Figaro's Blog

April 29, 2024

Growing Apple Trees in Small Spaces

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Think your space is too small for an apple tree? Think again! Whether you have a tiny balcony or a compact backyard, there’s a perfect apple tree for you. In this blog post, we’ll look at appropriate varieties and techniques for growing apple trees in small spaces, including in small urban spaces and containers. 

Choosing compact apple tree varieties

Even though most apple trees sold at retail nurseries are grown on dwarfing rootstock, these trees can still reach mature heights of 15ft (4.5m) or more. For small spaces and patios, these trees are too large. Better options? Espaliered trees and columnar varieties. 

Growing apple trees in small spaces is easy with an espalier.

Growing apple trees in small spaces is easy with an espalier. This example shows a tree with Gala, Honeycrisp, and Fuji varieties grafted into a horizontal cordon form of espalier.

Espaliered apple trees

Espalier is a horticultural technique of training trees or shrubs to grow flat against a support structure, such as a wall, fence, or trellis. It involves pruning and shaping the branches of the plant in a specific pattern, usually horizontally, to create a decorative and space-saving design.
Espaliered apple trees are popularly grown in a “horizontal cordon” pattern, with six main limbs extending horizontally from a main trunk. This shape also allows for convenient grafting of different apple varieties onto one root stock. 
A Golden Sentinel columnar apple is a good option for growing apple trees in small spaces

A Golden Sentinel columnar apple is a good option for growing apple trees in small spaces.

Columnar apple varieties

Another option for growing apple trees in small spaces is to choose a columnar variety. Columnar apple trees are characterized by their slender, upright growth habit, resembling columns or pillars. The can reach approximately 10 ft (3m). Unlike traditional apple trees, which have a more spreading or round canopy, columnar apple trees grow in a narrow, vertical shape, making them ideal for small gardens, patios, or even container gardening.

These trees produce fruit on short spurs along their main stem, rather than on lateral branches like traditional apple trees. Despite their compact size, columnar apple trees can still yield a significant amount of fruit, often comparable to standard-sized trees. They are prized for their space-saving qualities and can be grown in rows or planted individually as striking ornamental features in landscape design. Additionally, their vertical growth habit makes them easier to maintain and harvest. There are limited numbers of columnar varieties available: Golden Sentinel and Scarlet Sentinel are the most common. 

Container apple tree gardening

Growing apple trees in containers is a good solution for gardeners with limited space or those seeking more flexibility. As mentioned, selecting dwarf or columnar apple tree varieties is essential, as they adapt well to container life and maintain manageable sizes.

Choose a large container (minimum 18″x18″ or 45cmx45cm), ensuring it has proper drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Use nutrient-rich, well-draining soil designed specifically for container growing (like Figaro’s Outdoor Potting Soil) and position the container in a spot receiving at least six hours of sunlight daily. Regular watering is crucial, ensuring the soil remains consistently moist but not waterlogged. Drip irrigation can help alleviate this task during the dry summer months. 

Container-grown apple trees benefit from occasional fertilization, especially during flowering and fruit production (early spring to early summer). Choose a high-nitrogen organic fertilizer for best results. 

Pruning techniques for small apple trees

Pruning an espaliered apple tree

Figaro’s Garden owner Hartley Rosen prunes an apple sapling to encourage horizontal branching. The tree, planted in front of the nursery, will take an espaliered form.

Pruning is essential to manage the tree’s size and shape, encouraging fruit production and maintaining its health. The best time to prune espalier and columnar apple trees is in late winter, while the tree is still dormant. In Vancouver, February is a good time to do this. 

For pruning any type of apple, start with the “Three Ds”: Dead, Diseased, or Damaged. Remove any of these branches (which will not have any buds on them, and may appear brittle or a different colour than healthy branches). Once unhealthy branches have been removed, you may opt to prevent damage by also pruning away any crossing branches: those that are rubbing against each other or growing in conflict. Then, follow the instructions below for pruning your specific type of small-space apple tree.

Pruning columnar apple trees

Pruning columnar apple trees is largely about maintaining the tree’s narrow, upright form. Prune any lateral branches back to about 5 in (12cm), helping to maintain the columnar shape. You may also opt to prune the top of the tree for a shorter form. This allows for more convenient picking and prevents the tree from becoming top heavy.

Pruning espaliered apple trees

Regular pruning of espaliered trees is essential to maintain the desired shape. It’s useful to prune after the tree blooms in the spring, identifying the location of future fruits by the set of the blooms. Then, prune as needed throughout the year to maintain the desired shape and encourage lateral growth. Pay close attention to the central leader and side branches, ensuring they remain balanced and don’t overshadow each other. Remove any water sprouts or vertical shoots that may disrupt the horizontal pattern. As the tree grows, continue to prune and train new growth, maintaining the espalier’s distinctive form.

Growing apples in small spaces can be a rewarding adventure. Visit us at Figaro’s Garden to start the urban apple orchard of your dreams!


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