How to grow six varieties of apples, ripening over five months, in the same space as one apple tree.
This Braeburn tree was three years old when this picture was taken. This section shows how we need only 200 square feet to provide apples on our kitchen counter from August through December. There is even enough for canning some applesauce!

 

Five Months of Apples Out of Your Back Yard

The north coast of California, and in particular Humboldt County, has an excellent climate for growing fruit. Albert Etter, one of the greatest apple breeders in North America, produced and grew hundreds of varieties on his farm near Ettersburg. His strawberries are still grown word wide. He left a long legacy. So now that we have the ideal climate here, how do we go about taking advantage of it?

A Solution to the Orchard Feast or Famine

Here in Humboldt you come across many a big old apple tree bearing many hundreds of little apples, and in the fall those little apples are all rotting away underneath the tree. What a waste. But that's because fruit trees are not designed for the back yard; after all, they are orchard trees. An eighteen-foot-high apple tree provides a truckload of fruit in a space of a few weeks. This is great for the farmer and good for the market, but how many families can use that much all at once? Wouldn't it be better if you got just a little bit of fruit every week instead?

Here's a solution, how you can grow up to a half-dozen different trees that mature fruit at different times, in a couple hundred square feet, and enjoy fruit from late summer until Christmas. And as benefits, your orchard work is spread out in little chunks, and you can do all the pruning and picking from the ground. But we're not planting dwarf trees, stay away from those. They bring a lot of drawbacks into the picture, including slow growth, weak roots that are susceptible to diseases, and a need to be permanently staked. And even dwarf trees are going to need pruning and the same amount of care. All orchards need proper and timely care. If you are unwilling to dedicate some time to maintain the trees and fruit, then you shouldn't waste your time and money planting them. What can you plant that doesn't take much time and effort to maintain? How about blueberries?

Fortuna Apple Orchard at two years.We're going to be following an apple mini-orchard planted in Fortuna. These six apple trees apple shrubs were planted in February 2005. There are six different varieties and the orchard occupies about 200 square feet of space, roughly the same space as one average sized apple tree. They are planted about five feet apart in a hedgerow that's about six feet wide. The trees are kept pruned so that the entire tree can be reached without the need for a ladder. This picture show only half of the orchard and the layout page shows a diagram.

And if you're not in northern California? You can still use this technique but you'll have to choose varieties that do well in your area. See the next page for some guidelines, contact your local Agriculture Department or Cooperative Extension Program for free information (that's their job and that's why they are there) or seek advice at a professional nursery.

Update:  October 2013, the orchard is eight years old and these trees produced over a thousand nice apples this year. We began picking in early August and are about a third through the harvest. The trees have doubled their size and after pruning are still less than six feet tall. Next year we will make some applesauce.

Update: February 2014, we extended the orchard and added three more trees.

Keeping it Manageable

By now you've likely figured out that the whole secret is in keeping the trees small and low (ah, yes, that would explain the potato leaves in that picture at the top of this page), and also growing different varieties to stagger the ripening period. The first apples are ready around the middle of the summer and the last ripen around Christmas. Instead of bushels of fruit all at once in mid-September, you'll be able to harvest a few pounds every week for five months.

Trees are easy to plant—buy a tree, dig a hole, put the root part in, cover it up. But that's not where it begins. So where do we begin? Well, let's choose some varieties first.

NEXT: What Variety of Trees Should I Plant?