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The truth about dwarves.

Jim Boxberger - Correspondent
Posted 3/12/21

Now I'm not talking about the dwarves that hung out with Snow White in those Disney movies or even the garden gnomes that sprinkle the landscape come springtime. Not to mention the elves that dance …

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The truth about dwarves.


Now I'm not talking about the dwarves that hung out with Snow White in those Disney movies or even the garden gnomes that sprinkle the landscape come springtime. Not to mention the elves that dance around in both Icelandic and German mythologies. The dwarves that I am talking about are dwarf fruit trees.

As the days get warmer and longer, customers are already coming in looking for fruit trees, even though we still have one to two feet of snow in our garden center. So even though we don't have fruit trees in yet, it is always a good time to plan for when we do and the question always comes up which fruit tree is better to get, dwarf or standard and what makes a dwarf, dwarf.

First off, as far as the fruit is concerned there is no difference between dwarf or standard trees except for the fact that standard trees get larger and will produce more fruit because of that fact. If you took a seed from an apple grown from a dwarf tree and planted it, you would get a standard size apple tree, not a dwarf tree.

One hundred years ago, we didn't have dwarf trees, so you had to have a fairly big yard to have a couple as a standard apple tree would get between twenty to twenty-five feet tall and fifteen to twenty feet around. Dwarf trees didn't come around until roughly seventy years ago and weren't truly available to the retail market until the early 1970's.

The reason for this is that dwarf trees are made by grafting the desired apple tree top to a special rootstock that will only allow the tree to grow to a certain size. Unlike bonzai, a technique for growing miniature plants by training and root confinement to small pots, dwarf trees don't have pots to confine the roots, so you need the roots to do all the work themselves.

A tree will only grow to the size of the roots that support it. You can't build a skyscraper on a foundation for a garage. Researchers found that trees that were growing on rock ledges and cliffs grew to a much smaller size because their roots could not grow to the usual size, similar to the technique used in bonzai.

Through trial and error over the years, horticulturists found just the right rootstocks to provide the desired results for dwarf trees. Over the years with the advances in plant knowledge, the rootstock used for different types of trees has been standardized and now we have three categories of fruit trees.

The traditional standard variety, dwarf trees running between ten to fourteen feet high and now semi-dwarf trees, running fifteen to twenty feet high. Back in the early 1980's when I first started working in a garden center, we had mostly standard trees with a few dwarf varieties sprinkled in as the availability at that time was still not widespread.

By the late 1990's, however, we carried more dwarf varieties than standards. Then came along the semi-dwarves which made a happy medium so that we didn't have to carry two sizes of almost every type of apple, pear and cherry. Today most of the varieties we carry are all semi-dwarf and for good reason.

If you have a dwarf apple that only gets to ten feet tall and the deer eat the bottom seven feet, that doesn't leave very many apples for you. So with a semi-dwarf tree that gets to eighteen feet tall, the deer still get the bottom seven feet, but that still leaves eleven feet for you and you only need to get a step ladder to harvest. With the traditional standard variety you would need a much bigger ladder to harvest your bounty or wait until they fall.

Now you know how dwarf trees are made and when you stop in this spring, I can show you the graft mark on each of our fruit trees where the tops meet the bottoms and where all goodness grows.


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