Do you want to grow your own delicious fruit, but don’t have a lot of space in your yard? Dwarf fruit trees might be just the thing for a smaller garden space.
So, what are dwarf fruit trees? A dwarf fruit tree is one whose size is limited by genetics, grafting, or environmental conditions. Dwarf fruit trees produce normal-size fruit, but they are not as tall as standard fruit trees. Dwarf fruit trees are easier to maintain and harvest, due to their shorter height.
Of course, the maximum size of a dwarf fruit tree can be determined by the rootstock, the interstem, the scion, and the growing conditions.
In this article, we’ll talk about dwarf fruit trees and what you need to know about them. We’ll also get into the basics of caring for dwarf fruit trees.
Let’s get going.
What Are Dwarf Fruit Trees?
A dwarf fruit tree is one that is smaller (shorter and less wide) than a standard fruit tree. This smaller size is achieved by genetics, grafting, or environmental conditions:
- Genetics – dwarf trees that are selected for their naturally smaller size.
- Grafting – two trees are “combined” into one, gaining the best characteristics of each tree (more detail on this later).
- Environmental conditions – for example, a fruit tree grown in a small container may have stunted growth due to limited space for its roots (think of bonsai and you will get the idea).
Most dwarf fruit trees have a maximum height and width that is determined by their genetics or grafting. In case you were wondering, dwarf fruit trees are not achieved through genetic modifications (no GMO fruit trees!)
Dwarf fruit trees are bred to be shorter than standard fruit trees of the same type. However, the fruit on a dwarf tree is the same size as the fruit on standard trees.
Most dwarf fruit trees have a maximum height of 8 to 10 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. There are some exceptions – for example, dwarf cherry trees can reach 14 feet tall and 14 feet wide.
What Kind Of Dwarf Fruit Trees Are There?
The following varieties of fruit trees come in dwarf varieties:
- Apple – for example, the Dwarf Golden Delicious apple tree or the Dwarf Granny Smith apple tree from Willis Orchard Company.
- Asian Pear – for example, the Starking Hardy Giant Asian pear tree from Stark Brothers.
- Banana – for example, the Dwarf Cavendish banana plant from Willis Orchard Company.
- Cherry – for example, the Dwarf North Star cherry tree from Willis Orchard Company.
- Fig – for example, the Black Jack fig tree or the Brown Turkey fig tree from Willis Orchard Company.
- Lemon – for example, the Meyer lemon tree from Stark Brothers.
- Lime – for example, the Key lime tree from Stark Brothers.
- Nectarine – for example, the Leprechaun Dwarf nectarine tree from Willis Orchard Company.
- Orange – for example, the Calamondin orange tree from Stark Brothers.
- Peach – for example, the Bonanza Dwarf peach tree or the Bonfire Dwarf peach tree from Willis Orchard Company.
- Pear – for example, the Anjou pear tree or the Bartlett pear tree from Stark Brothers.
- Plum – for example, the Damson plum tree from Stark Brothers.
Many of these trees also come in semi-dwarf or standard sizes. Check the catalog or website for details.
Are Dwarf Fruit Trees Any Good?
Dwarf fruit trees are a good choice if you want to grow fruit in a smaller space. They are also a good choice if you only have space for one standard size fruit tree, but need two trees for pollination (more detail on this later).
Dwarf fruit trees have their advantages and disadvantages. No tree or plant is perfect, so you will have to pick and choose based on your own preferences.
Advantages of Dwarf Fruit Trees
Dwarf fruit trees have the following advantages over standard size fruit trees:
- Shorter – dwarf fruit trees are easier to prune and maintain without climbing or using a ladder. It is also easier to remove fruit for thinning or harvest.
- Narrower – dwarf fruit trees are not as wide, so they take up less space. This means you can fit more of them in the same yard space. Having more fruit trees is helpful for varieties that need other trees nearby for pollination. You can also grow dwarf fruit trees in a container.
- Smaller – dwarf fruit trees are smaller and require less pruning as a result.
- Produce Sooner – some dwarf fruit tree varieties can produce fruit sooner than standard size fruit trees (sometimes more than a year sooner!)
- Full Size Fruit – dwarf fruit trees produce fruit that is just as large and just as good as the fruit from standard fruit trees.
Disadvantages of Dwarf Fruit Trees
Dwarf fruit trees have the following disadvantages when compared to standard size fruit trees:
- Animal Accessible – deer and other animals will have an easier time eating fruit from shorter trees. What’s the point of growing fruit if you cannot enjoy any of it?
- Less fruit – many dwarf fruit trees produce less fruit than standard size fruit trees.
- Shorter lifespan – dwarf fruit trees have a shorter lifespan than standard size fruit trees. As a result, you may need to replace them more often, which is an extra cost in both time and money.
- Smaller roots – many dwarf varieties (any with a dwarf rootstock) have smaller root systems than standard size fruit trees. As a result, they cannot reach as deep or wide into the soil for water and nutrients. This lack of deep roots may also require support (stakes or trellises) for some dwarf varieties.
How Much Space Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Need?
Dwarf fruit trees require less space than standard size fruit trees. For example, according to the Utah State University Extension, a dwarf apple tree needs 100 square feet or less, while a standard apple tree needs 200 square feet.
The larger a tree is, the more space you should leave between trees. This will prevent competition between the trees for water and nutrients.
How Tall Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Grow?
According to the Michigan State University Extension, most dwarf fruit trees grow to a maximum height of 6 to 10 feet. Compare this to standard size fruit trees, which can grow to a height of 25 feet (2 to 4 times as tall as dwarf fruit trees).
Of course, the type of dwarf fruit tree can affect maximum height (more detail on this later). Below is a table with the height ranges for different types of dwarf and standard size fruit trees.
How Wide Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Grow?
According to the Michigan State University Extension, most dwarf fruit trees grow to a maximum width of 6 to 10 feet. Compare this to standard size fruit trees, which can spread to a width of 40 feet (4 to 7 times as tall as dwarf fruit trees).
Of course, the type of dwarf fruit tree can affect maximum width. Below is a table with the width ranges for different types of dwarf and standard size fruit trees.
|Apple||6-10||up to 40|
Where To Plant Dwarf Fruit Trees
In general, the best place to plant a dwarf fruit tree is in an area the following characteristics:
- Well-drained soil – this means sandy loam to clay loam soil. Heavy clay will drain too slowly and retain too much water, leading to root rot (lack of oxygen to tree roots). Avoid compacted soil, since it can cause the same problem. A mound or berm can also help with drainage.
- Full sun – a fruit tree needs full sun, so avoid planting them in shade near a house or near other tall trees (fruit trees or otherwise).
- Proper pH – a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.5 is acceptable for fruit trees. Get a soil test to determine this if you aren’t sure.
- Near similar trees – some fruit trees cannot pollinate themselves, so they need another fruit tree of the same or similar type planted nearby to achieve pollination. Check the fruit tree catalog or website for details.
Can You Grow Dwarf Fruit Trees Indoors?
You can grow some types of dwarf fruit trees indoors. Many dwarf fruit trees have a maximum height and width of 6 feet, which can easily fit into a room indoors.
The bigger question is whether they will grow and produce fruit indoors. Fig trees can survive the winter indoors if you move them inside before the weather gets too cold.
Citrus trees are well-known for surviving and even producing fruit indoors. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, citrus plants (such as Meyer lemons, Calamondin oranges, and Key limes) grow best indoors at 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) during the day and 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 16 degrees Celsius) at night.
It is also good idea to clean the leaves of an indoor fruit tree by wiping them with a damp cloth. Cleaning the leaves will remove dust that can interfere with photosynthesis.
You may need to bring some fruit trees indoors for at least part of the year, depending on the type of tree and your climate. For example, dwarf citrus fruit trees will not tolerate the cold of a winter in Vermont.
To move a fruit tree indoors for the winter, you will need to grow in a container. Before winter, put the container on wheels to bring it indoors.
When you bring fruit trees back outside in the summer, put them in the shade for a few days. This gives them a chance to adapt to the brighter light and outdoor conditions. Move them into direct sunlight after this initial adaptation period.
Can You Grow Dwarf Fruit Trees In Pots or Containers?
You can grow dwarf fruit trees in pots. Keep in mind that if the container is small enough, the roots won’t have enough space to grow.
This will result in a smaller root system and a smaller fruit tree than you were expecting. It might even prevent the tree from flowering or fruiting due to a lack of energy.
Also remember that the roots of a fruit tree in a pot will be subject to colder temperatures than if the tree were planted in the ground. You may be able to avoid this by insulating the container with a frost blanket on cold nights.
You can also choose a tree that is hardier than your zone requires. For example, if you live in USDA plant hardiness zone 6, choose a plant that can survive in zone 4 or 5.
According to Stark Brothers, the ideal container for growing fruit trees is 10 to 15 gallons. Potting soil is the best choice, since it avoids compaction that can occur with top soil.
Remember that a gallon of soil can weigh 10 pounds or more, and it will be even heavier when wet. Add in the weight of the tree itself and you have a container that can weigh in at 200 pounds or more.
Get help to move a container of this size, and use wheels if possible.
Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Need Staking?
Most dwarf fruit trees will need staking during the first two years after planting. This extra support will prevent a windstorm from knocking the young tree over.
Many dwarf fruit trees have shallow roots. Combine this with a load of heavy fruit, and you can see why they might need some support.
The main concern is the extra weight, which could cause a heavy tree to tip over, possibly upending the roots. According to the University of Maine Extension, dwarf apple and pear trees will not be able to stand up once they have a significant amount of fruit.
Instead, you will need to support them with a stake or trellis (more detail on this later).
How Long Does It Take For A Dwarf Fruit Tree To Produce?
A dwarf fruit tree can take 2 to 5 years to produce fruit, depending on the rootstock. For example, according to the University of Maine Extension, a dwarf apple tree can start to bear fruit 2 to 3 years after planting.
Compare this to a standard size apple tree, which might not produce fruit until 7 to 10 years after planting.
Finally, remember that most fruit trees from nursery are 1 to 2 years old. The older the tree, the sooner it can start producing fruit. However, you will pay a premium for older, more established trees, whether they are dwarf varieties or not.
Do Dwarf Trees Produce Fruit Faster?
Some dwarf trees produce fruit faster than standard size fruit trees. According to the Iowa State University Extension, apple and pear trees with a dwarf rootstock will bear fruit much earlier than trees with standard size rootstock (it can happen a year or more sooner).
For other fruit trees, the rootstock does not have much effect on the time to fruit production.
How Much Fruit From A Dwarf Tree?
Dwarf fruit trees will yield less fruit than a standard size fruit tree. Remember that more mature trees will yield more fruit than younger trees.
For example, according to the University of Vermont Extension, a dwarf apple tree will yield 1 to 6 bushels, compared to 8 to 18 bushels for a standard size apple tree.
Beware of biennial bearing, which is when a fruit tree produces lots of fruit one year and little or no fruit the next. This often happens if you fail to thin the fruit on trees that need it.
Are Dwarf Fruit Trees Self-Pollinating?
Some dwarf fruit trees are self-pollinating, such as sour cherries, peaches, and most European plums. A single self-pollinating fruit tree can produce fruit by itself.
Some dwarf fruit trees are not self-pollinating, such as apples, pears, and hybrid plums. These trees will need another tree of the same type nearby in order to produce fruit.
The following dwarf fruit trees are self-pollinating:
- Most European Plums
- Most Figs
- Most Oranges
- Sour Cherries
The following dwarf fruit trees are not self-pollinating:
- Asian Pear
- Some Apricots
- Most Japanese and Hybrid Plums
- Most Sweet Cherries
- Hybrid Plums
Remember that some fruit trees contain sterile pollen. The proper pollinator for your fruit tree will depend on the type. For more information, see the fruit tree catalog or website where you buy the fruit tree.
How Long Do Dwarf Fruit Trees Live?
The lifespan of a dwarf fruit tree will depend on the type. For example, a dwarf apple tree will live 15 to 20 years, compared to 35 to 45 years for a standard size apple tree.
Remember that diseases, pests, and even wind can cut the life of a fruit tree short.
This article from Modern Farmer gives an indication of how long various fruit trees will live. Apples and pears have the potential to live up to 100 years!
How Are Dwarf Fruit Trees Made?
Dwarf fruit trees are made by the process of grafting. Grafting is when you “combine” two fruit trees to combine characteristics from both, such as size, disease resistance, and cold tolerance.
The idea is to select for desirable traits so that the new tree has the “best of both worlds”. To graft two trees together into a new tree, there are two parts to keep in mind:
- Scion – this is the “top” part of the new tree. The genetics of the scion will determine what the branches, leaves, and fruit look like and how they grow. Note that it is possible to put two or more scions on one rootstock.
- Rootstock – this is the “bottom” part of the new tree. The genetics of the rootstock will determine things like how large the roots get and how tall the tree gets (the tree can only grow as tall as the roots can support).
Here’s an example of when you might want to graft two trees together. Let’s say you have two different apple trees:
- Tree A – the fruit of this tree tastes wonderful, but the roots are weak, and the tree will succumb to even the slightest bit of soggy soil.
- Tree B – the fruit of this tree tastes terrible, but the roots are strong, and the tree can grow just fine in soggy clay soil.
In this situation, take a scion from Tree A (the delicious fruit) and put it on a rootstock from Tree B (the strong roots). The result is a new tree (we could call it AB) that has delicious fruit and a strong, robust root system.
If you did it the other way, you would get a tree with weak roots and fruit that tastes terrible.
Grafting sounds like something out of Frankenstein, and that is not far from the truth. Just remember that grafted fruit trees are not GMO.
When we graft fruit trees, we are not altering their DNA at the molecular level. It is more like transplanting a kidney from a healthy person to someone who is sick.
According to the University of Maine Extension, grafting is usually done in the summer. Basically, the grafted bud from the scion is secured under the bark of the rootstock.
The graft eventually “heals”, and the two trees are now connected. The scion can get water and nutrients from the rootstock and begin to produce branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.
Types of Dwarf Fruit Trees
- Genetic dwarf – this “naturally dwarf” or “spur-type} tree is often sold as a miniature fruit tree in catalogs. A genetic dwarf has a standard root stock and a dwarf (spur-type) scion. The standard root stock gives a genetic dwarf a strong root system. It also eliminates the need for support by staking or trellising. The dwarf scion that has genes that limit its size, which results in a tree with a shorter height and less width. You may need to prune the roots of a genetic dwarf fruit tree.
- Dwarf interstem – this dwarf type comes from two grafts instead of one. First, the interstem is grafted to the rootstock. Then, the scion is grafted to the interstem. This allows for different genetics for the roots, trunk, and branches of the tree. For example, strong roots, short trunk, and compact branches. Due to the strong roots, a dwarf interstem fruit tree does not need support.
- Dwarf tree – in terms of grafting method, this dwarf type is the “opposite” of a genetic dwarf. A dwarf tree has a dwarf rootstock and a standard scion. The dwarf root system makes for shallower roots, which means the tree may need support from a stake or trellis. You may also need to thin the fruit on these trees.
According to the University of Illinois, the smallest fruit trees are the result of a dwarf scion grafted onto a dwarf rootstock. This means that both the roots and the scion limit the size of the tree, resulting in a very small tree.
Environmental conditions can also create dwarf fruit trees. This often happens due to limited root growth, such as when trees are grown in containers.
What Is A Semi Dwarf Fruit Tree?
A semi dwarf fruit tree is one that is larger than a dwarf fruit tree, but still smaller than a standard size fruit tree. A semi dwarf fruit tree usually has a height, width, and fruit yield between that of dwarf and standard size fruit trees.
Semi dwarf fruit trees generally grow to a height and width of 12 to 15 feet tall (sweet cherries are a little larger). A semi dwarf fruit tree can yield up to twice the fruit as a dwarf fruit tree.
Semi dwarf fruit trees also have a stronger root system than some dwarf fruit trees. You can learn more about semi dwarf fruit trees on the Stark Brothers website.
How To Care For Dwarf Fruit Trees
The basic care requirements for dwarf fruit trees are similar to standard size fruit trees: full sun and well-drained soil with enough nutrients and the proper pH.
However, the spacing, pruning, and support for some dwarf fruit trees may differ from what is needed for standard size fruit trees.
Spacing For Dwarf Fruit Trees
Dwarf fruit trees need much less space than standard size fruit trees. Dwarf apple and cherry trees only need 6 to 8 feet between trees.
The Arbor Day Foundation suggests that most dwarf fruit trees only need 100 square feet of space (10 feet long by 10 feet wide). One exception is pears, which prefer 144 square feet (12 feet long by 12 feet wide).
Of course, you can leave more space between trees if you wish. Just remember that for certain trees, it is possible to plant them too far apart.
Some fruit trees are not self-pollinating, such as apples and pears. This means that they will need another tree nearby for pollination and fruit production to occur.
The requirements vary depending on the type of tree. For example, some fruit trees need another tree of the same species but of a different variety nearby.
Your best bet is to check the catalog or website where you are buying the trees. Check before you buy, since you may need to buy some trees in pairs!
Sunlight For Dwarf Fruit Trees
All fruit trees need full sun, including dwarf fruit trees. Avoid putting them anywhere that would block their light, including:
- Near a building (house, shed, garage, barn)
- Near other trees (standard size fruit trees, oak, elm, or any tall tree)
Water For Dwarf Fruit Trees
Dwarf fruit trees need soil with good drainage, as do all fruit trees. If the soil does not drain well, it stays wet, which leaves no room for oxygen.
Without oxygen in the soil, plant roots will suffocate and root rot will occur. A tree with root rot may have stunted growth, or it may succumb to disease before it can produce fruit.
If your soil is heavy clay or does not drain well, consider adding compost before planting a tree. The extra organic material will improve drainage and provide nutrients as it decomposes.
You can also plant a fruit tree on a slightly raised mound to improve drainage.
When watering a fruit tree, only provide water when needed. Don’t let the soil stay wet for too long, and don’t water before a rainstorm!
It is ok to let the soil dry out a little between waterings. If you aren’t sure, dig down into the soil a few inches with your fingers. If it is dry, it is time to water.
Soil For Dwarf Fruit Trees (Nutrients and pH)
Like most other plants, dwarf fruit trees will do just fine in soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0 (slightly acidic). If soil is too acidic (low pH) or too basic (high pH), your tree may have trouble absorbing certain nutrients from the soil.
Always get a soil test before adding anything to your soil to address pH imbalances or nutrients deficiencies.
Some classic signs of nutrient deficiencies are yellow leaves and sluggish growth. If you think there is a nutrient deficiency, confirm it with a soil test.
Stark Brothers suggests a balanced NPK fertilizer for fruit trees, such as 10-10-10 or 12-12-12. No matter what you use, always follow the instructions on the package.
If you apply too much fertilizer at once, you can burn your trees!
Pruning For Dwarf Fruit Trees
Pruning is important for fruit trees after transplant into your garden. For one thing, if they lose roots, then they won’t be able to support all of the branches they have grown.
Pruning also encourages the tree to produce more growth in the next year. Finally, pruning helps to keep the tree looking good and makes harvesting easier.
Stark Brothers suggests using 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock pruning angles for the branches of the tree (30 degrees above the horizon).
Also, prune trees when they are dormant in late fall, winter, or early spring. You can learn more about proper fruit tree pruning practices on the Stark Brothers website.
Fruit Thinning For Dwarf Fruit Trees
Fruit thinning is probably the least fun part of having fruit trees (apart from pruning!) However, it is necessary to ensure even yields of large fruit.
Fruit thinning means to remove some of the fruit from a fruit tree by hand. Some trees will do this by themselves (often called June drop).
If you don’t thin the fruit on a tree, it will split its energy among all of the fruit. This may result in more fruit, but each one will be smaller.
This is annoying in fruit like peaches, where the pit can be a large part of a small fruit.
Failure to thin the fruit can also lead to “biennial bearing”. This means that the tree produces lots of fruit one year and little or no fruit the next year.
In addition, too much fruit on a tree may lead to broken branches. This is even more likely on a dwarf fruit tree, since it produces normal size fruit on a smaller tree and branches.
Finally, too much fruit can be a liability when bad weather arrives. A strong wind can cause the entire tree to fall over during a windstorm if there is too much weight from fruit.
Support For Dwarf Fruit Trees (Staking and Trellising)
As mentioned earlier, dwarf fruit trees have shallow roots, especially after transplant. When they start producing fruit, the combination of extra weight and weak roots can cause the tree to fall over.
In particular, dwarf apple and pear trees have weak roots. Thus, they need a stake or a trellis for support, especially when fruit starts to appear.
No staking is necessary for semi-dwarf and standard size fruit trees.
Now you know what dwarf fruit trees are and the benefits and drawbacks of these smaller trees. You also know the basics of how to care for fruit trees.
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