Dwarf or Semi-Dwarf Fruit Trees? When Size Matters.

When starting a backyard orchard, there are many decisions to make regarding fruit type,  number of trees, amount of light, and soil composition.  But before all that, the most fundamental question that a gardener should ask is “What size tree can I fit on my property?” Is there sufficient room to grow a standard size tree or is it best to plant semi-dwarf or dwarf trees? You see, it’s all about size.  Dwarf and semi-dwarf fruit trees offer a compact alternative to standard size fruit trees.  From a practical point of view, the tree size of either makes them much easier to prune and pick, not to mention you can add more trees and more varieties to your backyard orchard. Smaller trees also mean that the use of ladders for harvesting may be eliminated completely.

apple tree dwarf apple tree red apples
Fruit trees are an investment in time, money and space. Pick wisely and watch your harvest grow year after year.

What Are Dwarf Fruit Trees? Generally speaking, the fruit trees with the smallest mature height are considered dwarf trees. Dwarf fruit trees grow 8-10 feet tall and wide. If you have limited space for your backyard orchard then dwarf trees are for you. The fruit is the same size as a standard tree, but harvesting is much simpler because of the tree size.  There is a downside to dwarf trees since this type of tree usually has a reduced root system size due to the rootstock used.  Because of this, most dwarf trees require a stake in order to support the additional weight of the fruit. These trees may require more staking in very windy areas.  Additionally, dwarf trees require more fertile soil due to their smaller root systems.

What Are Semi-Dwarf Fruit Trees? Semi-dwarf is the next-larger size in fruit trees. These trees will reach 12-15 feet tall and wide.  A considerable advantage is the average semi-dwarf fruit tree may yield almost twice as much fruit as a dwarf-sized one, without taking up much more space.  Semi-dwarf trees do not need staking since they have stronger root systems. A tree’s productive life usually lasts for 15 to 20 years.  For example, a single semi-dwarf apple tree can produce up to 500 apples in a season.  Their fruit sizes are also the same size as a standard tree.

It’s all about Root Stocks. Fruit trees are grafted to rootstocks rather than being grown from seed. This is because they are not “true-to-type” when grown from seed. What this means is that you do not get the same fruit characteristics as the parent plant due to genetic recombination.  In most cases, growing trees for example, from apple seeds is a waste of time.

For this reason, both dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are propagated using budding and grafting techniques. Grafting allows for exact clones of trees to be produced with identical fruit characteristics as the parent tree. A scion or bud from the desired tree is grafted to a rootstock.  Rootstocks serve as the root system of the tree. The selection of rootstock by the grower has a direct impact on the size of the tree at maturity as well as disease resistance. Dwarfing rootstocks typically produce trees that are about 30% to 60% of the size of standard trees while semi-dwarfing rootstocks typically produce trees that are about 60% to 90% of standard size.


When Can I expect fruit? Semi-dwarf and dwarf fruit trees reach their mature size more quickly than standard varieties. Dwarf apple trees can begin producing full crops of fruit within 2-3 years after planting, while semi-dwarf apple trees typically begin producing crops of fruit at about 4-6 years after planting.  Typically, when you are buying a fruit tree at a nursery it’s probably already about 2-years old.

Which Type Is Best? Well, it depends on your particular situation.  If you have limited growing space, then it would be best to pick the dwarf variety. The care for this tree in terms of pruning will be easier too. Dwarf trees generally reach maturity and begin producing fruit more quickly than their semi-dwarf counterparts. However, if you have the extra room then plant semi-dwarf fruit trees, they will bear more than twice the fruit of its dwarf counterpart.


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