How to grow fruit in containers
You can grow fruit to suit any small space, container or budget
There is a huge range of fruit which can successfully be grown in containers and small spaces from trees, such as apples and pears to small plants, such as strawberries. The disadvantages of growing in a restricted space are that you have to be vigilant and keep an eye on the watering as they dry out really quickly on sunny days or when there is a wind, you may find that you have to water twice a day in hot weather; and the plants do not last as long as they would if they had an unrestricted root run. There is an enormous range of containers from a simple cheap plastic pot to expensive classic wooden Versailles planters. One thing to think about when choosing your container is weight; can you move it easily if the plant has to be put indoors in winter?
Apples and Pears
Choose from a single variety grown on a dwarf rootstock or go for one of the family trees which have 3 varieties grafted onto one tree; this has the advantage of only needing the one tree as each variety pollinates each other. The family trees produce fruit which is the same size as a full sized tree. If you only have a single tree you have to make sure that it is self-fertile (doesn’t need another tree to pollinate the flowers), if it isn’t self-fertile you will need 2 trees to pollinate each other. If it needs a pollinator make sure it is from the same pollination group, they all flower at the same time. Apples ‘Discovery’, ‘Falstaff’, ‘Fiesta’ and ‘Greensleeves’ are all group 3 pollinators so will pollinate each other, if you choose another tree from an adjacent group (2 or 4) they might pollinate each other but if you choose a group 1 or 5 they definitely won’t work as pollinators. Pears ‘Beth’, 'Doyenne du Comice’, ‘Glou Morceau’ and ‘Red Comice’ are all group 4; ‘Beurre Hardy’, ‘Concorde’ and ‘Conference’ are all group 3, so to be sure of a crop of fruit make sure you have 2 trees from the same group.
The rootstock used should be displayed on the tree label, if it isn’t, don’t buy the plant as it could be completely unsuitable for growing in a container. Rootstock M27 is very dwarf (less than 2m, 6’), M9 is slightly larger (1.8 – 2.4m, 6 – 8’) and M26 is 2.4 – 3m (8 – 10’). M9 and M26 should be planted in a pot which holds 30ltrs of compost or is at least 45 – 50cm (18 – 20”) in diameter. If the plant is quite small gradually work up to a pot of this size by starting off one size larger than the pot it comes in and repotting every other year into a slightly larger pot. Use good quality loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 3. Incorporate some controlled release fertiliser; this will only be effective in the first year after planting. Put a good layer of crocks in the bottom and raise the pot off the ground with pot feet, bricks or stones to ensure the water drains clear away and doesn’t block the drainage hole with silt. If the plant sits in freezing, soggy compost over winter it probably won’t survive. Apples and pears are both hardy so should be alright left outside in winter; if it is an extremely harsh winter you may have to wrap the pot in sacking or bubble wrap as a precaution. Make sure they don’t dry out in summer, it may be necessary to water them twice a day if it is hot. You can slow down the rate of water loss on a hot day by moving the pot into partial shade. Feed throughout the growing season fortnightly with a high potassium fertiliser, such as Tomorite.
Apricots, Nectarines and Peaches.
This group need protection in winter so it is recommended that you put them in a cold frost free greenhouse or underneath a lean-to. Keeping them in a container will naturally curtail their growth. Pot up into a container at least 45 – 50cm (18 – 20”) in diameter. Put a good layer of crocks in the bottom and use good loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 3 with balanced fertiliser added, such as Growmore. They tend to flower earlier than other fruit so they must be protected when they are flowering. If they are in a greenhouse at this stage rather than a lean-to you will probably have to hand pollinate them as there will be a lack of insects indoors. Just get a small soft brush and brush the stamens of each flower. Even if they are in a lean-to you could hand pollinate to ensure a good crop of fruit. Let them dry out slightly between watering as they don’t like sitting in wet compost. At the start of the growing season water fortnightly with high potash fertiliser, such as Tomorite. They need a sheltered position in full sun away from strong winds.
These are ideal for growing in pots; see the blog article ‘How To Grow Super-Healthy Blueberries’ .
Cherries should be grafted onto Colt or Gisela 5 rootstock for growing in containers; both reach a height of 3 – 3.6m (10 – 12’). Both ‘Morello’ and ‘Stella’ are self-fertile so you only need one plant. These both need fairly large containers; as for apples and pears. Put a good layer of crocks in the bottom of the container and use good quality loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 3. Mix in a balanced fertiliser, such as Growmore; it may be necessary to supplement this feed with a high potash liquid feed, Tomorite, every fortnight in the growing season. The blossom in spring may have to be covered with horticultural fleece if there is a frost threatened. As with apples and pears keep an eye on the watering and if there is a hard frost threatened.
This group includes: oranges, lemons, limes and calamondins. They can only be grown outdoors in summer in the UK and must be brought into a light frost free environment in the winter. See the blog article ‘Zesty Treats’ for growing instructions.
These are not that easy to grow in containers but not impossible. They need wet, soggy soil with a low pH in a sunny but cool position. Use good quality ericaceous compost, unfortunately in this instance there is no alternative to using peat. It is not advisable to put crocks in the bottom of the pot as you want the compost to remain wet. In warm weather stand the pot in a saucer of water and keep it topped up. They usually increase in size by putting out stems which root into the ground, so to keep them under control they must be pruned back.
Currants (black, white and red)
These can be grown in containers or in a small space quite successfully, giving yields of up to 4.5kg (10lbs) of fruit from each plant. As with all fruit they need a sunny position, but are quite hardy so should not need any protection in winter. They are quite labour intensive as they need plenty of water and feed during the growing season if you are to get a good yield. Some of the currants need two plants to pollinate each other so if you only have space for one make sure it is self-fertile.
Damsons and plums
Damsons and plums make quite large trees, up to 3 – 3.6m (10 – 12’), but containerisation will restrict the growth, but even so they will need a large container. Many of them are self-fertile so you will only need one tree. Plum ‘Blue Tit’, ‘Opal’ and ‘Victoria’ are all self-fertile. See the blog ‘Lyth Valley Damsons’ for advice on growing damsons. Plant up, water and feed as for the previous fruit trees. If there is a frost forecast when they are in flower, or just after the flowers have fallen, you must cover with horticultural fleece otherwise you will lose the majority of the crop.
They grow very well in containers and restricted spaces as too much space and too fertile soil produces a lot of vegetative growth and not much fruit. If you are growing in the ground construct a planting pit with good drainage, about 60cm (24”) square and 45cm (18”) deep. Line it with paving slabs to ensure the roots remain contained. Use a good quality loam based compost with a little controlled release fertiliser added. They can be grown as several forms, including fan-trained, bush and standard. The most widely grown and reliable variety for growing outside is ‘Brown Turkey’; there are other varieties available but some have to be grown indoors, especially in the north of the UK.
Gooseberries can be grown in containers provided they are large enough and as with the currants they need to be kept well fed and watered throughout the growing season. These are self-fertile so you only need one. In a confined space the thorns can be a problem but there are thornless varieties available.
Grown in the ground in ideal weather conditions these trees will reach a height of 12m (40’) and a spread of 9m (28’), however growing one in a pot will restrict its growth. In harsh winters it will be necessary to bring the plant under shelter, so growing one in the open ground would not be feasible in the UK unless you have a south facing urban garden which doesn’t get any frost.
The autumn fruiting varieties and the dwarf ‘Ruby Beauty’ are best suited to growing in containers. The autumn fruiting varieties ‘Autumn Treasure’ and the lovely yellow form ‘All Gold’ take well to growing in large containers as they are cut down every year and fruit on the new seasons growth. They need a large container, at least 45cm (18”) in diameter. Place 5 – 6, 180cm (6’), canes round the perimeter and tie in the new growth. They reach a height of 150cm (5’) and a spread of 50cm (20”). ‘Ruby Beauty’ is ideal for growing in containers as it only reaches a height of 1m (40”) with a spread of 50cm (20”). One plant will do well in a 10ltr pot or plant 3 in a larger 40ltr pot. Another advantage is the fact that they are thornless and will start producing fruit as early as June. They can produce 1.5kg (3.3lbs) of fruit from one plant.
Rhubarb can be grown from seed but you will have a long wait for your rhubarb crumble, whereas you will only have to wait a year if you buy a crown. Plant in as large a container as possible, at least 40ltr, as they don’t like being disturbed so won’t benefit from starting small and moving up as the plant grows. Use John Innes No 3 compost mixed with well-rotted farmyard manure. Plant with the crown 2.5cm (1”) below the surface of the compost. Remove any flowers which appear in spring so that the plant can concentrate its energy into producing stalks. Water well throughout the growing season, keeping the compost permanently damp. Cut off any old stalks in the autumn and mulch with well-rotted manure, taking care not to cover the crown as this can lead to it rotting. Don’t harvest any stalks in the first year, let the plant grow and become established. Just harvest a few stalks at once and never more than half. The leaves are toxic so make sure they are not eaten by any animals.
Strawberries grow very well in containers and small spaces; growing in containers keeps the fruit off the ground and away from hungry slugs. Make sure that you have a sunny site as they don’t do well in the shade. See the blog article ‘How to plant up a Strawberry Hanging Basket’. If you are planting them in the ground prepare the soil well by incorporating plenty of organic matter and ensuring that it is free draining.
‘Super-fruits’: Aronia x prunifloia (Chokeberry); Goji berries and Lonicera caerulea (Honeyberry; Blue Honeysuckle; Edible Honeysuckle).
These are all suitable for growing in containers or small spaces. They all allegedly have properties which have health benefits and contain high levels of vitamins. They need different conditions, from requiring constant moisture to tolerating drought.
There are also a huge range of vegetables which can be grown in containers as well as growing salad crops on the kitchen windowsill. Read the blog articles: 'What vegetables can I grow in containers and small spaces?', 'How to plant dwarf beans in a container' and 'How to grow salad leaves on the windowsill' and you will be well on your way to '5-a-Day'.