I spend a lot of my time teaching city dwellers how to “grow their own,” from growing veggies to keeping backyard chickens to establishing an urban orchard. I also teach about edible landscaping. Customer interest, buying habits and behavior tell me we should no longer consider any of these practices as trends, but rather as a new ingrained way of life for many urban homeowners. My philosophy is that you don’t have to have acreage to produce a respectable portion of your own food; you just have to scale it properly to your city lot. With space and available sunlight at a premium in an urban environment, it’s a good thing fruit tree breeders have answered the call with mini fruit trees.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen an exciting selection of new dwarf, or rather miniature, fruit trees hit the market. When I say “miniature,” as opposed to “dwarf,” I’m referring to true genetic dwarfs. Miniature fruit trees are basically a natural mutation found in seedling trees. Breeders grew millions of seedlings in order to find just a handful that had the right size characteristics. Then, they pollinated these tiny specimens with other varieties with desirable fruit. All in all, it took 20 years to reach the stage where the new selections became available for sale in retail garden centers. The result is an array of fruit trees that remain under 10 feet tall at maturity, yet produce just as well as their standard or dwarf cousins.
More and more homeowners are substituting edibles for traditional ornamentals in their foundation plantings. I’ve already planted several such miniature peaches within my landscape and couldn’t be happier with their size and look.
Several miniature columnar apples and dwarf blackberries have also taken up residence in my edible-heavy landscape. Using mini fruit plants is an innovative way to achieve your basic landscaping needs, while getting an extra bang for your buck.
While traditional dwarfs or semi-dwarfs (standard varieties grafted onto dwarf root stock) are still good options for space-challenged city dwellers, the miniatures offer up many new opportunities. ‘Bonfire’ peach, for example, grows to only 6 feet tall at maturity. Instead of having to allocate a large section of their lot for an orchard, your customer can integrate this mini peach into an existing ornamental landscape.
Not to mention, this variety sports burgundy foliage, making it an outstanding ornamental asset.
Their diminutive size also makes mini fruit trees excellent container specimens. If you live outside Zone 9-11, you’re probably already advising your customers to grow their citrus in containers. For areas with somewhat mild winters, miniature peach, nectarine, cherry, apple and more can be grown in large containers year-round. For city dwellers with only a sunny patio, they too can now keep their own tiny, yet productive urban orchard. Try pre-potting miniature fruit trees into decorative containers for a ready-to-go (or deliver) patio feature with a healthy average sale value.
Minis for cool and warm climates
Be sure to know the average chilling hours for your area. In order to produce fruit, different varieties will require anywhere from 250 up to 1,050 chilling hours each winter. If you don’t sell varieties with requirements in your average range, you’ll end up with very disappointed customers. Plant a low-chill variety in a cold climate, and plants will want to flower far too early, leaving blooms at peril. Plant a high-chill variety in a southern climate, and be prepared to just enjoy the foliage.
Will I get less fruit?
A common question I’ve received about these mini fruit trees is whether their size means they will bear less or smaller fruit. Lucky for us, these tiny producers offer up big harvests of full sized fruit. When you grow a miniature peach for example, you’ll notice that the flower buds are very tightly spaced. You can count two to three times the number of buds you’d find in the same space on a standard tree. One leaf will grow below each bud, creating a dense shrub-like look. Now, if you know your fruit culture, you’ll know you’ll still have to remove some of those buds to encourage the best fruit.
Pre-sell the season
Fruit trees already offer the opportunity to pre-sell the season. Meaning, your customer can start planting their fruit trees long before they think about putting more tender plant material in the ground. In cooler climates, February is a great time to plant bare root and container specimens. It’s a product that brings customers in during what may traditionally be a slower time of year, but can help kick start the season. But customer demand for fruit trees has steadily grown to the point where they may expect to find them available in your garden center any time they visit.
For those of us in southern climates, bare root specimens can be planted all winter long and container grown specimens planted year-round. So if you’re used to only bringing in one or two shipments of fruit trees during a specific season, you may want to re-think your approach. Depending on your climate, you could offer year-round fruit tree availability to your customers.
Educate the foodies
If your customer is growing edibles, then it’s probably a given they’re interested in how to eat, cook and preserve their harvest. Personally, I’ll admit I’m totally addicted to the Food Network. I think my fascination with cooking originates simply from the fact that I love to grow food. So if you’re going to sell edibles, and teach your customers how to grow them, then you should also work some culinary programing into your education calendar. Cross promotional classes or events with local restaurants, chefs and food publications are a great way to attract new customers and bring extra foot traffic. Who doesn’t love farm to table?
Most fruit tree newbies expect to get harvestable fruit the first year after planting. Make sure your staff is educating customers buying fruit trees that they will generally wait until at least the second year, more often the third year, after planting before they should expect a harvest.
Don’t forget, fruit trees do come with some specific maintenance needs. Specific fertilization regimens must be followed for best customer success. Create a handout that gives your customers a three-year fertilization schedule with a recommended balanced fertilizer. Include this information in your fruit tree growing classes. Be sure to have at least one good quality fertilizer specifically for fruit trees. Dr. Earth and Jobe’s both have good organic fruit tree fertilizers and Espoma’s Citrus-tone is excellent. Make sure to sell your customer root stimulator to apply at planting time, and be sure they leave with mulch as a top-dressing.
Offer dormant or horticultural oil sprays for pest control prior to flowering and fruit set. You’ll also need to have bird netting on hand for customers to protect their harvest from the critters. TreeGator bags or other self-watering devices are excellent tools to help customers properly establish their new trees, thus cutting down on returns. FELCO, or another high-quality brand, pruners and a sturdy set of gloves are also par for the course. If you’re big into edibles, you should also consider carrying canning supplies.
Combine a great selection of miniature fruit trees, the products to grow them properly and staff know-how, and you’ll give your customers a recipe for an urban orchard success story.
'Bonfire’ by Leslie Finical Halleck / Tasty Red Urban Apple, Garden Debut plant collection ‘Honey Babe’ and ‘North Star’ courtesy of Dave Wilson Nursery.
Leslie Finical Halleck, a Certified Professional Horticulturist (CPH) via ASHS with more than 20 years of industry experience, owns Halleck Horticultural, through which she provides horticultural marketing, business consulting, social media management and content generation for green industry businesses. For the past eight years she served as General Manager for North Haven Gardens, an IGC in Dallas, Texas. www.lesliehalleck.com