Growing dwarf fruit trees...

kippie(6A)June 29, 2010

Hello everyone,

I'm wondering if someone can give me a few basics for growing dwarf fruit trees in a container on a balcony. I've been looking around online and it seems pretty confusing. Some sites talk about dwarf trees that stay between 3 - 5' tall (which is what I want), and others talk about dwarf trees that get upwards of 15' tall (which don't seem dwarf to me!), some sites say you need to prune the roots, others say you don't, because the pot is what keeps the tree dwarf. That seems weird to me, because pots most definitely don't keep my tomatoes dwarf lol!

I've also had a hard time finding a list of varieties and the plant hardiness zones they can live in (I'm Zone 6A).

Any tips/variety names would be greatly appreciated!

Thanks for any help you can give me!


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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Some trees are genetic dwarfs, being derived from sports, chimeras, witches' brooms ..... and come to you with natural slow growth, small leaves, and short internodes. Some plants are grafted to dwarfing rootstock, so the rootstock controls the growth rate. Aspects of container culture also tend to slow growth rate, shorten internodes, and reduce leaf size (though not fruit size). Dwarf cultivars of various species need only have a reduced growth rate to be labeled 'dwarf'. I recently observed a dwarf burning bush that was even with the eve of a two story farm house - 20-22 ft.

No dwarf trees grow to a certain size and stay that size. You must tend to root maintenance to maintain vitality in containers, and undertake judicious pruning to keep your trees small.


Here is a link that might be useful: Click me and I'll take you to more about trees in containers

    Bookmark   June 29, 2010 at 2:29PM
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hmmmm - so it is more a matter of pruning the branches and the roots to keep it to a manageable size for my balcony? That makes sense then. It's interesting that you mention burning bushes, my mom has a "burning tree" that she was told would stay around 3 feet high, and is now level with her 8 foot back fence, and about another 8 feet across. =) I'll have to tell her about the 22' burning bush!

    Bookmark   June 29, 2010 at 2:35PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lol - fortunately, you can solve that (burning tree) issue if ever you have to, with 1 pruning cut at the soil line & the plant will bounce back nicely. They respond well to regular maintenance pruning as well.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2010 at 9:49PM
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This spring I planted dwarf varieties of the fruit trees listed below. Most are standard varieties grafted onto dwarfing root stock. In addition to what others have said above about dwarfs, they also will often bear fruit many years faster than their full sized siblings. Many will begin to bear when they are 2 to 3 years old, while the full sized may take 10 years to begin bearing fruit. The little guys often begin trying to bear fruit before they are big enough to support it, so that the first crop should be pulled off and not allowed to develop. Besides the limbs not being physically strong to support the fruit, the strain on the plant to make the fruit will prevent the small trees from finishing the development of a strong enough set of scaffold branches, which can stunt the tree's development.

I rent a house and wanted container trees that I can take with me when I buy a home someday. With them in containers I can eventually plant them in the ground or put them on a patio if I buy a townhouse. I bought 25 gal plastic tote containers (walmart brand rubbermaid) that I found on sale for $4 each. I got ones that are sort of khaki brownish-green so they don't stand out too much. Since you are going to be growing on a balcony, you will probably have to make sure your containers don't offend neighbors. I used to live in Atlanta and went through fights like this with condo associations. (If the container was round, it looked like a trash can and couldn't be used, but the same color and material if rectangular was fine.)

On a balcony where space is at a premium, you can still do some great things with espalier peach, plum, pear, or apple trees. You could also grow grapes or thornless raspberries with a trellis. These solutions also can provide privacy and shade on a balcony.

You can buy containers with built on trellis. If moderately handy with a saw and wood screws, they are not too complicated to build. You can build a rectangular box the size you need and then attach a some of that privacy lattice to attach the plants to as they grow. The lattice comes in either wood or white plastic.

With a balcony, you must be careful about the weight of containers, which can be heavy when full of wet dirt. Even something as light a peat moss can weigh a lot when it soaks up water, so look for light weight potting mixes if available.

I think that one of the easiest container fruit plants to grow for someone with limited space is low-bush blueberries. They make very pretty shrubs, bear fruit, and need very little maintenance. The one thing you must watch for is that when you water their containers with tap water, it will force the soil's ph too high for them. Blueberries need soil with a low ph. A simple solution is to add 2 tablespoons of vinegar to your watering can whenever you give blueberries a drink, and they will stay dark green and happy.

My dwarfs in pots:
Alderman Plum
Ambrosia Pear
Moonglow Pear
Black Tartarian Cherry
Burbank Plum
Elberta Peach
Fuji Apple
Garden State Nectarine
J. H. Hale Peach
Arkansas Black Apple
Concord Seedless Grapes
Kristin Cherry

as well as
Brigitta Blueberry
Chippewa Blueberry
Chandler Blueberry
Bronze Muscadine Grapes
Black Muscadine Grapes
Bronze Scuppernong Grapes
Black Mission Fig
Autumn Britten Raspberry
Arapaho Thornless Blackberry
Apache Thornless Blackberry


    Bookmark   June 29, 2010 at 11:53PM
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Thanks for the info Greg! You might be on to something with regards to the blueberries or raspberries. I already have a container veggie garden consisting of 8 large 20" pots and about 10 smaller pots. By the time I get my small patio set, I might want something lighter, so not to overload my balcony!

    Bookmark   June 30, 2010 at 9:22AM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

Can I ask what you folks who grow fruit trees in containers do for winter to protect the trees, for those who actually have a cold winter?

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 12:49PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I have 200-250 temperate woody plants in containers, many listed as hardy to zone 7 and a few to 8 that I over-winter in an attached but unheated garage.


    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 1:16PM
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Hello,,Great info!

Be forwarned though, make sure you are ready to transplant your rasberries into huge containers eventually, since the roots to these fill containers very rapidly...

They also like to spread new plants via the root system..

I have yet to transplant mine in a 10 gallon into something bigger...And bot though, are they delicious though, especially the yellow ones!


    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 1:24PM
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I have my blackberry and raspberry plants in 25 gal plastic totes, which is about the biggest I can easily handle to move around. When the plant's roots begin to outgrow these containers, my plan is to divide them all in half during winter, just as you would divide rhizome perennials like irises. Presto, afterwards you have twice as many plants!

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 1:52PM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

So they have to be brought inside? Bummer. I don't have a garage or indoor space for them. Thanks.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 1:59PM
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For SUSAN2010:
Not all dwarf fruit trees would have to be brought inside, some would do fine in Massachusetts for the winter. With container plants you do have to be a bit more careful than with plants in the ground. When planted in the ground, a plants roots are more protected than a container will provide. A 12 inch high container will freeze far quicker than the earth will freeze 12 inches deep. I can't say off hand what would be hardy enough for your area without some research. Are you Zone 6? I will check and see what I can recommend. I'm fairly sure that some varieties of blackberries, raspberries, plums, and apples will be fine in zone 6.

I don't understand what you're talking about?

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 6:05PM
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susan2010(6 Massachusetts)

Thanks gtippitt. I have a very small urban yard, and not good locations for the permanent placement of fruit trees (paving interferes), so I thought some small container trees, might work. I'm very interested in Fuji apple, some variety of peach, and I'd LOVE to have a fig if I could find one cold tolerant enough.

I know that Miller's Nursery in upstate NY has some figs they grow that are cold hardy. If I could find a way to protect them outside over the winter, I'd really like to try. I had fresh figs off the tree/shrub once when I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and I'd love to have them in my yard.

I actually have raspberries growing in the ground in my side yard - in fact, I'm drowing in fruit right now. They are the easiest thing to grow. After all they are a bramble, and need next to no care - just diligent pruning of spent canes - to be prolific. I recommend them to anyone in a suitable climate.

Thanks for any suggestions.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 7:32AM
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I've got a black mission fig that I planted this spring, which is growing really well so far. I live in Knoxville, TN in the river valley at the base of the Smokey Mountains. This area is borderline between zones 6 and 7. I've got an unheated garage and plan to make room to bring my fig inside the garage for the winter. In another tread about growing Apache blackberries in a boderline area, I suggested an idea I plan to use to protect my muscadines vines this winter. I have 3 of them in containers, and they're too big to bring inside for the winter.

If you don't have a basement or garage where you can put your fig for the winter, you might try this idea to give your fig some extra protection from the cold. Rose growers in the north have long protected their plants by building a cylinder of chicken wire around the plant and then filling it with dry mulch such as leaves or straw. The top and sides of the cylinder are then wrapped in plastic to keep the mulch dry, with only the bottom portion left uncovered with plastic so that some air can circulate to keep the mulch dry and prevent rot. If you use plastic on the top to keep the mulch dry, you must leave the bottoms uncovered so that air can circulate. Some people say to use burlap or something porous and never to use plastic, but they are often in climates where all winter precipitation is frozen. Burlap would keep snow from wetting the mulch, but would not keep rain from soaking through. Either way the mulch must stay fairly dry, otherwise it will rot the plant you are trying to protect. Southern gardeners have long used this same idea on a larger scale to protect tender hydrangeas and gardenias during the winter. This protects the limbs from cold dry winds as well as keeping snow from breaking the limbs.

The biggest problem you might have with figs in a container outside during the winter is that the root ball might freeze in a pot that is exposed to the cold. If you don't have a garage or basement where you can bring it in during the winter, you could dig a hole to sink the pot into the ground for the winter to give the pot some protection from hard freezes. Even if that part of your yard does not get enough sun to be a place you could grow the plant during summer, a protected place on the east side of the house could give the fig a better chance of survival during winter. There is some contradictory advice on what exposure is best. North and west exposures are often bad because of the cold prevailing winds are often from north and west. South and west exposures are often bad because a few sunny days can fool a tender plant that spring has come and encourage the plant to bud out in February. Overall an east exposure during the winter may be the best compromise. The north side of the house can be good, if there is something that blocks the north winds, such as a hedge or fence. I used to live in Atlanta where I grew gardenias in pots on the patio of my condo. Most of the winters in Atlanta were mild, but we could get 3 or 4 nights each winter with temps near zero. On these extra-cold nights, I would pull all my tender potted plants on my patio up against the sliding glass doors. I would cover the top and outer side of the plants overnight with a mover's quilt. The heat that escaped through the glass was enough with the plants covered by the quilt to keep them protected overnight, when other gardenias planted on the grounds would get their end bitten back by the cold.

I saw another idea on television that I thought was interesting but have not tried. I was watching 'Gardening By The Yard', which I find funny and interesting. He was doing a show on micro-climates in your yard. He interviewed the head gardener at one of the large hotels in Las Vegas. The guy said that tourist expected to see palm trees to go along with the sun and sand in Vegas, but the desert can actually get fairly cold at night during the winter. His solution to protect his tender palms was to decorate them with small Christmas lights. He said that for palm trees the main protection was needed for the trunks rather than the fronds. He used the tiny lights to wrap the trunks from the ground up to the top. They were really pretty and looked like glittery barber poles. He said that beside looking festive in the winter, the electricity going through the wires generated just enough heat to keep the trunks warm enough overnight when temps dropped below freezing. My guess is that a fig tree would look quite cute decorated white or coloured fairy lights. If you had an extra-bitter cold night, you could cover the lighted plant up with a blanket as well.

In the fall most years, we will get a frost followed by a few more weeks of Indian Summer. I always have a large patch of tomatoes in a raised bed that I want to protect for as long as possible. For the past 2 years, I've covered them with a blanket just before dark and put a shop light with 100 watt light bulb shop near the base of the plants. Last fall we had about 3 nights down to 25 degrees, and that light bulb was enough to protect the plants with the blanket until temps rose the next morning. By protecting the tomato plants for 3 night of below freezing temps at Halloween, it warmed back up enough that I had fresh tomatoes for another month. It was really great to pick fresh tomatoes and bell pepper for Thanksgiving dinner.

The link below is one I found that has lots of different figs described. There are lots of varieties that are more cold hardy than the Black Mission that is normally stocked by nurseries.

For people that have never eaten a fresh fig pulled from the tree, they have no idea how good they really are. I like dried figs, but most fresh ones you find for sale are not very good. Fresh figs pulled from the tree are heavenly.

Good Luck with your figs,

Here is a link that might be useful: descriptions of lots of different figs, including cold hardy ones

    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 4:11AM
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