Try These Special Trees for Fruit in Small Spaces

Welcome to the world of cordon growing, where trees and shrubs are pruned into space-saving columns.

Harvest of red apples on a columnar apple tree in an orchard
Olga Evtushkova / Getty Images

We can employ many tricks to grow more fruit in less space. One key strategy that is very useful to understand is growing fruits as cordons in small spaces.

Though each cordon fruit tree and fruiting shrub will not typically bear as much fruit as varieties allowed to grow more naturally in your garden, since you can fit far more of them in a given space, yields can be higher overall when this approach is used.

What is Cordon Growing?

Metal pergola garden archway tunnel, espalier apple trees, grape vines
A garden archway tunnel with cordon apple and pear trees, with fruiting grape vines. mtreasure / Getty Images

A cordon plant is a plant trained and pruned to have a single main stem or trunk with only short fruit-bearing spurs to either side. They, therefore, take an upright or columnar form and are typically trained to grow on supports of some kind.

Cordons can be grown vertically, on a 45-degree angle, or even sometimes horizontally along supports close to the ground. Two vertical cordons can also be placed to grow over an archway support form to create arches or tunnels.

Which Fruits Can Be Grown as Cordons

Bushes of tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.
Natallia Dzenisenka / Getty Images

Many fruits can be grown in this way. This includes fruits grown as annuals, like tomatoes.

Vining tomatoes are commonly grown as cordons, trained to grow upwards with one main stem, with side shoots removed to discourage a more branching form.

It also includes many perennial fruiting trees and shrubs. Apples, pears, plums, cherries, currants, gooseberries, and more can all be trained as cordons and pruned to maintain this form.

If you are interested in cordon-growing fruits, then it is possible to purchase pre-trained trees or shrubs, which is an easier option than training one to this form on your own. However, you can also purchase a one-year-old tree, called a maiden, and undertake the training for yourself, which is a cheaper option.

Apples on a branch in the garden. Grow fruits on a farm. Columnar apple variety.
A.Greeg / Getty Images

When choosing a fruit tree to grow as a cordon, you need to make sure that it has a suitable rootstock and scion.

Apples, pears, plums, and other common fruit trees are sold as grafted trees, with a rootstock at the bottom joined to a scion at the top. You need to think about both of these and make sure that they are suited to cordon growing.

The rootstock for a cordon must be dwarfing or semi-dwarfing so that it is not too vigorous in its growth.

The scion should ideally be a spur-bearing type. And you must also make sure that a tree is self-fertile if you wish to grow it on its own—or that your selection has a suitable pollination partner among the other trees you have decided to grow. 

Cordon Training and Pruning Fruits

Apple cordons growing on a garden wall
Apple cordons growing on a garden wall.

mtreasure / Getty Images

One of the most important considerations when cordon fruits will be chosen for a garden is how you will provide those plants with the support that they require.

Traditionally, many cordon fruits are trained onto support systems with three or so horizontal wires strung between posts or affixed to a wall or fence.

But many other supports are possible, including a wide range of trellises or even strong tree stakes for individual upright fruit tree cordons. You might also train cordons against a structure such as a polytunnel or greenhouse frame, pergola, or gazebo, for example.

Note that while cordons are typically easiest to grow when their roots are in the soil in a garden, many can also be grown in pots. To support smaller cordons in pots, a small trellis or bamboo canes will often be sufficient for support.

When planting out cordons, they can be spaced as close as around 20 to 30 inches apart. The precise spacing will, of course, depend on the plants in question and whether they are perennial or are treated as annuals in your garden. It will also depend on the specific setup and location.

Most cordon-grown fruits will need to be pruned annually. But the precise method and timing depend on the specific species and variety.

In general, however, the idea is to focus growth within a narrow area and define and curtail the growth of the plant, and encourage abundant fruiting and healthy growth.