Fruit Orchard Design for Small Spaces

Following these expert strategies on fruit orchard design, home gardeners will find they can grow fruit they love — and plenty of it — even if their yards are small.
By Colby Eierman
December 7, 2012
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“Fruit Trees in Small Spaces” by Colby Eierman focuses on creating beautiful spaces that produce good things to eat. For the gardener with space limitations, this book puts bountiful fruit trees within arm’s reach. 
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You can harvest luscious peaches, crisp apples and sweet plums right off your own tree. Garden designer and fruit expert Colby Eierman’s Fruit Trees In Small Spaces (Timber Press, 2012) shows how trees can easily be tucked into the tiniest spots and still yield a bumper crop of gorgeous fruit. Learn everything a gardener needs to know about choosing and nurturing the most delicious varieties in this excerpt taken from part one, “Designing Your Small Orchard.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Fruit Trees in Small Spaces.

Designing Your Small Orchard

You might find it a stretch to call your little slice of fruit-growing heaven a full-blown orchard, but what the heck, it’s your place and you can do what you want. Personally, I like the images that the word orchard conjures up. I like thinking about the orchards that used to (and in some cases still do) dominate the landscapes where we live. I like old wooden fruit boxes and the smell of fermenting cider. I try to seek out the old-timers in my community to tap into their hard-earned knowledge of how to keep critters at bay or to glean an old family recipe for applesauce.

I also want to be part of a different type of agricultural community that is striving to weave some of that not-so-distant past into our modern lives. Some of us are actually going to produce a large amount of what we consume from our own urban or suburban plots. Many of us will only dabble in growing and still find a valuable connection to our sustenance and perhaps our community. That is probably the main appeal for me in writing this book—to enhance someone’s connection to his or her village through food production.

One of my favorite things about a garden is that it is never finished. It is always changing, growing and (not to get too morbid here at the start) at the same time dying. Some plants can thrive for a few years and then outgrow their space or simply stop prospering. Remind yourself of this fact as you begin designing your space and selecting trees. Plants aren’t the Great Pyramids of Giza, after all. A garden is a living, breathing entity, and with simple tools, we can change the things that aren’t working for us. We can provide all the food, water, and shelter a tree could want and it still might die on us. If and when that happens, remember that plenty of worthy candidates are in line right behind it, waiting to fill that space.

This chapter starts with a broad overview of the climatic factors that affect which trees will grow where you live. From here, we move to the finer details of your specific site and explore ways to take advantage of the complexities inherent is most garden plots. You could design your yard and your fruit trees in an infinite number of ways, but you have to choose only one design. A few of my favorite design elements are covered here, followed by three sample designs. 

Understanding Your Small Orchard Site

You probably already have a manila folder that is struggling to contain the growing number of inspirational images you’ve ripped out of magazines. But before you begin working on a design that includes all those ideas, spend some time getting deeply acquainted with the place where your trees will be growing. Your aim is to gather as much information as possible so that when you sit down to select trees and plants, you will have a deep understanding of the climate and the site in which they will grow. This will go a long way in helping you match the right plant with the right place.

When you’re working with a small orchard space, having a map or plan of your site on which to record your observations and base your design can be very helpful. You might already have an acceptable site plan, or you could hire a surveyor or landscape architect to create one for you. That might make sense for you, especially if you have other projects that call for more precise plans. Or use Google Maps or a similar Internet map site to find and print an image of you property and work from that—depending on tree cover and resolution, this might or might not be helpful. If the image offers a good view, print the image, take it to a copy shop, and enlarge it to a useful size. Then lay tracing paper over the image and start writing down observations and exploring different ideas.

Macroclimate  

Lots of great resources are available to help you learn about the broad climatic patterns at play where you live. Many areas of the United States are served by a cooperative extension service, and thriving Master Gardener communities exist throughout the United States and Canada. These organizations can be a wellspring of local knowledge, and even in this modern age, they can often provide better information than what you’ll find on the Internet. A local nursery is another great place to get information about climate and the types of trees that are best suited to your area.

You can learn a lot about a particular plant by looking at the hardiness zone rating on the nursery tag. This rating refers to an area’s average lowest annual temperature and provides an indication of whether a plant will survive the winter in that area. Some gardeners see a plant hardiness rating as a challenge, and some green thumbs are tempted to plant a banana in Chicago. I must admit to enjoying a bit of that myself, but I am just as proud of my perfectly ripe ‘Gravenstein’ apple (a local treasure) as I am of the greenhouse papayas I’ve plucked.

If you are new to fruit growing, I suggest you get a few harvests under your belt, with the types of fruit you see offered at your local farmers’ market. Before long, you’ll be bragging to your relatives in some cushy climate about your nearly year-round bounty.

Another important parameter you will want to know is the average number of chill hours for your area. Although this probably brings to mind an afternoon spent enjoying a couple of beers in your backyard, this term is used in the gardening world to quantify the number of hours that your dormant trees will spend “chilling” below 45°F. It is an important statistic, because specific fruit tree varieties require different chill hours to set fruit. Apples, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and apricots are the most sensitive to chill hours, and if you are gardening in a low-chill area, be sure to check the chilling needs of each variety you will be planting. Keep in mind that local knowledge of what has historically performed well in your area is better than anything you read in a book. The specific observations that you make about your yard and chats with the old-timers in your neighborhood will give you a better sense of what you can plant.

Microclimate  

Lay tracing paper over an image or scale plan of your yard and use it to record layers of specific information about the microclimate at your site. I like to note information about several key factors.

Sun. Which areas get the most sun? Assign a grade to different areas: A for more than 8 hours of sun, B for better than 6 hours, C for 4 1/2 hours, and so on. Afternoon sun is more intense than morning sun, so if one area receives 4 hours of morning sun and another gets 4 hours of afternoon sun, plant the more heat-loving trees on the afternoon side.

Topography. Take advantage of variations in topography. In mild climates, for example, plant citrus (which does not tolerate frost) higher up on a slope and apples (which tend to require more chill hours) lower down the slope where cold air settles.

Soil types. Is the soil better in some areas and worse in others? Look for wet areas and improve the drainage (with drains or by regrading the site) prior to planting. You might need to import soil to improve drainage or soil structure in a particular area.

Wind. From which direction does the wind blow, and could it be easily buffered? A vine-covered trellis that lets some air circulate through makes a better wind buffer than a solid wall.

Views. Sightlines in and out of your yard might need to be enhanced or screened.

Seasonality. Think about how each of the elements on this list is important in each season. It is easy to forget about a drainage problem in the dry season or to forget how much shade that bigleaf maple will cast next summer.

Things to come. Think about the future. Does a neighbor plan to build up a second story that might shade parts of your property, or is the city going to replace water lines next year and dig up part of your yard.

Beginning Your Fruit Orchard Design

As you survey your yard, picture all the ways that this space will reflect who you are. You know it will reflect your palate, because you’re going to plant the fruits (and possibly herbs and vegetables) that you like to eat. Are you a swimmer or water-lover who likes the sounds of a small fountain tucked into a corner? Do you need a space to meditate or a sandbox for your growing brood? Sure, you want to plant some trees, but this is also a good time to consider where to place a bistro table to enjoy your morning tea and paper.

I like to start most design projects by making a bunch of lists. I start with conceptual lists that include words that will describe my finished garden and move toward the more pragmatic. The great thing about a list is that it can be easily prioritized, which always seems to be necessary. At the start, I like to channel some of the kids I’ve worked with to create school gardens. If you ask a kid to make a list of things she wants in a garden, she’ll come up with a lot of impractical, but nonetheless fun and exciting suggestions (a waterslide, a trampoline, a petting zoo). My guess is that if you allow your imagination to run wild, you’ll come up with some out-of-the-box ideas that have the potential to make you garden one-of-a-kind. It’s also totally acceptable to refer to that file of pictures from designs you like and flag certain elements that you want to incorporate here.

Lots of elements can be included in a small yard along with fruit trees.

Arbor
Barbeque area
Bench
Berry patch
Chickens
Compost pile
Cottage
Deck or patio
Dining area
Espalier
Fire pit
Fountain
Gazebo
Hammock
Hot tub
Lawn
Paths
Play structure
Pool
Pond
Rock garden
Sauna
Shed
Sink
Sleeping porch
Vegetables
Vineyard
Woodpile

The design process tends to be cyclical, so as you play with your ideas, remember to go outside often, look around town to see what your neighbors are doing in their gardens, and stay open to new ideas. If this is your first garden design undertaking, solicit help from friends or professionals and have fun with it. It might seem tedious to invest all this effort before you’ve planted even a single tree, but the money you save in headache medicine will more than justify it.

Let’s look at a few of these in more detail, with our fruit trees in mind.

Chickens  

A small flock of chickens is a great addition to a garden. Four birds, a small coop, and a narrow run equal happiness: chickens contribute to the productivity and health of your backyard. They love to peck at fallen fruit and can help control insect pests. And after you’ve eaten a fresh egg provided by one of your birds, you’ll have a hard time going out for breakfast.

Chickens like the same environment enjoyed by fruit trees (sunny, well-drained, and so on), and they love to roost in low branches. They will also eat from your vegetable garden, so when designing your garden, consider adding a chicken run or reserve another space just for them. Lightweight, moveable fencing can be used to create flexible chicken yards that are easy to manage. You can let the birds fun free, but remember that although their manure does fertilize your garden, it will stick to your shoes.

Compost pile  

If you have the room to spare, an area for making compost can serve as the digestive system for your edible landscape. It doesn’t have to be a stinky pile of rotting scraps either. Regular turning and moisture monitoring will help your piles stay active and aerobic, a key to making good compost. Rather than hide your heap, build a simple trellis structure overhead and plant it with a fragrant climbing rose.

In smaller spaces, worms can do an amazing job of converting a relatively small amount of kitchen scraps that a family creates into the highest quality plant food. An actively managed three-bin compost system could take up around 100 square feet, but a single worm bin, another great way to create organic fertilizer out of meat-free table scraps, can be kept under your sink.

Deck or patio  

Fruit trees can be integrated into the design of your deck or patio. Trees planted directly in the soil tend to perform better over time, so consider incorporating planting wells into your patio design. Planter boxes can be designed to extend all the way down to terra firma and can incorporate an open bottom for drainage and root penetration. These spaces can often create warm microclimates—even leaving a stone out of a flagstone patio provides space to add a citrus tree or other heat lover that might not thrive in other parts of your yard. Potted trees can also help the space feel less bare and more a part of your larger landscape.

Espalier  

This centuries-old technique is a beautiful way to utilize the many linear spaces that are created around an urban or suburban home. Driveways and fence lines that get enough sun are no-brainers for espalier. A sun-facing chimney can be the ideal spot to train a less hardy variety that would appreciate the reflected heat from that thermal mass. Replace those old pickets with a cable fence designed just for your trees. I like to use 4-by-4 or larger posts for an espalier fence and add copper end caps or other details to make them year-round features in the landscape. Three or four horizontal cables spaced 18 inches apart can create a clean, simple espalier, but don’t be afraid to get creative with the forms.

Lawn  

Sod and fruit trees are not the best bedfellows, because they compete in the same soil zone for water and nutrients. Lawns also need frequent short irrigation cycles, while fruit trees do better with less frequent, longer waterings. Focus tree-watering efforts starting at a point about halfway between the trunk and out toward the drip line (the area just below the outermost leaves). The more efficient water uptake roots are near a tree’s drip line. Closer to the trunk, the roots tend to be crowded and compete for the same resources in the soil. Too much water at the base of the tree can decrease the amount of air in the soil, resulting in fungal disease and soil pests. (Try to keep sod, and the water it needs, outside your tree’s drip line.)

Paths  

Paths can do a lot to create a welcoming feeling in your garden, especially in the dormant season when not much is going on out there. Around fruit trees, a soft, permeable pathway of mulch or woodchips will allow the roots better access to water and air and even provide a gentle landing place for fallen fruit. Decomposed granite, also called gold path fines, is another attractive path material, but beware: the tiny stones are easily tracked indoors and can scratch hardwood flooring.

Shed  

As you are starting to realize, lots of tools and other stuff can come in handy as you care for an edible landscape. In my experience, that care is more likely to get done if the tools you need are close at hand. A beautiful shed, perhaps one that matches the architecture of your home, is the perfect place to store this stuff; it can be a nice focal point in your yard or part of another structure such as a sleeping porch or woodshed. Add a pegboard for hanging pruning equipment and some hooks for hand tools to help reduce clutter.

Vegetables  

Fruit and vegetables go together like peaches and peas. My guess is that you already have (or are considering adding) a space to grow seasonal produce in addition to fruit trees. The obvious consideration when integrating the two is shade. A well-placed fruit tree can provide a welcome shelter from afternoon sun for lettuces or other cool-season veggies and can help them produce longer into the season. I have had very good success growing vegetables year-round between the rows of a young orchard. Espalier is a natural choice for bordering a vegetable plot, and espaliered trees can make the space look beautiful as well as productive.

Vineyard or berry patch  

Grapes, cane berries, and even currants perform well on a trellis structure similar to that used for espaliered trees, and the two can be combined to good effect. Layering your planting is also a good option with berries, as they grow as an understory plant in the wild. I like the idea of a four- or five-layer espalier fence with berries, grapes, and/or currants growing below a taller apple or pear structure. Round out your fruit planting with these adaptable and hardy plants.

Wood-fired cob oven  

It is interesting to realize that all the ovens I’m thinking about are surrounded by fruit trees. Some of the tastiest fruit dishes I’ve eaten have been baked in cob ovens. If you like to cook, consider setting aside a prominent place in your yard, not too far from your kitchen, and building a wood-fired oven.

Several friends and I have used an excellent book, Build Your Own Earth Oven, by Kiko Denzer, as a guide to do just that, and it has changed the way we gather for meals. Building with earth is an ancient technique that has been used by countless cultures to build everything from full-sized homes to tiny wood-fired ovens. The term cob generally refers to a mixture of sand and clay that can also include straw, hair, and dung. For small projects, the mixture can be combined by foot, applying water and adjusting the ratios to create the perfect texture. The cob mixture is then formed into the desired shape, in this case over a dome of sand used to support the oven’s form.

Tossing small bundles of fruit tree prunings into the fire can add great flavor to grilled meats and other dishes. Take care to select wood that has not been sprayed recently and tie it up with twine to dry. Toss a few sticks on the fire toward the end of cooking to get the most fruit flavor.

Fruit Orchard Design Ideas

Three case studies will hopefully help get some ideas flowing as you design your space. With a little planning, you can create a garden of your own that is both edible and ornamental.

Front yard design  

My friends Terence and Stephanie had never been happy with the landscape in their front yard. After a neighbor removed some large redwoods that were shading the space, this newfound sun exposure had them itching to plant more edibles. In addition to a couple of veggie beds, fruit trees, and herbs, they wanted a place to sit out front and enjoy a Sunday morning cup of coffee. There is a great sense of community on this block and the neighborhood kids all play in the street. Stephanie liked the idea of having a space that was somewhat private, but she also wanted to work or relax in her garden while her kids bustled around the ’hood.

Three tree forms are represented in this design: the espalier fence, dwarf citrus, and open-center pluot. The meandering espalier fence is set back from the sidewalk, so that part of the yard is shared with the neighborhood. Garden beds and a sitting area behind the espalier create a more personal space that is also more secure for small children. Low-growing culinary herbs along the entry walkway allow easy access to that sprig of thyme needed in a recipe. A berry patch, dwarf citrus, and a pluot fill out the perimeter of this edible front yard oasis.

Terence and Stephanie love to cook with citrus, so a collection of dwarf citrus was selected as a foundation planting. The trio, or 3-in-1 plantings, consist of early-season, midseason, and late-season varieties for extended harvest. Low-growing ornamental grasses are reminiscent of orchards past. In this front yard, there’s not a day without at least something to anticipate harvesting.

Heritage orchard  

A young and successful chef recently bought a house in an upstate New York neighborhood with a severely neglected backyard. He was inspired to create a small orchard that recalled the historic agriculture of the state. Wood-fired cooking is his specialty, so a clay oven was essential. He also wanted to be able to provide herbs, eggs, and a few veggies for his restaurant, and he wanted to include an area to get together with staff and friends.

A minor tweak on the traditional orchard grid, in this design, semi-dwarf trees are laid out in offset rows, allowing for tighter 12-foot spacing. The oven is the focal point, and the chef envisions this outdoor hearth becoming a community hangout, similar to the village bread ovens of earlier generations. A chicken run along the back fence gives the birds a place to roam while keeping them out of the vegetable garden. Raised boxes are filled with herbs and vegetables for home and restaurant use.

New York isn’t called The Big Apple for nuthin’. A primary goal for this orchard design was to include apple varieties that either had regional significance or were heirlooms with an interesting story or special use. Other fruit trees in the mix include pear, peach, nectarine, sweet and sour cherries, and plum.

Container orchard  

Erin Kunkel, who is responsible for all photography in this book, lives in the Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. Whenever the fog allows, Erin and her husband, Danny Hess, a well-known maker of custom wooden surfboards, like to sit by the campfire with friends after a day in the water. And what better way to refuel after a surf session than with some tasty home-grown fruit? Okay, after a beer.

The soil in Erin’s yard is difficult to distinguish from beach sand, so, for this design, we are planting primarily in pots. The marine influence is unmistakable in the climate and ambiance of this yard. Wind and fog are nearly constant reminders that the great Pacific Ocean is a short skateboard ride away. Fencing helps to dampen the wind and has actually created a pretty warm microclimate. Selected plants don’t require too much in the way of heat or chill, but a couple of plants in this design push the envelope a bit.


Additional Zone Information

Learn more information about hardiness zones through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s U.S. National Arboretum at or via the Sunset climate zone maps, which consider a much wider range of climatic factors, such as latitude, elevation, and ocean influence. The Sunset resource has been expanded to encompass the whole of the United States and parts of Canada. Hopefully, this classification will continue to be developed, because it is a great resource for the fruit grower.


Taken from Fruit Trees in Small Spaces: Abundant Harvests from Your Own Backyard © Copyright 2012 by Colby Eierman. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Buy this book from our store: Fruit Trees in Small Spaces.


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