How to Pot a Fruit Tree
Not enough room for an orchard? Try planting a small fruit tree in a container.
When you pot up a fruit tree, you can savor springtime blossoms and feast on fall fruit anywhere—on a deck, on a patio, or even on a sliver of balcony. A dwarf fruit tree needs sunlight and almost no growing room. You can move it, although once the container is full of soil and the tree gains bulk, you may not wish to move it often. You also will want to keep the potted tree within reach of the hose for easy maintenance. Otherwise, get set for easy pickings of apples, pears, figs, or other fruit, no matter how limited your space is.
Choosing a Tree
- Start your tree-potting project in early spring, while the trees are still dormant. Bare-root trees work especially well, although potted nursery stock can be used, too. Shop a mail-order company with a good reputation, or use a high-quality nursery. Shop between late January and March for the best selection of bare-root trees.
- Look for trees that are vigorous, whose wood looks good, and trees that are not desiccated, scuffed, bruised, or split. Check the graft union (the bump near where roots meet trunk). Has it healed? Are there cracks or dead tissue or peeling bark? Sometimes the graft doesn't take, so it's smart to take a few minutes to examine the joint. If it's not a solid union, it may break years later from the load of the fruit.
- Choose a tree with a balanced shape, such as a tree with four to five solid, evenly spaced branches. You may not be able to see the roots, but they are important. There should be plenty of undamaged, fine white roots (known as hair roots). The more healthy hair roots on the tree, the better the chance of transplant success because these are the tree's lifeline to nutrients and water.
Good Fruit Tree Choices for Pots
You can choose either ornamental or fruit-bearing fruit trees for your container. Here are some choices:
Choose a Container and Soil
Think big. Don't squish a tree into anything smaller than 18 inches in diameter. Preferably, choose a pot 20 inches or wider. Containers can be plastic, terra-cotta, wood, or ceramic.
Large half whiskey barrels and plastic pots offer low prices and high durability. Plastic is lightweight, making it easier to move your tree. In most cases, a dolly or a pot with wheels will be helpful, since you should move the tree into a sheltered area—a garage or shed—during the winter to protect the tree and to keep the container from freezing.
Choose good-quality potting soil for your container. Ask at a local nursery, and look for nutrients to mix with the soil, such as bonemeal, blood meal, and bat guano. Garden soil will be too heavy, may not drain well, and may have insects, weeds, or other problems.
How to Pot a Fruit Tree
1. Add soil. Make sure drainage holes are clear in a pot at least 18 inches wide. Add commercial planting mix with a pH of about 6.5. Firm the soil and moisten slightly as you mound it up in the middle of the pot as a base for the roots.
2. Prep tree. Tip the tree and gently work it loose from the nursery pot—don't pull it by the branches. Tease the roots apart, or use a hose to rinse the soil out of the roots. Trim off overlong or damaged roots.
3. Set tree. Use a straightedge to center the tree on the mound. Let roots drape down around the mound. The graft union of the tree should be just above your planned final soil level. Adjust the mound level until it sets correctly.
4. Backfill. When the tree is set, fill the pot with potting soil around the roots up to the graft union. Work quickly, so the roots are exposed as briefly as possible.
5. Water. Soak the soil and let it drain. This eliminates air pockets around the roots. Add potting soil if settling occurs. Repeat.
6. Add support. Support the young tree. A 1x1 trellis anchored in the pot works well, or use bamboo or other stakes. Loosely tie the tree to the support. Rigid tying can harm the tree.
- Set the pot in a sunny site out of the wind. Wind can be hard on a young tree and will dry out containers quickly. When the soil dries out to about an inch deep, water the tree thoroughly.
- Limit pruning to severely damaged, broken, diseased, or crossing branches.
- Remove a tree from its container every two or three years, and prune the roots so they do not circle around inside the container. Replace the soil with new potting mix. Then replant the tree in it. The hardest task may be waiting.
- For the first two or three seasons, let the tree flower, but pinch off developing fruit. If the tree bears fruit too soon, it will not establish sufficient roots and wood strength. It may grow lopsided, new branches may not develop, and the tree eventually may break.