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Originally published Wednesday, March 14, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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Fruit trees for small gardens

A Q&A with Colby Eierman, author of the gardening book "Fruit Trees in Small Spaces: Abundant Harvests from Your Own Backyard."

Chicago Tribune

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Everybody likes fruit, but some gardeners may be reluctant to plant an apple or peach tree, preferring to play it safe with some tomatoes or peppers. That's who Colby Eierman had in mind when he wrote "Fruit Trees in Small Spaces: Abundant Harvests from Your Own Backyard" (Timber Press).

"I thought of the gardener who has been growing vegetables in the backyard," Eierman said, "and is ready to make that step to perennial fruit."

Gardeners may be handicapped by their lack of knowledge of fruit. Eierman includes far more varieties than a consumer will find in a supermarket, where easy-to-ship trumps taste. This was his way of helping gardeners make a choice.

"Some folks just aren't going to be able to grow citrus, but there's a lot of great apples out there that will work," he says. "I've been so enriched in my life, growing plants in general and trees specifically, I'd like to help people start on their own journey."

The book talks about turning your yard into a small orchard, growing fruit trees in pots, what works, what doesn't, and even includes recipes.

Q: How is growing fruit different from other plants?

A: You're thinking about the long term from the start. With fruit trees, the main reason you plant is to give you fruit, and that may not come for five years. Take the time to choose the right variety, do a lot of research, and hopefully make the right decision.

Q: How long before you can get fruit?

A: Depends on your climate. If you can plant a bare-root tree in a small space in the winter, (a tree that's) 2 to 3 years old, that's potentially going to set some fruit (quickly). It's OK to let that produce a few pieces of fruit in the first year and get a chance to taste what that variety is.

With a larger tree, the first couple of years, trim all that fruit when it's, say, nickel size in diameter, and let the tree focus its energy on (its) structure, the branches, root system. Then two to three years in, let more fruit ripen.

Q: What about fruit trees being messy?

A: I don't see it as an issue, (but) there's a lot we can do. There are things we can do with netting. The nice thing about small trees and keeping them small is that they're easier to protect and eliminate that sort of pressure. You also have to choose the right variety. Having a plum tree over your sidewalk, it's going to drop fruit. If that's not what you want, that's not where you should put that tree.

Q: How adventurous can or should a gardener be in choosing trees?

A: Balance is the right word. My suggestion is to start with something you know you like to eat, because that will motivate you to make this succeed. That will be tempered against what you can grow, of course. I'm not going to suggest to someone in North Dakota to grow grapefruit. But maybe it could lead them to where someday they have a greenhouse for citrus. Also, identify which historically grows well in the area — go to the farmers market, see what they're producing, talk to the farmers ... and see what we can be successful with. Then branch out from there.

Q: Pruning is crucial. Is it easy to become a passable "expert"?

A: The best way to learn is to get out there and do it. I found most folks fall on the spectrum as aggressive or timid pruners. I think we could all move a little toward the middle.

I love pruning. It's a really nice time out in the garden. One of the exciting things about growing fruit trees in small spaces, you can pretty much prune whenever you want, when you notice something. People think it's something done in winter, it's frosty out ... but if you're trying to reduce (a plant's) size and keep it in a smaller area, summer pruning is the way to go.

In winter, with no leaves, you have to imagine what the tree will look like. But in the summer you can see how the sun is hitting the fruit, you can prune off what is blocking that light. You're taking some of the tree's resources, but left to their own devices, trees get much bigger than we need. Small trees pruned in the summer are just a great addition to the landscape.

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