Maximize Yard Productivity. Growing Fruit Trees in Small Spaces for Year Round Harvest (PVP003)

In this episode of the Permaculture Voices Podcast I have my friend Ben Kotnik of Suburban Food Farm on the show to talk about the recent presentation that he gave to a local permaculture group, 12 Months of Fresh Fruit. 

The first part of the presentation highlights some of the varieties that can be grown in Southern California to achieve the goal of a year round fruit harvest. 

While the varieties that we talk about are specific to SoCal, the theory behind how why the varieties were selected can be applied to any location.  The second half of the presentation focuses on different techniques that can be used to grow more varieties of fruit in a given space.  And these techniques can be applied anywhere in the world.

Fruit trees are one of my favorite topics and growing a variety of fruit trees is a true passion of mine; my wife would even say that I am obsessed with planting fruit trees (and trees in general).  Even my newborn daughter just got 7 new pear trees just for being born.  🙂  Hopefully we can enjoy fruit off of those as a family for years to come.  I love the fact that I will be able to look back and tell her that I planted these trees right before you were born.   The trees will grow with her giving us experiences, stories, and fruit to share.  For me this is priceless.

I have fallen in love with fruit trees for a variety of reasons.

  1. Trees are perennials, not annuals.  So I only have to plant them once and then I just have to maintain them.  They are an investment that is made once and will provide food for decades.  In terms of permaculture this is just what we want.
  2. If I am going to water it, then I want to be able to eat it.  In California water is very expensive and precious.  So if I can add greenery, shade, and beauty to my yard, while being able to eat better than organic fruit off of it, then I am stacking functions.  I think this is an under-appreciated part of water conservation.  Could you stack more functions in an edible than an ornamental with that same amount of water?  Often times, yes, and often times a permaculture system will use a lot less water and chemicals (which is better for the ground water) than a commercial grower.
  3. Like James Brown, fruit trees have soul.  Fruit and trees are gateways to communication and they are relationship facilitators.  Each fruit tree has two stories.  The story before you bought it and the story after you bought it.  The history of some fruit varieties are fascinating going back thousands of years across the globe and involve geniuses like Luther Burbank.  These are interesting and historical and they draw people in.  They are great conversation starters and great ways get people in your community interested in growing their own food.  The new history of each particular tree is the one that touches us all.   It goes from your experience of planting the tree though the time when you either move away, or the tree or you passes on.   Often times this is so many years and covers so many experiences.  How amazing would it be to sit under a tree that you planted 50 years ago.  Two old friends, with a lot of stories.  And the tree will probably outlive you.  “Dad, or granddad planted that tree” they will say smiling and reminiscing.  The tree is your bookmark in time.  I look back at the short history of trees on my property and each one tells its own story.  Some I planted with my wife, some with my oldest daughter, and some alone in the peace of an early Saturday morning.  Yet each connects all of us in our family by just being there and being a tree.   Maybe I just plant the trees for the experiences that come along with them and not the fruit itself?  Regardless, I will keep on planting, and I hope you will too.

The theory behind year round fruit is simple; select different varieties that have different harvest seasons.  So instead of planting 5 of the same (or similar) variety of peach, select 5 varieties that have overlapping harvest seasons – meaning an early, a middle, and a late.  This strategy gives you the same amount of fruit over a longer period of time. 

Like Ben says, the needs of a backyard grower are different than a commercial grower.  Most people would rather have fruit over 2 months than getting it all in 2 weeks.  What can you do with all that fruit in such a short period of time?  You could even optimize that system of 5 trees even more by grafting all 5 varieties onto the same tree.  Now you have an extended harvest season, with the footprint of only one tree.  This means that you can now grow something else in the space that you saved.   Classic permaculture stacking functions.

For some more soul, I highly recommend that everyone watches The Man Who Planted Trees.

Actions that you can take today:

  1. Share some fruit with a friend, co-worker, or neighbor.  Or ask someone in your neighborhood if you could try some of the fruit off the tree in their front yard.  Most people will say yes and it will have a whole stream of trickle down positive effects behind it.
  2. Try some basic grafting.   Try grafting another variety onto one of your fruit trees.  You won’t kill you tree (just don’t cut yourself), you have nothing to loose.
  3. Look around your landscape.  Do you have too many of one variety?  Can you really use all of that one specific variety of fruit?  Might you be better replacing some of those trees with other varieties?
  4. Can you figure out a way to get that tree that you wanted into your space?   Maybe through a more columnar variety, grafting, choosing a dwarf rootstock, or a technique such as espalier.  I bet if you really get creative you will be able to fit that fruit variety that you have always wanted into your landscape.

Some of these topics may sounds intimidating at first, but they really aren’t that difficult when you start learning more about them.   Sure some things won’t work out, but many more will succeed.  There are people all around the world implementing strategies just like this.  There aren’t any reasons why you can’t as well.  Enjoy the adventure.  Be the change.  Get some more soul, and add some fruit into your landscape.

In this episode you will learn about:

  • A variety of 13 fruits that could be grown in Southern California giving you 12 months of free fruit.  The trees are specific to SoCal, but the theory is applicable anywhere.
  • Ben’s favorite sweet citrus varieties.
  • The beauty of the forgotten fruit, the white sapote.  And why everyone should be growing it in SoCal.
  • Why you should remove some of the fruit from a tree in the early years.
  • Techniques for growing more fruit in a space.
  • How to use dwarfing rootstocks to your advantage.
  • Why to prune and train your trees.
  • Grafting several varieties onto one tree, multi-graft trees.
  • Working with neighbors to grow more trees.

You can get the 2 page handout that we used in the podcast here: 12 Months Of Fresh Fruit – Ben Kotnik – SuburbanFoodFarm

Quotes from this episode:

  • “The most delicious fruit known to man.  Deliciousness itself.”  Mark Twain on the cherimoya.
  • “It’s much easier to keep a small tree small, than to make a big tree small.”
  • “It’s important to balance that pure let nature take its course philosophical approach with the practical side of humans managing a space.”
  • “If you think you don’t have room for another tree, you do.  There is always more room, just get creative.”
Ben Kotnik (left) of Suburban Food Farm

Ben Kotnik (left) of Suburban Food Farm


Flying Dragon Citrus Tree

Flying Dragon Citrus Tree

Flying Dragon Citrus - Close Up

Flying Dragon Citrus – Close Up


More great books on growing fruit:

All About Citrus and Subtropical Fruits (Ortho’s All About Gardening) published by Ortho

Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set) by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier

The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips


Some videos on some of the people and topics mentioned in the podcast:

Ben’s various videos from the San Diego Reader article.

Tom del Hotal on fruit tree pruning.

Julie Frink on avocados.


A variety of great resources on growing fruit in Southern California and beyond. 

Information provided by the San Diego Chapter of CRFG:  Pruning, drought tolerant fruit trees, plant propagation, and more.

John Verdik’s Figs 4 Fun

Made in San Diego, Yard to Table – Growing Rare Fruits in San Diego – San Diego Reader

California Rare Fruit GrowersNorth County San Diego Chapter  & San Diego Chapter


Connect with Ben:

Ben Kotnik’s Suburban Food Farm also on Facebook.

Suburban Food Farm

To contact Ben with fruit, soils, or design questions you can reach him directly via (6 1 9) 9 9 7 – 7 4 4 0 or bkotnik[at]


Ben Kotnik


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Comments 3

  1. Hi DIego-
    Appreciate the great things you are doing great things for the planet via this site and the conference.

    Gotta say your opening comments made me say, ‘Huh?’. Don’t claim to be an expert, but isn’t premaculture – or eco-farming, regraianism, restoration agriculture, or whatever you want to call it – about putting systems together that mimic eco-systems? Not ‘this OR that’ but ‘this AND that’. Swales, properly designed and installed of course, support the food forest – and fruit trees.

    Most associated with desert and dryland, in a relatively high-rainfall, humid area Mark Shepard (author of Resoration Agriculture) noted a significant difference on his farm between the trees he planted along swales and those not along swales. He said he wished he had swaled all the area where trees were planned, the difference was that significant. I hear people ask if swales (or keyline) techniques are worth doing outside of desert or seasonally dry grasslands and similar areas, so I found his results especially interesting.

    Best to you!

  2. Here’s a little “secret” that society, and that includes many permaculturists, don’t realize that fruit can be a “staple food”, especially tasty year-round tropicals like mentioned here. As you know grains aren’t even our natural food, and nutritionally fruit is pretty similar to potatoes, with higher water content, and a hell of a lot tastier and easier to eat. Many permaculturalists miss this right in front of their noses when trying to figure out how to grow staple food tree crops.

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