Many gardeners would love to grow their own fruit trees, but don’t have the space for them. Or perhaps they have plenty of space in a cool climate, but have their heart set on growing bananas. Luckily for such gardeners, it is possible to grow a wide variety of fruit trees in containers (or pots). Many plants and trees can actually grow in containers without much issue. The trick is, like any plant, to combine the right variety, the right container, good soil, and watchful care.
The ideal final container size for a fruit tree is anywhere from 10 to 15 gallons. This size makes it large enough to handle a tree, but small enough to be moved around. However, you don’t want to plant your brand new baby fruit tree in a 15-gallon container; it’s best to start with a 5 to 7 gallon pot. As with any other potted plant, you’ll want to transfer it to a larger container when it starts to become root-bound. You’ll know that’s happening when vertical growth slows or stops altogether.
No matter what sort of container you’ve picked for your fruit tree, it will need proper drainage. Make sure that the container has holes in the bottom or the sides so that excess water drains and the soil has access to air. Otherwise, your tree will be susceptible to unpleasant diseases like root rot, which could end its life. An excellent practice is to place a layer of rock or gravel at the bottom of the container, which will further aid the draining process.
As with any plant, the right soil is extremely important. Potting soil is best for container fruit trees, because potting soil has already been formulated for containers, and is easy to pick up at your local garden center. Some gardeners have made quite a study of making their own potting soil, which will also work beautifully. What will not work is topsoil, which has a tendency to compact, resulting in water going down the edges of the pot and bypassing the roots altogether, or not enough air circulating to the roots of the tree.
Is there anything different you need to do? No.
You plant a fruit tree in a container much the same way as you pot up any plant. First, add enough soil over the rock or gravel to make the roots comfortable, and place the tree in the center of the pot. Then fill the spaces with the rest of the soil, firmly pressing the soil to avoid air pockets, just like you would if you were planting the tree in the ground, then water well.
It is really easy to over-water young potted trees, which causes a whole host of problems. To avoid those problems, keep a close eye on your tree and only water it when the top two inches of soil are dry. Depending on the time of year, and the location of your tree, you might not need to water it every day.
If the potting soil you used for your tree didn’t have fertilizer already in it, you’ll want to fertilize at planting time. No matter what, you’ll probably need to fertilize the tree during the growing season as well. Compost, compost/manure tea, or commercial water-soluble fertilizer all work well.
Once your tree goes dormant in the fall, you’ll want to prune away any dead, damaged, or diseased branches. If your tree will remain outdoors for the winter, a layer of mulch will act like a warm blanket to protect its roots from the cold. If you plan to bring your tree indoors for the winter, make sure you keep it well watered until you do; the water will protect the roots if there’s an unexpected cold snap.
Recommended fruit tree varieties for containers: Improved Meyer lemon, Clementine orange, dwarf or columnar apples, Nana, Provence, or State Fair pomegranate, figs, dwarf peaches and nectarines, bush cherries, and Dwarf Cavendish banana. Mandarin oranges also make an excellent choice as a container fruit tree.
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