Backyard Orchard Culture: Too Good To Be True?

I have struggled for a few years with a desire to have more fruit trees than my 1/3 acre lot can accomodate. A third-acre is actually pretty big by urban standards, but only one-quarter of our property is given over to edibles. The house, driveway, paths, shady areas and kid’s play area (aka lawn) take their footprint out of the total, so we have just 1/12th of an acre of total food growing space including access paths and storage.

Most of what we’ve focused on in the past five years has been annual vegetable production, and I think we are just starting to have some idea what we’re doing with the veggies. As I have gotten the hang of veggies, I have found that my desire for more fruit production has just gone crazy. I want more trees. I want more canes. I want more vines. I want more fruit.

For months I have been flipping through the Raintree catalog at night in bed and obsessively circling and highlighting and dog-earing and crossing out and re-circling varieties that sound too good to pass up. I have made spreadsheets – massive, massive spreadsheets – detailing ripening time, scab and disease resistance, rootstock and price of the fruits I am interested in. Which is most of them.

I have had to stop myself from impulsively buying trees that grow fruit that I have never once eaten and have no idea if I’d enjoy (goumi?) simply because they sound so cool.

Three-tier combo Apple: Gala, Liberty & Spartan on one tree

And it’s not as if I don’t have any fruit growing in that 1/12th of an acre. So far in that space we’ve crammed:

  • 1, 3-tier Combination espalier apple
  • 1, 3-tier Combination espalier Asian pear
  • 2, 3-tier Combination espalier European pear
  • 2 Italian prune plums (old and wonderful and inherited with the property)
  • 2 Columnar apples (Scarlet and Golden Sentinel)
  • 1 Violetta Fig
  • 1 Lapins sweet cherry (just planted)
  • 4 Grape vines
  • 2 Boysenberries
  • 2 Stands of Amity raspberries
  • 1 Stand of Fall Gold raspberry
  • 4 Blueberry bushes (not yet large enough to produce)
  • Enough strawberry plants that we look at them as an invasive weed with big-time benefits. They move around but currently we have a 4×8 bed full of them and a second 4×8 bed is planned for this spring.
Violetta fig ripened fruit for the first time last year
We’ve actually had a few more trees than that, but the peach didn’t work out (I think leaf curl got it), the apricot really, really didn’t really work out (being in the Seattle area got it) and a third prune plum got chopped down to make way for the perennial bed. It was a chance seedling grown tree we inherited with the property, and it was always pretty wonky, so don’t feel too bad for it.
But what can I say, I’m greedy. I want more fruit from my backyard and less from the store. And my family will – no exaggeration – put down six apples a day or a couple pounds of raspberries easy if I let them. I once ballparked that, to keep my family supplied with homegrown fruit year-round, I would need to harvest 1095 pounds. And that was before our son came along. He’s six months old, but based on the way he sucks down pear puree I’m thinking he’s going to be a big fruit eater too.
All of which brings me to my point. Recently I discovered this method of high-density fruit tree planting called Backyard Orchard Culture. Dave Wilson Nursery advocates this technique as a way for backyard growers to maximize the fresh fruit they are producing over the longest period of time.
The key points of Backyard Orchard Culture are:
  • Standard growing suggestions for fruit trees are based on commercial grower’s techniques to maximize yield. The needs of the backyard grower are totally different and include maximizing the number of weeks out of the year that perfectly ripe fresh fruit is ready for harvest, not the total harvestable yield all at once.
  • Trees with compatible rootstocks and successive ripening times are selected and planted close together.
  • Trees are kept small – no taller than 6 or 8 feet – with consistent pruning, including a lot of summer pruning for the dwarfing effect it has on trees. Trees are trained as “fruit bushes” and owners take responsibility for the overall size of their trees.
Now in theory BOC methods should allow even a small yard to squeeze in several varieties of apples instead of one, or to plant an apricot, peach, nectarine and plum instead of a single apricot. In practice, the results sound almost too good to be true. Almost.
So I asked around. I called up the Raintree horticulturalist and asked her opinion of the Dave Wilson methods. She said they worked, and worked well. I snooped around on GardenWeb’s excellent, if occasionally intimidating, orchard forum and found many people successfully growing with high-density planting techniques. There were some people who clearly took the obsession to the next level – fruit tree collectors who crammed hundreds of varieties into postage stamp properties. But I came away with the feeling that this just might work.
Planting guidelines for a high density orchard
The BOC spacing guidelines recommend planting up to 4 trees 18″ apart in  4’x4′ raised beds. Each bed of trees needs to be about 10′ apart form the next bed. Based on my ariel-view rough sketch of the space we have available I was confident I’d be able to get five beds of trees into my mini-orchard area. Five beds, each with four trees…that was 20 trees. 
I was giddy. It was like Christmas come early, only I was going to get stuff I actually wanted.
Back to the spreadsheet I went. I assembled trees in groups of four based on variety, rootstock, scion vigor, disease resistance, ripening period and pollination requirements. It was quite the effort of fruit tree variable assembly and was complicated by the fact that just when I thought I was done, Raintree would run out of one of my selections and I would have to find a suitable substitute or re-work the whole bed.
But in the end I did finalize my order. It was a bit – ahem – spendy, but I had been saving money I earned from a catering event earlier in the year for just this purchase so I bit the bullet and just did it.
My new orchard is on the way and should be here any time. We have our 4×4 raised beds built, placed about 10′ apart on center and filled with soil. I am learning all I can about tree care and pruning. All that remains to be seen is if my enthusiasm got the better of me. I’m hoping this isn’t too good to be true.
I’ll keep you posted.
What does your orchard look like? What fruit do you grow? Do you use espalier or high-density planting to squeeze fruit into a small space? Have you ever used the Backyard Orchard Culture techniques?


  1. says

    When I started reading your post I immediately thought about Dave Wilson Nursery and was going to add their methods in the comments. Seems, great minds think alike.

    So how are your combo trees working out? I read a number of comments that said they were hard to manage b.c the different trees grow at different rates. Production will be amazing for one graft and bad for the other? Are you finding this to be true?

    If not I would jump on those because of my limited space. I so wish I was putting in the orchard this year BUT we try to live debt free and a veggie garden, new fence, and orchard just aren't on the table in the first year. *sigh*

    At least I can learn from your example as I wait for next year.

  2. says

    This is really interesting!! I won't be able to do much this year with the move and all, but I am curious just how long it takes from planting to fruiting. When do you expect to get a fruit harvest from this new high density orchard? Is it a quicker time line because you prune them down so much thus preventing wasted energy going into height?

  3. says

    Interesting! If we were on a small plot, we'd definitely do that.

    We were just talking yesterday about whether to prune our new fruit trees to be small or let them grow large. Since we have plenty of room – half an acre the darn county zoning folks won't let us fence at all – growing fruit is the only way to use it. My sweetie pointed out that letting our trees grow higher will probably be better for us because the local wildlife would otherwise eat all the unfenced low-hanging fruit. We have a resident coyote or two and they do like fruit. Javalinas (no, not wild boars or actual pigs) also love fruit. We will be sneaking in some birdnetting to protect the fruit, though.

  4. says

    Looks like you have almost exactly the same amount of space to us to devote to potential fruit. Will be really interested to see what you do develop, as we just moved so veggies are the plan for this year and orchards defo not til next. Good luck.

  5. says

    Brianna – this is exactly why our chicken dreams have had to be moved to next year! :( Gotta take it one year at a time. My combo espalier trees are great. I love them and don't find them hard to manage because everything is close and low and pruning is done in summer, just like BOC methods. The vigor issue is easy to manage because the branches lose so much when trained horizontally.
    I have had a non-esp. combo pear and apple tree and have removed both of them. The primary thing for me was disease – some varieties were just disease prone and some aren't. The day I looked at my 4-in-1 pear and saw that 2 varieties were totally unusable from scab, 1 was barely-usable and 1 one was perfect was the day I decided to put a focus on natural disease resistance in my future trees. Since I want to spray as little as possible it made more sense for us to be able to select our own varieties and do high density plantings than go for more combos.

    Jaimee-rootstock has a lot to do with precociousness (age of bearing). The more dwarfing rootstocks tend to encourage earlier fruiting. I'm starting with a few 1-year old whips but mostly 2-year old trees. I will expect some harvest 2 years after I plant, with decent harvests 4 years from now, hopefully sooner. The theory is that preventing the tree from devoting it's energy to leaf and height production will encourage heavier earlier fruiting. It's been my experience that this is the case with my espalier trees. I hope it is with these new guys too! :)

  6. says

    Chile – do I read that to mean you have half an acre for just fruit trees? Cool! Yeah you have different needs! You could have a vineyard! :)

    String – thanks I think this orchard experiment will fill up quite a few posts in the next several years. :)

  7. says

    Kind of, Erica. We have half an acre that we cannot do anything else with: no buildings, no structures, no fences (hence no veggie gardens), no chicken coops, nothin'. Fruit trees are about our only choice!

    We are going to plant some grapes, but not a lot as we don't plan to brew wine. I just want homemade grape jelly. I want nut trees, too.

  8. says

    I wish I had as much space as you have! We have 3 apple trees, a fig tree, (all the figs froze off in a freeze:(, 5 blueberry bushes, a raspberry bush and some strawberry plants. I'm not sure about all of the names of these since the hubby bought them! We had a lime tree that didn't do so well but when the greenhouse is up and going we plan to do some citrus trees. We also plan on putting in at least 3 more apple trees. Your trees sound amazing! When they're all producing you're going to have such a great crop and will be canning like a mad woman!

  9. says

    Wow, intensive gardening for trees. Who knew? Good luck with that spacing. Sure hope it works out for you. I'd be worried I'd blow the whole thing.

    Hehe, yeah, GardenWeb can be a bit much. I got my start there when I first started blogging a few years ago. Got a bit tiring at times, but good info.

    Well, it seems you've been as obsessive about BOC as I've been about BYC (Backyard Chickens). It's great you're going all out. I still need to come up with JUST the right plan for my huge front/side yard that is useless space. All that's there now is a dogwood in the middle. Thought about multiple neighbor beds, but I'm not sure.

    We've got three fruit trees in our yard, one ancient overgrown pear, a mature overgrown plum and a three-year-old apple. We also have 4 three-year-old blueberry bushes and strawberries taking over the blueberry bed. Oh, and of course outside our yard we have 4 blackberry crowns that our neighbor and we share.

  10. says

    Amazing. Last year I gave up on trying to fit more fruit into my teeny tiny yard, but this post has totally revitalized me. So, thank you! And keep us posted!!

  11. says

    This is so awesome – I expected to get to the end of the post to discover that it was too expensive, or that you couldn't fit it in your back yard…but I was happy to hear you're going to try it out! I can't wait to see your progress.

  12. says

    Just found your blog and am really enjoying it. I started to answer you questions on this post, and then realized that it was getting way to long, so I answered it on my blog.

    And congrats on the chickens! Careful – they are addictive :)

  13. says

    When we moved into this house (20 years ago), previous owners at some point had planted two rows of fruit trees. It's a small suburban lot but pie shaped so the back fence is long. They did a great job of staggering harvests without this method. E.g. 4 apple trees: 1 ripens in June, 2 in September, 1 in December. We've lost a few trees over the years and I've replaced a few. (Lost pears, replaced with Indian blood peach trees a neighbor had started.) I know someone who has planted the fruit trees this way, last year I think. She seems quite happy with the staggered fruit harvest.

  14. Erin says

    Hi Erica
    LOVE your blog. Could you update us on this posting. I am about to plant dwarf fruit trees and I'm really curious about what shape you are keeping your trees pruned to. I am thinking sort of a tall skinny Christmas tree shape. At Fruit Trees and More here in Sidney, that's the shape Bob Duncan uses a lot.
    If you're ever coming up here, let me know and I'll help you find the good growers etc. if you like.

  15. says

    I would like to be dong this small tree thing, I have mulberries I planted last year, one weeping, one bush (the best tasting) and one Chinese white. The chinese white is out of control and although I pruned it EO C style it is the most vigorous tree I have ever encountered, the tree gave thousands of creepy looking mulberries that looked like bugs, but I harvested them and made prune/mulberry jam and it is delicious. also the gophers dont like it. For Gophers I live in Petaluma CA, I take cheep wine glasses from the thrift store smash them up , put them in holes and glaze cheep pnut butter on them. I thought my bush mulberry was a goner but most of it has buds on it. I also spray with my handy ortho sprayer, hydrogen peroxide on the ground around pear blighted trees and that words, I don’t have a cure for peach leaf curl, and I try to use the one straw farming techniques so I have everywhere arugula, lettuces, poppies, kale and swiss chard and strawberries everywhere with self seeding flowers. I am wanting a Dave Wilson apple espalier, walkway. I live on a hill so I can swale, mulch with free hips from the tree cutters and
    chicken manure. Its so exciting to start my trees, happy grdening!

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