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How do I...?

Here's where we try to answer the most common questions and give you a good start on your way to a home orchard of your own.

Buying Fruit Trees

How do I...?

Here's where we try to answer the most common questions and give you a good start on your way to a home orchard of your own.


Buying Fruit Trees

Pick the right tree for your climate, soil, space and needs. Look for one with a good sturdy trunk (don't worry about the current height) and no visible damage or disease. Bare root trees are a superior choice to trees of the same age stuck in nursery pots. Unless you are planning to have a full grown orchard tree hauled in with a crane, a younger tree will have advantages over one a few years older. A one year old bare root tree may take a few years to fruit, but it won't arrive as stressed as many potted nursery trees are after just a few years. If you must buy a potted tree avoid any that have heavily circling roots or are otherwise root bound.

Common fruit tree types

Dwarf: usually suitable for container gardening can often be maintained at 4' height

Semi Dwarf: suitable for a small yard, where one wants several different trees in a small space, or for ladder-less harvesting. Can usually be maintained at 8 to 15' in height.

Espalier: A carefully trained small tree usually with a flat ladder or fan-like structure. Best planted along walls or fences. Maintaining espaliers requires special care, but they take up little space and can be visually stunning.

3 on 1: Also known as a multi-fruit or fruit salad tree. Multiple varieties of a single species grafted onto one tree. An example would be 3 or more different apple varieties on one tree. Limited by species and graft compatibilities. Cherries cannot be grafted onto apples for example. Buying one from the back of a magazine will likely be a disappointment, but one from a trusted local nursery should provide you with a variety of fruit throughout the season without taking up much space. (The tree-tomatoes sold by the same dodgy outfits that also offer "fruit salad trees" in your junk mail are either just heavily fertilized flavorless tomatoes, often with a heavy dose of Photoshop or if you are lucky, you might get an exotic fruit tree called a tamarillo. Tomatoes do not grow on trees. We don't recommend buying any plant sold through junk mail.)

Maypole: An unusual column-like tree form where the fruit forms on tiny branches along the trunk. They don't look anything like what you imagine a fruit tree to be, but they are a good solution for small patio spaces, and are an interesting curiosity. This is a type of tree that has been bred to conform more easily to the cordon style of espalier pruning. Some other semi-dwarf trees can be trained to a cordon form and can provide a wider selection of varieties than the limited maypoles.

Standard: This is a "natural" full sized tree. Be sure that you have room for such a specimen before you consider planting one. They are grand and beautiful, but are generally too large for the average Bay Area yard. They are also much harder to maintain, as pest control, pruning and harvesting require specialized equipment.



If you are buying a bare-root tree, be sure to dig the hole before you go get the tree at the nursery. Bare-root trees must not be allowed to dry out even for a brief time. They should be transported in a bag filled with moist soil or mulch. A hole 18-24" wide and deep will work for most bare root trees. The side roots can be cautiously pruned if absolutely necessary, such as in the case of stiff roots that wrap around in a circular manner. Never coil long roots into the hole. Dig a bigger hole or clip them shorter. Coiled roots will cause the tree to literally strangle itself as it grows. Not only will this kill your tree, it may cause it to be in danger of toppling over and causing damage well before you notice that it is ailing. Back fill the hole with the same soil that came out of it, keeping the sub-soil at the bottom and the top-soil on top. Gently fill the soil in between the roots with your hands. Press firmly around the newly planted tree to eliminate any air gaps in the soil, but not so hard as to compact the soil or damage the roots.

For a potted tree the hole should be somewhat wider and the same depth as the root ball to give the roots a region of looser soil around the root ball, thus encouraging the roots to move outward into the native soil. The crown and/or graft of the tree (often seen as a swelling just above the roots) should not be below the natural soil level. In poorly draining soil the crown can be raised slightly above soil level by creating a small planting mound. Prune out any tangled or circling roots before planting.


Correct pruning technique and training of a tree while it is young can make the difference between a bountiful addition to your property and a sickly eye sore. The average "mow and blow" crew will do more damage than good when it comes to trees. Hire someone who has a lot of experience specifically with fruit trees or learn how to do it yourself.

Fruit trees should not be pruned with hedge clippers or power tools. Chain saws are for removing fruit trees not pruning them. The correct tools are a pair of high quality bypass hand shears for small diameter live growth and a very sharp hand saw specifically designed for pruning. Felco makes good examples of both items. Large lopping shears should only be used for breaking down branches to more manageable size for disposal, after they are trimmed from the tree.

Before making a cut, put down your tools and step back from the tree to observe its overall form. Think about how it will grow and change over time. Keep in mind the ultimate size and shape you are hoping to achieve. Trees develop their forms over many many years they are not static sculptures. You won't be creating a final shape today. Each cut you make will direct future growth and effect the ultimate shape of the tree decades down the road. That said, trees are constantly putting out new growth and many mistakes can be corrected over time.

When a branch must be removed in its entirety, first identify the collar. The collar which appears as a swollen area at the junction of the trunk and branch contains reactive tissue that will constrict the trees transport vessels like a tourniquet and in time grow over the pruning scar, protecting the tree from diseases and rot. Support the branch with one hand. If this is too awkward or the branch is too heavy, cut off the majority of the branch part way along its length to reduce the weight. Making a cut partially through the underside of the branch a ways away from the final cut can help to avoid having the branch tear down through the collar. Cut down from the top of the branch just outside the collar where it grows from the trunk, being careful to not damage the collar nor leave any stub beyond it. Do not apply any form of pruning paint or "wound sealant." Both are scientifically proven by UC Davis and others to trap pathogens and moisture that cause rot. (Imagine leaving on a band-aid without changing it for months on end!)

When shortening smaller branches and twigs, examine the buds and decide which direction you want the new growth to take. The last (terminal) bud on the remaining branch will direct future growth. As a general rule buds on the underside of a branch will create horizontal branches while buds on the upperside of a branch will become vertical branches or even water sprouts (very fast growing weak vertical spires often seem after heavy pruning.) Horizontal branches are slower growing, stronger, and produce more fruit. Visualize a line passing through the branch perpendicularly at the tip of the planned terminal bud. Make the cut with your bypass shears close to the bud (within 1/4 inch) angling the cut to be slightly higher on the bud side and deeper on the opposite side. Be sure that no part of the cut goes past your imaginary perpendicular line. For vertical branches, the cut should never be perfectly horizontal, as water will accumulate in the wound as it heals and cause rot.

For pruning schedules see the Garden Calendar. Different types of trees will need different amounts of pruning. Some trees fruit along the entirety of a branch from "spurs" which should not be removed unless absolutely necessary, others fruit only on new growth and require heavy pruning each year. Be aware of the needs of your specific tree before you start pruning. Once again, remember, this is a living organism that develops over a very long time frame, not a sculpture.

A note on new trees: If the nursery tells you to cut your brand new sapling off between 18 inches and 3 feet high to keep the tree small, don't panic. It will only be a tiny "stump" until the existing buds form new branches. Those will be the lowest branches on your tree. As long as you make this initial cut far enough above the graft line to include several buds of the main tree, it will flourish. Allowing a newly planted tree to be leggy and tall from the beginning out of desire for faster results or fear of killing the tree will result in a weak tree with fruit far beyond your reach. Be brave, make that first cut and be patient. You will be rewarded with a strong manageable tree.

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