Urban orchards

Even condo dwellers, it seems, can grow their own fruit.

Credit: Christina Symons

Size does matter, and bigger isn’t always better.

I have five apple trees in my yard and the most ­remarkable thing about them is that they take up less room than my dining room table. In the past, putting just one or two fruit trees in a small city yard would mean the whole yard was full. It also meant hiking up a ladder to harvest the fruit. And as for condo dwellers, forget it; you had to make do with a patch of begonias and impatiens, and take a walk to the corner store if you wanted apples.

My trees, on the other hand, cast no real shadows of their own, leaving lots of room for other stuff and none of the branches is above my chin. I’ve got mine in the garden, but those folks in condos can now grow a fruit tree in no more soil than you can fit into a half barrel.

A couple of things make this possible. For starters my apple trees are growing on dwarf root stock. The person I bought the trees from grafted a scion, a bit of branch, from a specific type of apple onto dwarf root stock, which restricts the size to which the tree will grow. Then, when I planted those trees, I trained them to grow on a frame, like a trellis of sorts; the technique is called espalier. My trellis, which runs along side my garden fence, is made up of posts eight feet apart with three wires stretched ­between them at 18-inch intervals.

Dwarf fruit trees and espalier aren’t new. According to author Harold Tukey, dwarf trees grew in Greek gardens 300 years before Christ. Alexander the Great brought back dwarf apple trees following his conquests in Asia Minor.

By the time Louis the XIV had Versailles constructed in the 17th century, the palace’s kitchen garden had espaliered peaches, pears, apricots, plums, cherries, figs and nectarines. And gardeners working in monasteries throughout Europe were in the habit of espaliering fruit trees along the walls of their enclosed compounds.

But what was once an esoteric pursuit of the rich or cloistered has become available to all of us. In this part of the world it is thanks in no small part to Jan Traas. The Dutch fruit grower moved to B.C. with his family in 1953 after a dike in his homeland broke and led
to a flood that put him out of business there.

It was in the B.C. Interior where he observed that, compared with Europe where dwarf and semi-dwarf trees were in fairly wide use, British Columbia fruit production and fruit quality were considerably lower.

The smaller trees are easier to manage for pruning, harvesting and disease control. And if they are grown on wires, more of the fruit is exposed to the sun, improving the quality.
Traas bought land in Langley and ordered root stock from England’s East Malling Research Station, a world leader since the 1920s in classifying and cloning root stock. Then he set up a root stock nursery. His first customers were orchardists in Kelowna. But soon, by word of mouth, he was selling all across the continent. The dwarf and semi-dwarf apple trees you buy at the VanDusen Botanical Garden plant sale or at the UBC Apple Festival likely come from that original stock.

Tony Maniezzo is the UBC gardener who takes care of the 60 or so espaliered trees in their botanical garden and is quite happy to share his knowledge. He helped the folks at Strathcona set up their espaliers a few years back.

He will tell you that you should set up your frame before you plant your tree. When you buy your one-year-old tree, called a whip, make sure of the type of root stock it is on. Growers
still use “M” or “EM” designations (for East Malling) with a number attached. Mine are mostly M9s.

Regardless of the shape in which you want to train your tree, he says, “every espalier starts the same way.” Plant it in front of the frame, then prune it just below the height of the first wire. From then on it is a matter of pruning and training.

It takes some patience and some care, but in a few years, each spring you can look forward to a pleasant wall of blossoms and each fall you will have a small harvest of fruit all within easy reach.

Allen Garr is a Vancouver journalist and commentator who has made time for his passions: birding, gardening and beekeeping.