Growing Fruit Trees in Containers

Expert advice from Stark Bro's Nurseries and Orchards

Photograph © Stark Bro's

I am a huge fan of Stark Bro's Nurseries and Orchards. According to their website, it is not only the oldest U.S. nursery still in operation, it one of the oldest businesses in the United States. Not surprisingly, given their longevity, the quality of their plants is outstanding. And to stay current, their website is not only filled with delectable and beautiful trees and shrubs, it's also filled with lots of information on how to grow and care for the trees and plants they are famous for. The following is an interview, conducted via email, with Meg Cloud, PR Manager and Elmer Kidd, Chief Production Officer.

  1. Can you put any fruit tree in a container, or do some grow better than others? - You can pot most any dwarf or semi-dwarf 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 space, growth will curtail and it needs to be moved up. We have Japanese persimmons that we’ve kept in pots for 11 years and have moved them up 4 times.
  2. Are there special requirements for growing fruit trees in containers? The main consideration with container-grown versus yard-grown is the soil type. The media (potting soil) chosen for a pot (light or heavy) can vary the amount of water needed for the tree. Otherwise, care should be, basically the same.
  3. What should people know about choosing a container for a fruit tree? Cheaper is not always better! Choose a quality pot if the tree is going to be in it for any length of time. Drain holes are necessary.
  4. Is it possible to overwinter fruit trees in cold climates? It is possible to overwinter fruit trees in cool areas. That’s one of the main reasons many people pot trees that aren’t quite zone-hardy for their area. You can store fruit trees in outbuildings, unheated garages, etc. Basically, any place where the temps don’t go below 15 degree F for modest periods of time. Before the pot is brought in, though, it should be watered thoroughly. Other than citrus and a few low-chill trees, we wouldn’t recommend bringing many outdoor plants inside because of their need for dormancy/rest period.
  1. What advice would you give for watering and fertilizing container fruit trees? Usually the media used in pots (which contains no soil) needs fertilizer because its prone to “run out of gas.” Osmocote® is a good choice as it breaks down slowly. Be sure not to over-fertilize. In hot weather, the watering needs are much greater for potted trees.
  2. What is the degree of difficulty in growing fruit trees in containers? Is this something a beginning gardener can do successfully? 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. As long as you keep in mind the extra watering needed and the possibility that the plant may need to be protected for the winter, it should be fine.
  3. What are the advantages of growing fruit trees in containers? Growing fruit trees in containers allows people in prohibitive zones the enjoyment of fruits they otherwise couldn’t grow. People in retirement homes can still harvest fresh fruit and satisfy their gardening itch. Folks without adequate yard space or suitable soil requirements can still be a fruit grower!
  1. Please tell us a little bit about your background and the Stark Brothers Company - Stark Bro’s Nurseries & Orchards Co. has been in operation since 1816. The company was started by James Hart Stark, a veteran of the U.S. Military who started his apple-orchard homestead on a plot of land in the Louisiana Purchase. 5 years later, that area became part of the State of Missouri. Now the company is located in what is known as Louisiana, Missouri.
    Stark Bro’s was a prominent, if not THE prominent, fruit tree grower well into the 1900’s. One of the Starks became Governor of Missouri in 1948. The family kept the company until 1991, when they sold Stark Bro’s to a larger mail order business. The company’s new policies and quality steadily declined, until Stark Bro’s was declared bankrupt in 2001. Just a few months after, Cameron Brown and Tim Abair bought it at auction. Cameron’s father started the Stark Bro’s Garden Center, and Stark Bro’s fruit trees had been growing on his family farm for years. His familial ties to the company made its preservation very important to him. Over the last decade, Stark Bro’s has only improved, now meeting and exceeding the standard of quality it was known for over most of the 19th and 20th centuries.