With many homes being built closer together and lot sizes seemingly getting smaller and smaller, having the space for fruit trees can be a challenge. Yet, there is something very special about being able to walk outside in your own yard and pick fresh fruit from your own trees. But in a small space, how can a gardener grow fruit trees?
I recently talked with my Salem gardening friend Harry Olson because he has very limited space and yet grows his own fruit. I have known Harry for several years and am always amazed at how innovative he is. His house, in Salem, is on what he calls “a small city lot”, with the backyard being about 1,800 sq ft. Within this space, he has many raised beds for a prolific summer vegetable garden. This space is also home to plum, peach, apple and pear trees which fruit in abundance. How does he do it?
Harry’s method is to espalier fruit trees to wire-frames that he runs parallel to his fence. This allows him to have fresh fruit and yet the space the fruit trees require is minimal and he can continue to have his vegetable garden.
Harry says that the location is critical and should be full sun or as close to being in full sun as possible. With too much shade, the plants will be leggy and the production of fruit will be very limited. Harry goes to a chain length fence supply store for his wire, posts, and accessories to make the framework for the fruit to grow on. The holes for the posts are dug two feet deep and he uses concrete to secure them. As the trees grow and set fruit, their weight will create quite a bit of tension and to keep the posts from leaning, a crossbar along the top is essential.
Harry spaces his posts 12-15 feet apart. As he strings the wire, the first one is 16-18 inches above the ground and the spacing between the wires is 12-14 inches. Once the frame is completed, it is time to plant. Select a semi-dwarf tree, which Wilco has an excellent selection of. Harry told me that he has found that pear and plum are the most trouble-free, and for a novice gardener would be what he would suggest starting with. A single variety is fine but Harry likes to have a multi-grafted tree so that the fruit will be ripening at different times during the season. Note: Wilco has 3 in 1 types of apple, plum, and pear. When we usually buy a tree we are looking for one with strong branches, but for espalier purposes, Harry’s advice is to select one that is “rather wispy” so the branches can be bent to the wireframe. Pruning will be a continuous process throughout the season to keep branches from growing outward or upward.
Harry Olson’s backyard is like a living experimental test garden as he continues to see what he can grow in his limited space. He has proven that even fruit trees can provide a bountiful harvest in his small city lot without restricting him from growing a large vegetable garden. Like many other gardeners, Harry likes to share his knowledge with others which is how we all learn and is what gardening is all about. Thank you, Harry, for sharing your story.