Many gardeners would like to grow or at least try to grow a ‘fruit tree’ but feel they lack the space. The answer to those who feel that their gardens or backyard is lacking is by growing fruit trees in containers.

Rootstock Selection

Some fruit trees that are labelled ‘patio-sized’ are dwarfing rootstocks (apple M27 is an example). These are not a good choice for growing fruit trees in containers because they are already on a ‘dwarfing’ rootstock and putting them in pots will restrict things further and certainly increase plant stress levels. Choose a more vigorous, resilient rootstock, like M26 or MM106. These will give you a bigger tree and more fruit.

Size of Container

If you intend to plant a tree in a container for an extended period, it’s advisable to select or create the largest container possible. A pot with a depth and diameter of at least 2ft (60cm) is recommended, while a container measuring 3ft 6in x 3ft 6in (1m x 1m) is considered ideal for larger rootstocks. Repurposed 25l drums from the catering and construction industry, as well as old brewing barrels, can serve as excellent containers, although the latter may be costly.

To control the vigour of larger trees, pruning the roots every other year and replacing 30% of the compost is recommended. These trees may require more substantial pruning than those on smaller rootstocks but can yield a better crop if properly nourished and watered. Adequate drainage is crucial for container growing, and elevating the pot off the ground using slats or legs can facilitate drainage through gravity.

Growing Medium

John Innes No. 3 is a good compost for container-grown fruit trees. It is high in nutrients and water retention. You can mix in some homemade compost, well-rotted manure, or garden soil. Shredded cardboard and used teabags can also help to retain water.

Mulch

Mulch is essential for successful container-grown fruit trees. It helps to retain water, suppress weeds, regulate soil temperature, and add nutrients to the soil. Wood chips from deciduous trees are a great choice. Homemade compost can also be used, but be prepared to weed. Leaf mould is another good option for mulch.

Feeding and Watering

Fruit trees need to be fed regularly during their fruiting season, approximately every 14 days. A liquid feed that is high in potassium is best. Tomato feed and comfrey tea are both good options. Seaweed feed is another source of potassium. Organic chicken pellets can be used for fertiliser and are a good source of nitrogen, plums in particular need more than most other fruit trees.

Water is the most important nutrient for fruit trees, they need to be watered frequently, to avoid during out, especially during the summer months.

Mycorrhizas

Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial to fruit trees. They help the trees to absorb nutrients and water from the soil. They also protect the trees from disease. Innoculate your fruit trees with mycorrhizal fungi inoculant before planting. This can be done by simply ‘sprinkling’ the inoculant onto the ‘root ball’ when planting.

Positioning

Most fruiting trees thrive in direct sunlight, but it’s advisable to position the container so that it’s not exposed to sunlight all day to prevent evaporation and maintain cooler roots. Providing shading or partial shading by placing the container behind other pots, raised beds, or low walls can help achieve this. Species such as apricots, nectarines, and peaches benefit from proximity to microclimates offered by whitewashed walls in warmer climates.

Sheltered spots experience less damage to blossoms and are advantageous for trees. Windy areas can pose a risk, as the tree and pot may be blown over when the tree is in full leaf. It’s important to secure the container in case of strong winds. Additionally, positioning containers close to vertical surfaces like walls can reduce exposure to rainfall.

Some delicate species may need to be brought indoors during winter, while hardy species like plants and apples require a certain number of ‘chill hours’ during winter for fruit bud production. Certain species and varieties require less sunlight, with cooking fruit, in general, needing less sunlight and being suitable for shadier locations, requiring less watering.

Varieties such as Morello cherries, Czar plums, and medlars can thrive and produce fruit in shaded environments.

Varieties For Containers

Choose slow-growing, less vigorous varieties of fruit trees for container growing. The Orange Pippin website recommends the following varieties of apple: Adam’s Pearmain, Egremont Russet, Herefordshire Russet, Limelight, Red Windsor, Sunset, Greensleeves, Garden Lady (peach), and Nectarella (nectarine).

Regular Repotting

As fruit trees grow, their root systems expand, and they become increasingly root-bound in their pots. This can lead to several problems, including reduced growth, poor fruit production, and increased susceptibility to disease.

To prevent these problems, it is important to re-pot fruit trees every few years. This allows the roots to spread out and access more oxygen and nutrients. The best time to repot is in the spring or autumn when the tree is not actively growing.

When repotting, choose a container about 2-3in (50-75mm) larger than the current pot. Fill the new pot with fresh soil, and gently tease the tree’s roots apart to encourage them to spread out. Water the tree well after repotting.

Pots Sizes

Here is a table summarising the recommended starting pot sizes for different rootstocks:

RootstockRecommended Pot Size
M2716in x 16in (40cm x 40cm)
M262ft x 2ft (60cm x 60cm)
MM1062ft 6in x 2ft 6in (75cm x75cm)

FAQ’s

What Are The Biggest Challenges Of Growing Fruit Trees In Containers?

Limited space and root restriction: Container size limits root growth, impacting nutrient and water uptake. Repotting regularly is essential to prevent rootbound trees.
Water management: Frequent watering is crucial due to faster drying in pots. Inconsistent watering can lead to stress and fruit drop.
Wind and tipping: Top-heavy trees can be vulnerable to wind in pots. Choose a sheltered location and secure large pots.
Overwintering: Some species require specific cold temperatures during winter for proper bud development. Consider bringing delicate trees indoors or providing protection.

How Can I Attract Pollinators To My Container-Grown Fruit Trees?

Plant flowering companions: Attract bees and other pollinators with vibrant blooms near your fruit trees like lavender, rosemary, or borage.
Avoid pesticides: These can harm beneficial insects. Use natural methods like neem oil or insecticidal soap for pest control.
Provide water sources: Shallow dishes filled with water and pebbles offer a vital resource for thirsty pollinators.
Choose diverse varieties: Interplanting different types of fruit trees with staggered bloom times can extend the pollination season.

Can I Grow Multiple Fruit Trees In The Same Container?

Interplanting: Planting dwarf varieties of different fruits with compatible pollination needs can work in larger pots. Ensure adequate spacing and individual watering requirements are met.
Grafting: Grafting multiple fruit varieties onto a single rootstock is a space-saving option, but requires skill and specialised techniques.

Conclusion

Growing fruit trees in containers can be a rewarding and practical option for individuals with limited space or poor soil conditions. By selecting the right type of tree, providing adequate care, and ensuring proper drainage, it is possible to enjoy a bountiful harvest of fresh fruit from container-grown trees.

Additionally, regular monitoring and maintenance are essential to promote healthy growth and maximise fruit production. With careful attention to the specific needs of each tree, container gardening can offer a convenient and fruitful way to cultivate a variety of delicious fruits.