Colby Eierman manages one of the most exquisite farms in Sonoma County.
The organic gardens he oversees at Sonoma's Stone Edge Farm are painted with colorful heirloom fruits and marigolds and artfully laid out among stone walls and wild-willow trellises — an idealized vision of the growing life that would make even Martha Stewart swoon.
But most people aren't blessed, as Stone Edge owners Mac and Leslie McQuown are, with the fertile acreage to support allees of pear trees and groves of silver-leafed Manzanillo olive trees alongside their vineyards.
Most folks, like Eierman, live on smaller parcels, in suburban neighborhoods or on urban lots. But Eierman, who grew up in Sonoma County and now lives on a quarter-acre lot in Napa, says you don't need a lot of land to have your own orchard. A backyard will do.
Careful selection of drawf and semi-dwarf varieties, proper planting and good pruning can enable anyone to grow fruit trees, even if all you can manage is a dwarf lemon tree in a pot or an espaliered apple tree in a container.
"If you're going to plant something, why not have it be something you can eat?" said Eierman, a proponent of edible landscapes and the author of a new book, "Fruit Trees in Small Spaces: Abundant Harvest from Your Own Backyard" (Timber Press).
Eierman first became enamored with vegetable gardening growing up in Sonoma County. But it wasn't until he was at the University of Oregon studying landscape architecture and got involved in an urban garden that he planted his first fruit trees and started incorporating them into his designs.
"Planting a fruit tree," he wrote, "feels optimistic and kind."
Eierman later served as director of sustainable agriculture for Benziger Family Winery and director of gardens for the former COPIA Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa.
"I see the book and the whole topic as definitely part of the broader edible-landscaping and garden-to-table and local-food concepts. It isn't just about fruit. It's about growing more of what we eat much closer to home," he said.
Before planting anything, Eierman counsels backyard growers to think carefully about what they really enjoy eating and plant that.
"You're going to be more motivated to go out and do the work to take care of them," he said, and the harvest won't rot and go unpicked.
For a smaller space, choose dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. While some semi-dwarf fruit trees are genetically dwarfed, most of those you'll find in garden centers have been grafted onto a size-controlled rootstock. Semi-dwarf trees will grow to about half the size of their standard counterparts, about 10 to 20 feet.
"I think there's a place for dwarf trees, but the semi-dwarf root stocks tend to be stronger," he said. "You're going to have a longer-lived tree and a root system that is more robust and better able to resist drought."
For really small spaces like patios and decks, you may need a dwarf. With either, the fruit will be normal size, but the yield will be less than a standard tree. The smaller size doesn't just takes up less space, but also makes pruning and harvesting more manageable.
Eierman warns gardeners to choose varieties that are resistant to disease, like apples that will be less prone to blight and peaches that are bred to resist peach-leaf curl. You don't want to be struggling with sprays.