It sounds unbelievable: 3,500 fruit trees -- apples, pears, peaches, plums, blueberries, grapes, gooseberries, you name it -- all growing on a half-acre plot! But such an orchard on such a small space is entirely possible, Dr. Elwood Fisher of James Madison University insists.
He should know.That half-acre orchard is his backyard in Harrisonburg, Va.
Dr. Fisher's very practical hobby -- it puts an assortment of fruits on his table 365 days a year in fresh, frozen, canned, or dried form -- is one of the world's most ancient crafts. His approach to backyard orcharding, however, involves techniques that were developed relatively recently in horticultural history. It is the art of espaliering trees, developed in land-short Europe last century.
Espaliering means training a tree so that it grows in a two-dimensional form.In other words, the tree is pruned so that it grows flat, somewhat like ivy clinging to a wall, or as a very narrow hedge.
There are a variety of espaliering styles and all are in evidence in the Fisher orchard. But his principal choice for apples, pears, and the stone fruits, and the easiest one for newcomers to practice, is the single cordon -- a single leader or vertical stem from which 6-inch side branches are allowed to grow. The trunk is trimmed when it reaches 7 feet in height and from then on regular pruning keeps the tree at that size.
In espaliering most pruning is done during the summer as this directs much of the tree's energy into forming fruiting buds for the following year and into improving the size of existing fruit. In contrast winter pruning stimulates vegetative growth, something that isn't wanted when the aim is to have trees of very limited size.
These trees are set out at 13-inch intervals in rows 6 feet apart.This way an impressive number of trees can be grown in a very small space. Though ultimately the trees would develop trunks sturdy enough to support themselves, the leader is too slender in the early stages and is fastened to horizontal wires as it grows up.
Dr. Fisher recommends setting out the rows on a north-south axis. This allows for maximum sunlight to strike the trees on both sides, enhancing their fruiting capacity tremendously. Moreover, as summer breezes frequently blow from the northwest of southwest the breezes are channeled down the rows to provide good aeration.
One feature of the Fisher orchard is the thick mulch of leaves and pine needles which carpet his orchard up to a foot in depth. He gets this mulch courtesy of the town. Each fall five truckloads are dumped into his garden by trucks that would otherwise have to drive many miles farther to the town dump.
This way the town saves on gas and Dr. Fisher gets all the fertility he needs for his orchard. That's right: Dr. Fisher uses no other fertilizers or manures. The continually decaying leaves provide all the minerals and nutrients the trees need.
"Too many people overfertilize their fruit trees," according to Dr. Fisher. As a result, "they get a lot of vegetative growth and very little fruit." The leaves, in contrast, feed the trees in a manner which loads the branches with what folks want most from a fruit tree.