What does “dwarf fruit tree” mean? What do the terms semi-dwarf and standard mean? I’ll explain what these terms mean and how they change how you grow fruit in your backyard.
What Is a “Dwarf Fruit Tree”?
A dwarf fruit tree doesn’t mean the apples are small. Rather, dwarf fruit tree refers to the tree’s final mature height. One kind of tree is grafted on the rootstock of another kind of tree to make a dwarf fruit tree.
Grafting is a natural process by which stems of the same species of trees are cut and joined together until they heal and create one circulatory system, effectively growing into one single tree. Many fruit trees, but especially apple trees, are created by grafting. Roses are another plant that is often grafted. Grafting usually helps a less sturdy variety survive better by merging it with a hardy root system.
Dwarf fruit trees, then, are simply fruit trees that stay smaller than average. A standard apple tree can grow 30 feet or taller, with a mature canopy spread of about that much or more. That’s a huge tree, and it can be difficult to harvest the apples, prune the branches, or spray the limbs when they are that high off of the ground.
A dwarf fruit tree on the other hand makes it easy to tend to the fruit for the average homeowner. That’s why most nursery and garden centers stock dwarf fruit trees, and why most books on growing a home orchard recommend dwarf fruit trees. They’re simply easier for the average homeowner to grow and care for.
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The actual size of your fruit tree may vary. The size is determined by the scion, or the top portion of the graft, and the rootstock, or the bottom portion which contains the root system of the tree. The combination of the two will give your tree its final height.
Is the Fruit Different on a Dwarf Fruit Tree?
Nope, the fruit is absolutely the same when you taste it. You can pick an apple from a dwarf fruit tree and one of the same variety from a standard tree, place them side by side, and unless you knew where the apples came from, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference just by tasting them or looking at them.
Dwarf Fruit Trees for the Home Garden
One thing you need to know about growing dwarf fruit trees: they should have a permanent stake or support. The place on the trunk where the scion was grafted to the rootstock can be weak, or weaken over time. Apple trees that snap in a strong wind usually break at the grafting site.
Dwarf fruit trees can be planted only about 10 feet apart, making the perfect for the home garden. Keep in mind that apples and many other fruit trees need a different variety in order to set fruit or pollinate. The flowers of both trees must bloom around the same time, or within days of each other, so that bees visiting one tree can carry pollen to the other and vice versa.
To pick the best dwarf fruit tree varieties for your garden, you’ll need to look for information locally. I can give you recommendations, but my varieties will differ from those in other growing zones. Some fruit trees like cold weather, others prefer hot. You need to know what will grow in your part of the country.
A great place to start your variety search is on your local Cooperative Extension website. You can find your local office using the map on the USDA website.
The Orchard at My Farm, Seven Oaks
Here at Seven Oaks, my farm in central Virginia, we have a mixture of semi-dwarf and standard sized fruit trees. The apple, peach, and pear trees are all standard. We did this on purpose, because we wanted abundant fruit to share, sell and give away. The bigger the tree, the more fruit you will harvest (hopefully). Most families will find a dwarf fruit tree provides all that they need.
We have since added peach and nectarine trees marked as semi-dwarf. This past weekend, we planted two semi-dwarf nectarines. Here’s hoping they produce fruit!
More Information on Growing Fruit in Your Backyard
I hope you’re enjoying my series on growing fruit in your backyard. It’s fun to share what I have learned about growing fruit trees over the past eight years with you. More to come, but if you’re just getting caught up on the series, here are additional articles that may be of interest to you:
- How to Grow Fruit in Your Backyard
- What Fruit Trees Can I Plant?
- Where to Plant Fruit Trees
- Growing Fruit Trees in Containers