The rest of the country is catching on to what homesteaders have known for generations. Knowing where your food comes from is not just trendy, it’s smart. Going the extra mile and actually growing your food is even smarter and trendier nowadays. What’s great about that is that it’s also easier now than ever before thanks to the efficiency of dwarf fruit trees. Dwarf trees are no different than standard trees except, of course, for their size. They’re made by grafting the scion (top, fruiting, leafy part of the tree) of a full-sized tree to the rootstocks of a smaller tree, thereby growing into a tree that can be grown in a container while fruiting like a standard orchard-type tree.
With the increased interest in homegrown foods, there is an increased supply of options to choose from when you decide to don your patio or sunroom with this beautiful, productive, life-giving foliage. You can border your outdoor sitting area or driveway with shade-producing, semi-dwarf peach trees even if you live in a cooler zone than an average, peach trees can thrive by potting them rather than planting them in the ground. Dwarf peach trees flower early each spring and they are prone to frost which makes portability a great benefit.
Growing Dwarf Fruit Trees: Peach
You will need an 18” pot, though 12” will work in the tree’s early life. Be sure your pot has plenty of drainage. You can increase the drainability by filling the bottom two inches of the pot with small pebbles. Next, add loamy compost up to about half-full. Don’t skimp on this step, the loam in the compost is an important factor in the success and health of the tree. Assuming you’re repotting a sapling rather than a seed, transfer the baby tree to its new home at this stage, then add the loam/compost mixture to just shy of one inch from the top of the pot to allow for mess-free watering, and a shallow layer of mulch. All that’s left is a healthy drink of water and a full day of sunbathing and your tree will begin to grow for you.
Remember that peach trees, dwarf or standard, prefer a Mediterranean climate, which is warm and more dry than wet. They must be watered regularly, because of their contained rootstock, but will not thrive in waterlogged, heavy soil. A good routine is to water thoroughly, then allow to dry completely, and repeat.
A good peach tree for beginners to container gardening is the Bonanza dwarf. This tree will require almost no pruning, except for desired shaping. You may, however, want to “prune” your fruit. Pick off every other fruit you grow when your tree finally becomes of age, usually at the three-year mark. This will ensure that the fruit you allow to grow and ripen will be large and healthy. This practice is only encouraged for the first year.
Tropical Varieties of Dwarf Fruit Trees
While peach trees need time during the winter to be left to a dormancy phase, say, in the garage or the barn, tropical fruit trees need warmth all year. In zones cooler than zone 9, these plants will need to be transferred to a sunny indoor location before all chance of exposure to a cool night. Your banana tree won’t like temperatures lower than 67° F.
Like peaches, they also need light, well-drained soil, and a container that allows for plenty of drainage. Dwarf banana trees grow from 4’ to 7’ in height; a five-gallon container is appropriate for this size. Dwarf bananas will fruit best in nutrient-rich soil which is kept moist, but not soggy. They also like a humid environment. If you heat your home with wood heat in the winter, be sure to spray the banana tree with a fine mist often. To keep your soil productive, use an 8-10-8 fertilizer every month.
Finally, you need to prune the dwarf banana tree to increase productivity. Pluck all suckers, but leave one. Once your tree fruits, it will begin to die, so you will need to cut that trunk away and allow the one sucker you left to grow.
For tropical citrus, cultural practices are much the same. You will, for example, use a 12” or 5-gallon container and use light, well-drained soil. In contrast, though, you will need to be more diligent about the moisture content in your soil so as not to let roots become waterlogged. Where banana trees can sit in a drainage pan, dwarf citrus trees need to be slightly elevated above their pans. Dwarf citrus trees also need a solid 6 hours of sunlight daily, 8 hours is even better. If this is not possible due to weather or location issues, grow lights can be used. Natural sunlight is best though, grow lights should be an alternative rather than the standard.
When fertilizing your dwarf citrus, look for a fertilizer heavy on nitrogen. A 2-1-1 mix is ideal, and there are citrus/avocado feeds specially formulated and available to you if you are unsure. Slow-release granules are the preferred method of many nurseries, and most professionals will advise against stakes. Watch your tree and it will tell you what it needs. Yellow leaves indicate poor moisture/nutrient control, and you should regularly see new growth if conditions are good.
Like banana trees, dwarf citrus should not be allowed to grow “suckers.” Suckers grow below the graft line and “suck” nutrients from your tree much like a weed. You want your tree to put all of its nutrients and energy into making healthy, delicious fruit, so suckers should be removed immediately. Some suckers, if left untended, will grow fruit. The fruit will be sour, however, and the rest of the fruits may be smaller or fewer in quantity.
Say you just made a bowl of guacamole and have thrown the avocado skins into the compost bucket. Now you have these big round pits that are sort of broad on one side and pointy-ish on the other. Google will tell you to stick three toothpicks into it and set it in water. I tried that twice and it didn’t work for me. What did work for me was burying the broad end in potting soil halfway up the pit and setting the planter in the windowsill. I had expected to wait months for any signs of life, but in just a few weeks of regular light watering, the pit split and there sat a tiny, sprig-like seedling. I waited until I had a couple of true leaves, then repotted from a cut-in-half old water bottle into a true 4” terra cotta pot. Soon though, I began to see so much growth that I repotted again into a larger can that I had cut drainage holes into. In the spring my babies will be repotted again into standard 5-gallon or 12-inch pots, they will be a year old.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when the tree is about 6” tall, you’re supposed to cut it back by half, then again when it reaches 12”. They say this encourages new growth. My tree is over 12” tall now, so I think I’ll leave it alone, but this is a cultural practice that I will certainly try next time. Growing fruit trees is a learning experience much like a vegetable garden. Trial and error, learning from those more experienced, and creating your own avenue to success in making food are part of the thrill of homesteading.
Now, here’s something amazing. Grow your own pineapples. Technically not a tree, but a fruiting plant, nonetheless. A big one. You’ll need a lot of space and your biggest container. These babies can grow up to 5’ in diameter, so make sure you have plenty of room.
All you have to do is save the leafy part of a store-bought pineapple that you cut from the rest of the fruit, and plant it. Not the whole leafy section, just the portion of fruit still attached to it. Pineapples are particular about the soil they grow in, but making sure you offer good drainage is always a good cultural practice. Watering it every now and then will help too, but you don’t need to put it on a watering schedule like some other finicky plants.
Now, just wait. Really. It may take a year or even two, but eventually, the gorgeous plant that looks amazing on your patio will start to give you fresh pineapple.
The One-Acre Orchard
The other great thing about homesteading: making your land work for you. Developing your acreage into something productive and efficient must be one of the greatest achievements we country folk strive toward. We also strive to increase agricultural education amongst one another and our neighbors “in town.” We like community enrichment and getting the family together. We like apple pie. We get all of these things out of an orchard that occupies one itsy-bitsy little acre.
You can plant a few standard-sized apple trees on an acre of ground and grow a lot of apples. Or you can plant almost seven hundred dwarf apple trees of many varieties and really outdo the neighbors. Now that you’re excited about showing up the Joneses, get ready for some really good news: your dwarf apple trees will fruit for you in one year. That’s right. They only grow to ten feet maximum, so most of their energy is used in making fruit.
If you’ve done the math (I wouldn’t if I were you, it’s hard), you’ve figured out by now that if you spaced your trees 8’ apart with 14’ between rows, you can grow 688 trees on one acre. That’s a lot of trees. That means (more math) that you could grow 172 trees each of 4 varieties.
As far as pruning and other cultural practices go, you know from your vegetable garden that you’ll be dealing with pests and irrigation issues specific to your area. Other than that you’ll just prune away dead branches in the winter. No fancy shaping required, your tree isn’t that big. I consider that a bonus when I see the effort that the commercial orchards near my home go to each year in pruning their larger trees. If you want to use fertilizer, choose a balanced one and apply it in the spring.
Then comes the best part: call everyone you know and have them come out to pick apples next fall. Let the school take a field trip to your sacred ground to learn about where their food comes from and how it grows. Donate fresh fruit to your local food pantry. Bring some variety to the farmers market. Work out a deal with your local supermarket and/or CSA and sell those ripe, delicious fruits of yours. Here’s an idea: plant a tree, or a row of trees any time there is a birth in your family in honor of the new baby. Instead of a family tree, you’ll have a family orchard.