What Is a Dwarf Plant?

Growing a fruit tree in your yard doesn't demand sacrificing space for a patio or play area. Many dwarf fruit trees require only an 8-foot-diameter space – and some thrive in even less, fitting in a pot on a patio.

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Benefits of dwarf fruit trees include:

  • Full-size fruit on a smaller tree
  • Easier to harvest and protect from pests than standard (full-size) trees
  • Often yield more fruit per area
  • Seasonal interest – flowers, ripening fruit, possibly fall color
  • Bear crops 1-3 years earlier than standard trees


Creating A Dwarf Tree

Dwarf trees are the result of grafting – merging two (or more) trees to create a living, fruit-bearing combination. Grafting doesn't yield a genetically modified organism; it's purely a horticultural technique. Here are the components.

Rootstock: This is the lower portion of a dwarf tree – the roots.

Rootstocks control tree height and are also chosen for qualities like winter hardiness, drought tolerance, disease resistance and soil adaptations. Some rootstocks work for specific fruits or varieties, but not for others. Quince rootstock is used to create dwarf pears, but doesn't work well with Bartlett pears. Height control varies across fruits.

If you tell a specialist fruit tree nursery that you deal with a particular growing condition, he or she may recommend buying a dwarf tree on a specific rootstock.

Scion Wood: This is the upper, visible part of the tree.

This is the part that's responsible for fruit type and quality. The scion, or fruit-bearing portion, is attached (grafted) to the interstem or rootstock.

Interstem: This is an in-between piece.

An interstem is a piece of stem that's grafted between a rootstock and scion wood. The interstem is a dwarfing stem – it reduces tree size.


Types Of Dwarf Trees

When you purchase dwarf fruit trees from a nursery, they may be called dwarf trees or miniatures. There are actually three types of grafted trees: genetic dwarfs, dwarf interstem trees and dwarf trees. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Use our checklist to help determine which is right for you.

Genetic Dwarf

  • Often sold as miniature trees
  • Don't need staking
  • Standard (full-size tree) root system grafted to scion wood that contains a dwarfing gene
  • Ideal for growing in containers
  • Root-prune every 3-4 years
  • Commonly available miniature trees: Almond, Apple, Apricot, Cherry, Nectarine, Peach

Dwarf Interstem

  • Don't need staking
  • Endure mild neglect
  • More costly, because there are two grafts, done one year apart, so the nursery has to grow the tree longer before selling
  • Make sure you ask how deeply to bury this tree
  • Commonly available interstem trees: Apple, Pear

Dwarf Trees

  • Typically need staking
  • Won't tolerate weed competition or neglect
  • Need fruit thinned to avoid overloaded branches
  • Tree height varies by tree type
  • Commonly available dwarf trees: Apple, Apricot, Cherry, Citrus, Fig, Nectarine, Olive, Peach, Pear, Plum, Quince


Tips On Buying Dwarf Trees

Keep these tips in mind when considering buying dwarf fruit trees.

  • In cold regions, if you'll be growing the tree in a pot, choose a tree hardy to two zones colder than your zone.
  • Consider end use. Dwarf trees grow enough fruit for fresh eating, but you're not likely to have enough fruit for both fresh eating and canning or freezing.


Custom Dwarf Trees

When dealing with a fruit tree nursery, you can often request a specific variety be grafted as a dwarf tree. This is most commonly practiced with apple trees. The nursery chooses the rootstock that is ideal for your growing conditions and grafts the specific variety you want onto it.

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