may be on to something :grinning:


Yes you have another point. But I came here to find enablers, not reasonable people.


Well once you start keeping your seedlings i think things will ramp up nicely, Why stop with apples? Do you have any jujube, plums, peaches, apricots, raspberries, blackberries, honeyberries, grapes, kiwis, You can bury figs to keep them going, mulberries, currants and then a nice mix of perrenials for all your pollinating insects needs.


Looks like I’m in the right place.:grinning:


I would try to go to a 3 foot spacing if you can. Three feet is fairly flexible. Commercial plantings trained to the tall spindle system are usually done on a 3-4 spacing. I think you also need to think about what rootstocks your going to use and how much vigor your scion may have. Bud 9 is probably the best choice unless you have a very sandy droughty soil. If you do G11 would be a better choice.

I also think you should look at this tree spacing calculator. It’s from Michigan. There is also a slightly different version available that is tuned for East Coast conditions supplied by UMass at Amherst. You input a bunch of different values like the rootstock, soil type, how your going to water, etc. The calculator then gives you the recommended tree spacing and row spacing.

For example for average scion vigor, Bud 9 rootstock, loam soil, as needed watering, tall spindle system, with target tree height of 7 feet-

The calculator recommends:

2.6 feet tree spacing
9.1 feet between rows

Having said this you need to follow the tall spindle system. If you don’t and go with a central leader system you will end up with a mess. The trees will grow into each other and create a dense hedge. Also for row spacing think about how your going to mow between rows. Your equipment needs to be able to fit.

Since your space is limited I would do controlled cross pollination. I would pick the parents very carefully. Two really good parents will greatly increase your chance of success. Also try to avoid “me too” apple trees. Everyone is working on an improved Honeycrisp and an improved red fleshed apple. And they’re producing hundreds and thousands of candidates. For the small scale breeder you’re better off having unique goals. A Wickson cross that doesn’t crack in the Midwest. A very productive apple tree with Peardrop flavor. Or maybe a Gold Russet -William’s Pride cross which could give you a highly disease resistant apple with great flavor that could also be used in cider.

Any ways these are some ideas. In the end however, follow your heart that is truly what is important.


I thought about tall (short) spindle. I’d have to modify it to be kind of a two dimensional thing for my inner fence idea and manage to about 6 feet. Tall spindle might actually give me more places to graft into. And as I understand that system, you’re supposed to be continually removing wood once it gets a certain diameter. That might be a nice dovetail with my intentions.

I don’t have any real specific goals yet. Just goofing around. There was a time in my life I really planned to be a corn breeder and this is a fun way to scratch that itch. Genetics are cool. Might try to improve some of the old southern varieties or something. I definitely have zero interest in honeycrisp.

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Here’s the sketch of the staggered espalier thing:


You could do a two dimensional tall spindle planting system. I don’t see any problems with doing that. The only thing required would be to prune off branches that aren’t in your two dimensional plane. Or in some cases especially if you have few branches, bend the branches into your 2D plane.

If you target 6 feet for height your rows could be closer spaced, 7.8 feet apart. That’s assuming your rows are in the North/South direction. If your using East/West rows you will have to space them farther apart.

I didn’t mean to knock Honeycrisp. From your reply I got the impression you took it that way. I was mainly talking about “me too” apples. Honeycrisp has a lot of flaws low vigor, funny leaves, difficult to pick and ship commercially, etc. In some ways I am surprised it wasn’t culled from the breeding program. But it did have unique texture, cold winter tolerance, and was very different from other commercial apples when it appeared. It was consumer demand that made it successful. I think if your a backyard breeder you would be better off breeding for uniqueness since that’s what made Honeycrisp successful.


I like the look of espaliers. I think you could make an espalier work in your situation. I have never done them myself. They look cool but require a trellis and I think a bit more work than tall spindle.

I thought about building a trellis for my tall spindle planting but didn’t for several reasons. First, it wasn’t cost effective unless I had a really long trellis at least for a high tension wire trellis like commercial apple growers use. Second, a trellis is a system and if it fails the failure can effect multiple trees. I ended up going with 8 foot t-stakes. They cost 5-6 dollars a piece, are easy to install and simpler to maintain. It’s also easier to move around the trees when pruning, harvesting, etc since no wires are present.

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The more I think about it, the more I think a 2 dimensional “tall spindle” might be the way to go. Will give me more places to graft new seedlings too.

One thing I don’t quite understand about tall spindle…acquiring the “feathered trees.” This would be a small quantity order…like 5-10ish. Is that the kind of thing you custom order from a nursery? Could I just acquire some whips this this fall and bud notch them next year to create the feathers? Obviously I could afford to do that on a handful of trees whereas a big commercial orchard needs the feathered trees from the get to.

Variety wouldn’t matter a great deal since this is just a framework for grafting. But I think it’d be preferable to have the starter trees themselves be pretty fireblight resistant. Likely loose some grafted branches to FB here and there. But would avoid losing a whole tree.

I think you should just buy rootstocks which are strong against FB and any other disease in your area and you can create the feathering effect easily when the trees are young.

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Normally commercial growers buy finished trees that aren’t cut back (headed) and have plenty of small branches that are less than the 1/2 diameter of the trunk. Usually retail buyers can’t get trees like this because traditionally trees were supplied as whips for the central leader system and also because unheaded trees are much longer and would be prohibitively costly to ship at a retail level.

However in the beginning when Terence Robinson and others started out developing the tall spindle system these special feathered trees weren’t available so they started out with whips just like us retail customers. So yes you could buy whips- no problem with this. All my apple trees were whips or trees I grafted myself.

It sounds like you want to place multiple grafts on each trunk. I think you have two choices. One is to buy finished trees and induce branching by notching and/or heading cuts to the leader or side branches or both as you mentioned. The other option is to buy rootstocks and grow them out into trees using similar methods and use the rootstock “tree” as a framework to graft on to. This would also be cheaper since rootstocks cost $ 2-4 a piece (not including shipping).

Both Bud 9 and G11 have some resistance to fireblight but each rootstock provides resistance in a different way. In G11 the rootstock is directly resistance to fireblight. For Bud 9, the rootstock induces resistance in a susceptible scion.

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Good stuff, thanks. I guess I was assuming I’d graft a disease resistant fruiting variety (probably something like Liberty) onto an adapted dwarf rootstock to build my “tree” framework.

I never thought about just skipping that and using the rootstock to grow the whole spindle tree. What are the advantages/disadvantages of each approach?

One thing I might have to weigh…how many seedling scions I’d have in the first couple years, and whether it’d be enough to fill out the trees. That might be a reason to do the initial rootstock graft…having some fruit while the project develops. Then again, perhaps I’d get better/faster establishment if I skipped that step.

So much fun!

My university contact recommended M9, G41, or G11 for my environment and this purpose. Any thoughts? Wondering why Bud 9 wasn’t on her list.

Again, zone 6B. Hot humid summers and heavy clay soil.

Also, where would one recommend sourcing small quantities of rootstock. I’d like to get something going in containers now so I could baby them this summer and plant the rootstock “trees” in the fall.

Well some of the pros/cons I could think of.

Finished trees

-Reach full size faster
-Could serve (at lease temporarily) as parent trees in crosses
-Could yield fruit until grafted over

Rootstock trees

-Much much cheaper $2-4 vs $15-30 for full size trees
-Cheaper to ship rootstocks than it is to ship trees
-Better control of final shape of the tree
-Could be used to practice grafting before grafting your crosses

You could always try a mix of both finished trees and rootstock “trees” and see what works best for you. But $40 will buy a lot of rootstock.

Do you have much grafting experience? If you don’t I think you want to get some practice in anyway before you have to graft your seedlings on to trees.

Also if your wanting to space the trees closely think about how your going to graft onto the tree. If for example your going to graft to a 6 inch stub of a branch coming out of the trunk your going to need to space your trees farther apart. So a 3 foot tree spacing target with 6 inch stub branch on one side of a tree plus a 6 inch stub branch on the other side means your going to need an actual tree spacing of 4 feet at least.

First thing though you need to pick your parent trees and get them in the ground. It will take 3 years for a dwarf tree to produce fruit. Figure at least 1-2 years for your planted seedling trees to give you scion wood. So if you don’t have parent trees your realistically looking at 4+ years before your going to be grafting your seedling scion onto your trees.

I’m definitely no grafting expert, but I’m somewhat comfortable now. I’m in my second year of grafting onto an established tree. It’s now a Frankentree with about 9 varieties, but multiples of some of those varieties. I probably made 15-ish grafts this year and looks like they’re going to be close to 100% successful. I did bark grafting and cleft last year. Did a few whip and tongue this year.

Leaning toward the rootstock thing. Looks like Cummins will sell me 10 for about $30. That’d be about right for me to get started. Bummer that shipping is another $30 or so. Let me know if that sounds customary.

While the whole thing is ramping up, I will either evaluate a bunch of different existing varieties from scions and/or purchase crossed seeds from others. Again, I’m just getting started, mostly just experimenting, and don’t have any real specific goals in mind yet. The genetic diversity of apples is just way cool.

M9 is not a good choice if fireblight is a problem. M9 is susceptible. Bud 9 is a good choice and is well regarded by both people on the forum and commercial apple growers. You also want really short trees ( 6 foot) and Bud 9 vigor is well matched for this. G11 is also a good choice but has more vigor so I would expect you would have to do more summer pruning to keep it short enough. I would not recommend G41. There are issues with graft union failures. It’s especially bad with some commercial cultivars like Honeycrisp for example. All dwarf trees tend to have brittle graft unions so be aware they need to be supported. Support is not optional.

I do not know why Bud 9 wasn’t on the recommendation list- you could ask them. I also don’t know what state you are in- zone 6B covers a lot of states.

Having said this I am on the zone 5/6 border. I have soil that is either silt loam or slity clay loam depending on location and depth. It’s fairly heavy soil and cracks when dry. I have purchased trees on G11 and G41 and I am happy with them. I also have grafted trees on Bud 9 and I am happy with the trees I have produced.

Cummins prices are reasonable. I think they usually supply larger caliper rootstocks 7/16" rather than the more common 1/4". Yes, shipping long items is expensive unfortunately and shipping cost is per box. But looking at Cummins website you could put 30 rootstocks in that box and the shipping cost would still be $30.