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Growing Fruit Trees in Containers, Part 1

by Stark Bro's on 12/05/2012
Persimmon Tree in a Container

Getting Started

With the Grow Your Own movement rooting itself in our everyday lives, people everywhere are enhancing their yards (and their diets) by  growing their own fruit. Some are lucky enough to have a large enough area to plant their own orchard, but others who don’t have as much room might feel like they don’t have a lot of options. Not true! If you’re renting an apartment, have limited or no space, or just want something for your patio, you should try growing your fruit trees in containers. In this article, which is part one of a two-part series, we focus on what you need to know to get started with this fun and surprisingly easy process.

Choosing the Right Container

Most people choose to grow fruit trees in containers for easy mobility. For this purpose, the ideal container size is about 10-15 gallons — substantial enough to support a tree, but small enough to move easily (see photo at right). This size is perfect if you’re growing in a window or on a balcony or patio, so you can bring the tree indoors for protection when the weather starts getting too cold. It also comes in handy if you need to relocate your tree to an unheated garage, shed, or basement during winter.

And containers are perfect for growing warm-weather varieties, like citrus trees, banana plants, or fig trees, in areas where the climates are cooler than where the trees would grow naturally.

Start small, with a 5- or 7-gallon container. As the tree grows within its container, it will eventually become root-bound. Before this happens, you can re-pot it into a larger container. You will be able to tell that your tree has become root-bound to its current container by its lack of vertical growth. It will still produce leaves and even fruit at this point, but you might want to start looking for something bigger to support continual growth and increased production.

No matter what size you choose, your tree won’t grow for very long if it doesn’t have adequate drainage. Make sure the container you use has holes (usually in the bottom and/or sides), so that any excess water can drain, and air can access the soil. This will help you to prevent potentially fatal diseases like root rot.

Planting in Containers

It is important to choose the right soil. Potting soil is best, since it is specially designed for container planting, and it is easy to find at your local garden supply store. You should avoid using top soil, since it is prone to becoming compacted. Compacted soil creates issues like causing water to run down the inside edges of the container and out the bottom, barely reaching the tree’s roots.

When you are ready to fill your container, you should first add a layer of gravel or rock to the bottom of your container to help with drainage. Then, add some of your soil mix for the roots to rest on, and place your tree in the center of the pot so that it is vertical and straight. After that, add the rest of your soil until the tree is properly situated in the container. Make sure to tamp the soil down around the roots in order to remove any air pockets, just like you would if you were planting your tree in the ground. Give it a thorough watering, and you’re set!

Be sure to check out part two of our series on growing fruit trees in containers, which will focus on the care and maintenance of potted trees.

Follow the link for an interview with Stark Bro’s and more helpful advice on growing fruit trees in containers from About.com.

Topics → Planting & Growing, Tips

41 Comments

  1. Genelle Brown permalink

    I just want to compliment you on your expansion into helpful articles. I get thousands of sales emails a week that are deleted before they’re opened – not yours! Your content is so valuable that I truly look forward to receiving them and take the time to read every word. Same goes for your website, exceptional service and friendly, helpful employees. Interesting how most companies miss the boat and so few completely “get it.” You certainly “get it!”

    Thanks so much!
    Genelle

    • Thank YOU for the compliment, Genelle. We receive lots of great questions and feedback from our followers and customers so, without people like you, we would have a difficult time creating articles that are helpful. :)

  2. Rudie Verougstraete permalink

    Love the idea of fruit trees in containers! I know in my yard, the amount of sun changes throughout the day so I could move them to maximize exposure to sunlight. I had this thought concerning the containers. To avoid plants becoming root bound, planting fruit trees in GeoPots (larger sizes) might be the way to go. I just found out about them recently…they are pots made of a porous fabric that holds soil in but the sides of the pots “breath” which air prunes the tips of the roots as they reach the edge of the container, so that the roots grow more “feeder” roots that take up more nutrients. This fabric also allows for better drainage, and because it allows more exposure to air, it keeps roots cooler than regular containers. I’m going to transplant my small fig bush into one next year and see what difference it makes.

    • Hi Rudie! I’ve heard of those GeoPots and I’ve been curious how well they do for long-term container growing situations. Or, I wonder, if you need to replace them after a certain amount of time. Definitely keep us posted on your experience growing your fig in one! :)

  3. Reege Ellis permalink

    That is interesting Sarah. What zone are you in? Could you tell me where I could find or how to tell which citrus trees would be the best for me to try again? I like citrus so am definitely willing to try again!

    • Oddly enough, I was born and raised in South Florida but didn’t try to grow any citrus until I moved here to Louisiana, MO — zone 5b/6a, similar to you there! I know the Meyer Lemon tree is a hardy lemon, and the best part is that it doesn’t have thorns (most citrus has thorns, which is why I went with this lemon). I would say to try any of the dwarf citrus trees we carry [find them here: http://www.starkbros.com/tags/dwarf-citrus-trees ] — they are currently unavailable since we won’t have them ready to ship until about early April, but you can request to be notified by email when they are able to be purchased. If I had to choose one to suggest starting with, try the Meyer Lemon tree. :) I’ve never had a better fresh-squeezed lemonade than one made with these lemons.

      I will share with you some advice I learned through experience: If your tree is stressed, it will not be encouraged to set fruit. It is very easy to stress your container-grown citrus trees by over watering them. Even though their natural tropical environment receives a lot of rain and moisture, they are used to regularly well-draining soils and dry seasons as well. If you can plant your tree in a terracotta pot, or something porous, you will have an easier time judging when the tree requires water. When the soil appears dry and there is no moisture below the top couple inches, then you can water.

      I also used a spray bottle of water to mist the vegetative growth every so often to simulate humidity since the humidity levels are quite low here indoors in the Midwest (for at least half of the year). A humidifier might work better, if your tree is in its own room, or if you can stand having a humidifier running.

  4. Devin Bell permalink

    how often do you fertilize your fruit trees when they are in pots? I have two identical dwarf orange trees, I put one in the ground and one in a pot to see which did better. I’m in Zone 9, so the weather isn’t really an issue, but the soil here doesn’t drain well. Oddly enough, my ground citrus tree is doing much better than the one in the planter. I thought maybe it’s not getting enough nutrients? How can I tell?

    • There are many factors that play into that answer, Devin. If the potting soil mix you used did not contain any fertilizer (MiracleGro potting mix, for example, contains fertilizer), you can use a water soluble fertilizer that will be able to trickle down and feed the roots. Since many citrus trees tend to be Nitrogen-hungry, a soil test will help you determine if your potted orange tree is lacking Nitrogen or any other nutrients in the container setting. You can find soil testing kits at your local garden center complete with instructions how to successfully perform a simple soil test.

      Generally speaking, once per month during the growing season would be a good interval for fertilizing. Another thing to consider is the light available to your potted orange tree versus the sunlight your other orange tree is getting out in the ground. Trees feed on light as well as soil nutrients, so it might be beyond just fertilizer, but that’s certainly a place to start. You might consider contacting your local experts, like your county extension service, to see if they have any advice for you as well!

  5. Debra permalink

    I enjoyed this article and I’m wondering about a nut tree, like an almond. could that work also?

    • Almond trees are one of the few nut trees we would recommend trying to grow in containers, since they tend to grow similarly to peach trees. :)

  6. Charly permalink

    Sarah,
    I’m wondering about beach plums. I’m on Long Island, NY, so I know they’re hardy here, but the only sunny enough spot I have is on our back deck. I also know they are very fussy and the crop can vary greatly from year to year. Do you know of any experience growing beach plums in containers? Could they stay out in their containers over winter if given some protection? Thanks for this great source of information.

    • Hi Charly! Since beach plums are exceptionally hardy (for plums), they may be left outside in their containers with some winter protection, like you said. When growing in containers, one big thing to keep in mind is that freeze damage to roots can occur more easily in dry soil than in wet soil, so be sure that the soil hasn’t become dry if your outdoor container beach plum is going to experience frost and freezing temperatures.

      You should also apply a layer of mulch over the top of the potting soil in your container for insulation. Some people even consider using those holiday string lights (plugged in and turned on) to give a safe bit of warmth on those frosty nights.

  7. Sarah permalink

    I enjoyed reading the article and the comments! I have a Meyer lemon, a Mexican lime, and a tangelo tree in pots at my home in Alabama (Zone 7a). I brought the lemon and lime trees into the house after Thanksgiving Day. The lime tree was the more stressed plant, and it started losing leaves immediately. The lemon tree is loaded down with 20 regular sized lemons and I agree that the lemons are wonderfully flavorful! The limes are like lime concentrate, and I can use one to make homemade salsa! My tangelo tree had three tangelos this year, and I picked them after Thanksgiving. It is not blooming yet, so I pruned the top to keep it from getting too tall to get into the garage. I plan to repot the lemon and lime trees one day, but they never stop blooming! When is it best to repot my citrus (lemon and lime) trees?

    • I would probably have to say the best time to repot a citrus tree would be when it is not blooming, not holding fruit, and also convenient for you. It’s not something you’ll want to rush through. In most areas, the growing season for citrus is around February through October, so November through January might be an ideal time of year for you to target.

  8. Korey Kilburn permalink

    While I am fortunate enough to live in California’s San Joquin Valley and can grow almost anything in the ground with great success. I started growing Dwarf varieties in containers and had great crops, I used oak half barrels and while it took a hand truck to move them the oak insulated the roots from our summer heat. My trees are now in the ground since I’ve moved to a more permanent location but they did well in the pots for years.

    • You *are* very fortunate to live where most anything can grow in the ground, Korey! I am glad you mentioned how heavy some containers can be, especially once they are filled with soil/other growing media and then the individual trees on top of that. It is a good thing to keep in mind if you expect to (or need to) move your potted trees at any point. Thanks! :)

      • Bob Vance permalink

        When filling up a container and testing how heavy it is you should also consider that water adds a lot of weight.
        I planted a number of trees this spring in 5-20 gal fabric containers. Going forward, I think I’ll stay more in the 5-7 gal range. Even though I am reasonably young and fit, the weight is just too much in 15+ gallon containers and 10 gal is pushing it. Part of the problem may also be the relatively high density of the potting medium I used, which consists partially of Turface (20-25%, along with peat, pine bark, and perlite), a baked clay, which is broken into small pieces.
        Each fall, I move them to the north side of my house to ensure that they don’t break dormancy early. That process is a lot more pleasant with smaller containers…

        • Very true, Bob! Water adds a lot to the weight of the containers, and they can be heavy enough with just the potting medium. If you are planting in containers and need to move them at any point, this is something to keep in mind! Some people even utilize wheeled container stands to move across flat surfaces from one location to another, but it’s still difficult if you are trying to move a 20-gallon container versus, say, a 5- or 7-gallon container. Thank you very much for your insight! :)

  9. Jenni Brodie permalink

    I live in southern Indiana. We have a Kaffir lime and Key lime. They bloom
    on and off all year, but only the Key sets fruit. My problem is scale. What can I use that won’t ruin/poison the fruit? They get moved outside in the summer and back in late fall. I’m tired of sticky floors and cleaning leaves! I wipe branches and leaves with alcohol. Ideas?

    • That certainly sounds like scale, Jenni. We have a natural spray for scale and other pests called Insecticidal Soap, which is made from natural ingredients and is ideal for organic gardening. It is in a ready-to-use spray bottle, perfect for indoor plants and trees.

      We also offer a natural pest AND disease control, a Citrus Fruit & Nut spray, that will take care of scale and other insects as well as fungal diseases. This spray needs to be mixed with water, though, and is more ideal for use on a wide range of outdoor plants and trees.

  10. Kristin Myers permalink

    I love your videos and the information that I get from your emails. I have learned a lot. I do
    have a question about growing in pots. A 2 years ago a neighbor and I planted red haven peach trees from seed. I have 22 to plant. I was wondering if it would be ok to place these trees in containers for the next couple of months until the weather starts to warm up before I plant them in the ground. They are growing along his barn right now and he would like to clean up along the side. That, unfortunately requires me moving my trees. If I can move them to a container, how will I keep the roots from freezing? Any information you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

    • Good question Kristin! You can certainly plant your trees in containers and replant them in the ground when the clean up is complete. While in containers, you can protect their roots by applying a layer of mulch over the top of the soil medium in the container (similar to how you would mulch around the trees in the ground) and you can also keep the soil medium damp (not soaked, but certainly not dry) so that the roots are less prone to freeze damage — this damage occurs more easily in dry soil around the roots than wet soil. And if you can move your trees into an unheated protected area (garage, shed, etc.) it would help as well until warmer spring temperatures arrive! :)

  11. Belinda Y. Hughes permalink

    This is exactly the kind of garden help I need right now. I’ve got some berry vines and trees that I have not set out in the beds, yet. I’m wondering how best to go about raising them in the greenhouse. I can hardly wait for #gardenchat to begin! Glad you’re our guest tonight. :-)

    • I’m glad you found this information helpful, Belinda! It was a blast guest-hosting #gardenchat on Twitter — it’s a great place to find answers to your gardening questions. :)

  12. I have very limited space and would like to try growing a few different types of fruit trees in 15 gallon containers. Ideally, I will also be able to get away with self fruitful trees so I only need one type of tree per fruit. Would a HoneySweet pear work? What cherry tree if any would you recommend. Is there an easy to grow self-fruitful plum? My goal would be to prune the trees so that they are no more than bout 6 or 7 feet tall.

    Thanks for any suggestions!

    • You should have no problem keeping fruit trees around 6-7 feet tall with pruning and grow them in containers, DB. :)

      The Stark® Honeysweet Pear pear is one of the few self-pollinating pear trees, so, for someone limited on space, this variety of pear tree would be ideal!

      Our Starkrimson® Sweet Cherry is naturally smaller than the other sweet cherries, and it’s self-pollinating, so it would be well-suited to your container-fruit orchard plan!

      The Methley Plum is a disease-resistant variety plum tree that also happens to be self-pollinating, so it would be the variety I recommend!

      Our experts have selected easy-to-grow varieties and deemed them“Stark Picks”, so if you browse these varieties, they may be of interest to you. Some of them do require pollinators, though, and it will state this in their descriptions along with some recommended pollinator varieties. I hope this helps!

  13. Barbara Timmerman permalink

    My husband bought a mandarin orange tree, a star jasmine, and a dogwood tree. He cut the bottom off the original container and planted them directly into the ground. The dogwood tree looks wilted and the orange tree is loosing its leaves. I think he should have taken them out of the containers to plant and feel that they are becoming root bound. Can you help with comments or suggestions? Thank you. Barbara

    • You’re right in thinking the trees should have been removed from the containers before planting. I’m not sure what material the containers were composed of, but, even if the container claims to be biodegradable, it creates a needless “bottleneck” situation for the roots until that container actually breaks down into the soil. I would suggest completely removing the containers from any plants and trees that are being planted into the ground. If you’re going to keep things in containers, be sure there is enough room for the roots to grow and expand — oftentimes the containers new plants and trees arrive in are temporary and not intended for the long term.

  14. Amy permalink

    Hello!
    My husband got me a Meyer lemon tree in May (mothers day ’13) it did really well through the summer and produced loads of flowers and even 2 small lemons. However the lemons died and fell off. Once it started to get cold ( we live in middle tn) the leaves started to fall off and it’s completely bare. It’s STILL completely bare! No leaves or anything! Have I done something to kill it? How can I help it grow back? Thank you so much!

    • Hi Amy! When you said your meyer lemon tree lost its leaves after it started getting cold, is your tree planted outdoors? Or is it in a container that can go from outside to indoors when it gets cold?

      Citrus trees tend not to like temperatures below 55-60ºF, especially if they are blooming or bearing fruit, so if the tree is in a container, you should move it indoors until the temperatures are expected to stay above what citrus considers to be “too cold”.

      Citrus also has a tendency to drop its leaves (and sometimes fruit) at the first sign of stress. Stress can be inconsistent watering or inconsistent temperatures (warm-to-cold, or even indoors-to-outdoors if the environment is quite different). The good news is, citrus trees will also replace the leaves they shed after stress, so yours may just need time, warm temperatures, and some sunlight to replace the leaves it has dropped. :)

  15. Wilma permalink

    I’m growing raspberry and blueberry bushes in containers.. 5 gallons.. They are around two years old. I bought then from Walmart. The blueberries are doing well. But the raspberries leaves are browning. When I re potted them, I just mixed potting soil and peet moss, I’ve had people tell me to mix in perlite and pine bark since the potting mix might be to much like clay. I notice when I water, that the soil separates from the sides of the container, so could out be that thethe roots aren’t getting enough soil? could you let e know if re potting with the pine bark and perlite might help

    • There are a few things to consider: Potting mix is designed to avoid compacting (like top soil would) in a container. This might be what people were telling you when they said it could be “too much like clay”. One of the purposes of using perlite as a soil amendment is to avoid soil compaction, so it would only help avoid your potting mix being compacted like clay. If you’re using actual potting medium/potting soil intended for containers, then you shouldn’t worry too much about it being like clay, especially if you’re repotting the plants and using fresh potting soil when you do.

      If you notice the soil is separating from the sides of the container, chances are the water you’re using is running down the edges between the soil and the container and straight out the bottom. The roots may not be getting enough water. You might want to refresh the potting soil in this case.

      The other thing I was wondering about is the pH of the soil in your containers. Pine bark is often used to lower soil pH. Blueberry plants like a low soil pH (4.5-5.5, which is acidic), but raspberry plants don’t require such a low soil pH (6.0-6.8, which is more neutral). If you’re treating the container soil for your blueberries and raspberries the same, then the soil may be too acidic for raspberries to survive and thrive. I would recommend testing the pH of your raspberry plants’ soil and if the pH turns out to be too low, repot in soil with a more neutral pH so that they can thrive for you!

  16. suyapa villatoro permalink

    I got a eurika persimmon tree and i was wondering if i could leave it in a pot.. because i dont have enough space . Please let me know

    • I don’t have experience growing the Eureka variety, but there are very few fruit trees that can’t be grown in containers. I would be inclined to think you can grow a Eureka persimmon tree in a container as long as the container is large enough to handle the width and depth of the current root system, while leaving some room for the roots to grow.

      Be sure to move the tree up to a larger container size when its roots have maxed out their container space, and don’t forget to provide nutrients (water-soluble fertilizer, compost tea, manure tea, etc.) as the tree grows.

  17. I have an orange tree given to me by someone 10 years ago. Initially, the tree was a stick (about 9″). I live in zone 6b. It stays outside during the summer and indoors under a grow light in the winter. It is a very healthy, pest-free tree. We add fresh potting soil every fall. We keep it pruned to about 5 feet. It has never produced one flower, hence no fruit.

    What is wrong? Is it possible it is not a self-pollinating tree? I think it came from Florida but not one of those touristy trees.

    • Most citrus trees are self-pollinating, but in order to pollinate, it would have to bloom in the first place.

      One thing to note about citrus trees (and any other potted fruit tree for that matter!): they are encouraged to bloom and fruit once their roots reach the inside edges of the container they are in. They think this means they have maximized their growing space and are then more interested in blooming and fruiting.

      If the tree’s roots do fill the container, when you add fresh potting soil, try removing the current tree from the pot and rinsing the old soil away from the rootball. You may need to also loosen or prune any tangled roots if you’re not doing that already.

      When you prune to maintain the height of the orange tree (“tipping back” or “heading back”), you may be inadvertently removing the fruiting wood. This encourages more leaves and branches, but often at the expense of flowers and fruit. Try pruning just the damaged/dead limbs — or selectively pruning the limbs that become too tall this year, and see if the tree responds by blooming on some of the remaining wood you might normally remove.

      You might find this additional resource helpful as well:
      http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/oranges/no-fruit-on-orange-trees.htm

  18. Tabitha permalink

    Is it possible to plant dwarf apple and peach trees in containers for a few years and then re-plant in the ground? Will they still produce fruit while in the containers?

    • I can say from personal experience that fruit trees can bear fruit even in containers. I’ve been growing 2 peach trees and 4 apple trees in containers that I haven’t had a chance to plant in the ground and they’ve had fruit for the past two years! Of course, the trees are 5 years old now so they’re also mature enough to fruit… :)

  19. Sally permalink

    Hi! I just got two fruit trees delivered from Stark Brothers (my first ever!). I’m planning on growing them in containers. The thing is that one of them (a fig) came with two big leaves, both of which are extremely wilted – likely beyond repair, I expect they’ll fall off. The other one (a persimmon) has no leaves, annnd the top few inches broke in transit (sad!). I’m in south carolina, and we’re having a cold snap – it’s getting down to 30 at night (but still high 60′s during the day) – and I have no garage. My house is kept at 68-70 degrees and I don’t think my roommates will let me make it colder to acclimate the trees. I don’t have a garage or anything. I’ve been storing them against a wall so they stay a little cooler, and I’m wondering if it’s too cold to bring them outside at night yet? I work all day, so I can’t do the 3-4 hours at a time business I was reading about, but I can put them outside during the day and bring them in at night. But I don’t want to keep them too warm and have them come out of dormancy!

    Also, could you just reassure me that it’s ok that they basically don’t have any leaves? I’m guessing they should not put on any growth until spring, buuut it’s hard to resist dumping some fertilizer on them and trying to get some life. Help!! Tell me I’m doing this right!

    • Hi Sally – Regarding the tree that arrived damaged, I hope you’ve contacted our customer support team (800.325.4180) to let us know so that we can pass the information along to our shipping department and also ship you a new tree if the damage ends up hindering the growth of your persimmon tree. In the meantime, I’d recommend pruning where the tree broke so that the cut is clean and not torn – the tree will have an easier time healing a clean cut come spring.

      Don’t worry about the wilted leaves, because the trees are supposed to go dormant for the winter. The leafless persimmon tree is likely already there so please don’t fertilize until early spring. Any growth you try to force out with fertilizer will only be subject to injury during winter. You also may not need to follow the steps to the letter for acclimating/harding off your new trees, so I would just go ahead and plant them in the ground ASAP if I were you. Your weather sounds ideal for planting and getting the trees gradually to go/stay dormant with the rest of nature there, so I wouldn’t wait for the temperatures to get colder before getting your new trees in the ground this fall. :)

  20. Sally permalink

    Ok, thank you so much for getting back to me so quickly! I’ll cut the tip off the persimmon cleanly and call customer service, and resist the desire to make my trees grow nownownow :) They’re going to go in containers because I’m a renter, so I’ll just put them outside and stop fussing until spring!

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