6 Tips for Growing Fruit Trees in Containers

Plastic pots containing mixed apple and pear cordons, September

  Claire Higgins/Getty Images

Growing fruit trees in containers is surprisingly easy, and there are some decided advantages. A small fruit tree in a container can be moved around to take advantage of different sun and shade patterns on a patio, deck, or courtyard. And if your garden soil is not ideal, filling a large container with a precisely formulated growing medium can make it possible to grow plants that would otherwise languish. Finally, growing in pots can make it possible to grow certain species that are borderline hardy in your region. Be aware, however, that potted fruit trees usually bear a lesser quantity of fruit than do garden trees, although the fruit may be ready for harvest earlier.

There is a learning curve to everything, but it really isn’t any more difficult to grow trees in containers than it is to grow them in the ground, provided you follow some simple guidelines.

Choose Dwarf or Semi-Dwarf Specimens

Most full-sized varieties of fruit trees will be challenging to grow in pots if it is possible at all. But you can pot almost most any dwarf or semi-dwarf variety of fruit tree, so long as you keep moving it up to larger pots over the course of its life. Once a fruit tree exhausts its pot space, its growth and fruit productions will slow drastically unless it is moved up to a larger pot.

The best fruit tree varieties for pots include:

  • Apples: Apples grafted onto dwarf rootstocks are quite suitable for pots. If you grow only one plant, make sure to choose a self-fertile variety in which several varieties are grafted onto the same rootstock.
  • Cherries are grown as much for their spring blossoms as their summer fruit. Sweet varieties of cherry need lots of sun, while the sour varieties are more tolerant of shade. Cherries have shallow roots so they require good attention to watering, while sour varieties tolerate more shade. They are shallow rooted, so water cherries well in their first year and in any dry spells. A good sweet variety is 'Gisela 5;' a recommended sour cherry is 'Colt.'
  • Peaches and nectarines: Dwarf varieties of peaches and nectarines are excellent for pots since it is easy to protect the sensitive flowers from cold spells. They should be repotted every two years. 'St. Julien A,' 'Pixy,' and 'Bonanza' are good varieties to try.
  • Plums: This is another tree fruit that can be moved around or covered to protect the tender early blossoms. Plums need good drainage, so add sand or perlite to the potting soil. If you have room for only one plant, make sure to choose a self-fertile variety. A good dwarf variety is 'Pixy.'
  • Raspberries: There are both summer- and autumn-bearing varieties of this cane fruit that can be grown in pots. Although not a tree, raspberries form very long canes that provide a shrubby look when grown in pots. Summer-fruiting varieties are less bushy, which can be helpful in small spaces since the canes are prickly. Good varieties include 'Glen Ample' and 'Glen Moy.'

Choose the Right Type of Soil

The main consideration with container-grown fruit trees is the soil type. The growing medium (potting soil) chosen for a pot can change the amount of water needed for the tree, but in general, any good quality commercial potting soil will work fine. You can also make your own excellent potting soil by mixing up 1 part sand, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part perlite or vermiculite. Otherwise, care for a potted fruit tree should be basically the same as for a tree grown in the garden.

Use Quality Pots

Cheaper is not always better. Choose a quality pot if the tree is going to be in it for any length of time. Avoid cheap plastic pots, which can become faded and dull within a year or two. Drainage holes are necessary. In general, it is best to start fruit trees in pots that are at least 10 to 16 inches in diameter. Glazed ceramic pots or good quality polyurethane are good choices.

Potted Fruit Trees Can Often Be Overwintered

It is possible to overwinter fruit trees in many cool areas of the country. In fact, that's one of the main reasons many people grow fruit tree in pots—because they aren’t fully zone-hardy for a particular climate You can store fruit trees for the winter in outbuildings, unheated garages, etc,—basically, any place where the temps don’t go below 15 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods of time. Before the potted is moved to shelter, though, it should be watered thoroughly.

Except for citrus trees, it is best not to bring most fruit trees into fully heated indoor spaces for the winter, since most require a period of winter dormancy.

Feed and Water Correctly

Usually, the growing media used in pots (which contains no actual soil) needs fertilizer because it is prone to “run out of gas" as the tree consumes nutrients. Regular use of a good time-release fertilizer will keep your fruit tree healthy and vital. Osmocote® is a good choice, as it releases nutrients gradually over a period of months. Be sure not to over-fertilize, and make sure to follow label directions exactly. The best fertilizers for fruit trees are high in nitrogen and include a broad selection of trace minerals.

In hot weather, the water needs are much greater for potted trees; and when watering heavily and often, you may need to fertilize more frequently because nutrients are washed out of the potting medium. In general, potted plants of all types require more frequent watering since the soil dries faster in an exposed container. Also, certain types of containers, such as clay or terra-cotta pots, are porous enough to cause the soil to dry out sooner. The general test for soil moisture is to stick a finger into the soil up the second knuckle; if the soil is dry to that depth, water the plant thoroughly. The potting medium should be moist but never soggy.

Buy from Reputable Sellers

Buying your fruit tree from a well-established seller with a long track record can greatly improve your chances for success. One such seller is Stark Bros Nursery and Orchards Co., of Missouri. Started by James Hart Stark in 1816 on a plot of land deep in the Louisiana Purchase Territory, Stark Bros. was one of the most prominent fruit tree growers well into the 1900s. It is the oldest mail-order fruit tree seller in the U.S.