Growing Fruit in Containers
If you crave fresh, homegrown fruit picked ripe from the plant, consider growing fruit in containers at home. Even if your garden is already crammed full of plants or your yard consists of a tiny patio with limited space, there are a variety of fruiting shrubs and trees that will produce a bountiful harvest when grown in pots.
Fruit gardener Ed Laivo grows many varieties in containers, including citrus, figs, avocados, jujubes, pomegranates, pawpaws and even cherries.
Blueberries are among his favorites for containers. Blueberry plants are notoriously fussy about the pH level in soil. In pots, however, a high-acid potting soil takes care of that. "Blueberries are the easiest fruit to grow in containers," he says.
One group of fruit trees, however, doesn't make great container plants. "Peaches, plums, nectarines and other stone fruit are so vigorous that generally the roots will outgrow the container in a short period of time and, in some cases, even before the tree is able to produce fruit."
Planting fruit trees in containers
To grow healthy container trees for years to come, it's important to start with good soil. Laivo recommends using a mixture of three parts potting soil to one part perlite and one part 1/4-inch pine bark. The perlite helps to oxygenate the soil, while the bark adds organic matter to help the soil mixture break down more readily.
When the soil mixture is ready, Laivo adds just enough of the mix to the bottom of a plastic container so that the tree's root ball will sit about three inches from the rim of the pot. Laivo uses plastic pots because they're durable and easy to move. He firmly presses the soil down in the pot to remove any air pockets. Then he places the fruit tree into the pot and adds more soil mix around the sides and top of the root ball, firmly pressing it in place. When the fruit tree is planted in its new pot, Laivo recommends adding a layer of mulch as a top dressing. This will help to conserve moisture, keep weeds down and add some nutrients to the soil. Keep plants watered and don't allow them to dry out completely.
Painting the bark
Laivo paints the bark from soil level up to where the major scaffolding limbs begin, using white interior latex paint diluted 50 percent with water. Painting the tree's trunk protects the bark from nature's elements. It also makes it easier to see if there is insect damage.
Pruning — the roots as well as the top
Root pruning helps to maintain smaller sized, healthier plants by keeping the roots from becoming pot bound. Pruning the roots also stimulates root growth. Laivo recommends removing about one third of the roots from the root ball; he uses a square point shovel to cut the roots. This process is best done in early spring when the plants are getting ready to put forth a lot of new growth.
Laivo also keeps his fruit trees pruned to about eight feet tall. This helps to keep the trees at a manageable size for easy harvest. "Pruning helps to keep plants under control. Plants absolutely adapt if you make them adapt. It's not a question of whether or not the plant is going to grow too big; it's a question of whether or not you're going to let the plant grow too big," he says.
If there is a downside to growing fruit in pots, it's that containerized trees won't produce as much fruit as a tree planted in the ground. The upside? They often bear fruit a year or two earlier.
Enjoy it while it lasts. "In a container, the oldest one I've probably worked with is about 10 years old. After 10 years, the trees get pretty mangled from all the aggressive root pruning. So after 10 years, you should look at replacing the trees," says Laivo. Either transplant the tree into the ground or throw it away and start fresh with a new plant.