Backyard Orchard Culture vs Commercial Orchards

Growing fruit trees in your backyard as a home owner, commonly known as backyard orchard culture, has come a long way over the last decade.

For many years, the research about how best to grow fruit trees catered primarily to commercial growers.

This of course made a lot of sense early on because the commercial market is where the money is and where investments in research are more likely to pay off quickly.

However, as we will see next, backyard orchard culture has a different set of goals and these have to be taken into account in order to succeed.

How Do Commercial Orchards Help Home Growers?

Photo: Matthew Rumph

Horticultural research can take years to complete and the approach is not unlike scientific research in other disciplines. It includes both basic and applied sciences, and it may happen at educational institutions or through corporate ventures.

Many good things have come out of this, not just in terms of general knowledge but also improvements in horticultural practices as well as the development of new root stocks and cultivars of fruit trees that can better adapt to different soil types and climates.

What’s Bad About Using Commercial Methods for Backyard Orchard Culture?

On the flip side, this wealth of information has not always served the needs of home growers. Indeed, some of the best practices in commercial orchard culture are wholly inappropriate and run counter to what is needed for successful orchard culture by home growers. The latter has come to be popularized under the common moniker of backyard orchard culture.

This comes with a fundamental recognition that growing practices and selection of cultivars should be aligned with the goals of the particular grower.

As a home grower, you can still take advantage of a lot of what the commercial sector has to offer but you can be selective and adopt practices that would work well for you even when they are shunned by commercial growers.

Photo: Mitchell Orr

What Are the Differences Between Commercial Cultivation and Backyard Orchard Culture?

Low Density Planting vs. High Density Planting

If you visit a commercial orchard, you will immediately notice that the trees are typically grown in rows.

Within each row, there’s quite a bit of space between the trees in order to give them room to grow and extend their canopies to their full potential.

But the spacing is even bigger in between the rows. And that is happening in order to allow heavy machinery and trucks to pass through.

Needless to say, there’s no need for you to space trees that far apart as a home grower. You do not need to space your trees 10 to 20 ft apart.

You can plant many more trees in close proximity to each other. In fact, a common suggestion in backyard orchard culture is that you can even plant 2-3 fruit trees right next to each other or even in the same hole.

In that case, the closer you plant them, you will just need to make sure none of the rootstocks grow more quickly and outcompete the other ones. This conundrum can be resolved by planting different varieties of a fruit with identical or similar root stocks.

Obviously, as you might expect, high density planting can result in smaller trees because the same soil is left to sustain multiple trees. But is that really a disadvantage?

Large Size vs. Compact Size

It’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of home owners have to contend with much less space to grow than commercial growers.

However, it’s not just that home growers have limited space. Even if they wanted to, there would just be no need for all that extra space absent the heavy machinery used in commercial orchard culture.

And as we saw, with high density planting, the trees will be less likely to reach comparable sizes as in commercial orchard culture.

The more compact size of fruit trees is preferred in backyard orchard culture. Home growers can even take it one step further and select cultivars that are naturally smaller.

High Yield vs. Low Yield

In the commercial sector, there is a major focus on high productivity and how much fruit the trees in the orchard are able to yield at once in a season.

This is why big trees are preferred commercially. It does not take that much more labor or machinery to harvest a large tree instead of a moderate sized tree. That’s not the case with backyard orchard culture.

If you are a home grower, who is growing primarily fruits for your family, then productivity is relatively less important. You may even appreciate the fact that you don’t have to spend your time and energy picking hundreds of pounds of a single type of fruit. Sure you will have enough to share with friends, neighbors and co-workers but for many of us it can get quickly overwhelming.

Simultaneous Ripening vs. Successive Ripening

This leads to another difference between the commercial sector and backyard orchard culture. From a commercial perspective, as mentioned earlier, you are far better off when you can harvest a large amount of fruit all at once. This is why commercial growers are interested in rapid, simultaneous ripening.

In backyard orchard culture, on the other hand, you benefit from successive ripening. By planting different varieties of a fruit that ripen at different times of the year, you can continue to have a supply available to you over several months (as in the case of apples and peaches) and possibly even throughout the year depending on the type of fruit (for example avocados and citrus).

Aesthetics vs. Taste

As alluded to earlier, you can also be more selective in other ways. If you have ever picked fruit trees from your own backyard, you have probably noticed they are not always free of blemishes. Maybe there’s a small bruise or the color is not what you are used to seeing at the grocery store.

That’s not a big deal for home growers because we are focused very much on taste. However, aesthetics is extremely important to commercial growers because it’s connected to marketability. A fruit that does not look good, or worse looks blemished, will not be presentable and shoppers will stay clear of it. Obviously, the stores know this and the growers know this. This is unfortunate because it also causes growers to focus more on developing and growing cultivars that are less likely to have such problems, even when it comes at the expense of taste.

As a home grower, on the other hand, you do not have to make this type of compromise. You can focus on selecting taste winners in your orchard even when they are not successful otherwise commercially.

Shelf Life vs. Initial Quality

Similarly, marketability is also closely connected to shelf life. Again, growers want to make sure the fruits they bring to the market survive the transport and can be kept on store shelves for an extended period.

For a home grower, this is not a main concern. You are more likely to eat your fruits soon after harvesting them. It’s the initial quality of the fruit that is more important to you in backyard orchard culture.

What Does the Future Hold for Backyard Orchard Culture?

No doubt about it, backyard orchard culture is here to stay. If anything, the growing popularity of home gardening has given it a boost. Companies that cater to the retail trade, that is nurseries for backyard home growers, also have a strong profit motive to support this trend.

Increasingly, many homeowners are becoming more familiar with backyard orchard culture and even lending their own support to making it more popular. As home growers exchange ideas and experiment with different cultivars, some from distant locales, they are making new discoveries and contributing to the refinement of this field.

There is a lot to look forward to!

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