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How to grow fruit trees in containers


Container fruit trees add personality to small areas and
in time may even produce an edible treat

If you dream of picking lemons in the winter or plucking cherries without visiting an orchard, container tree gardening may be the answer. Proper care will ensure that your container tree lives for several years or even decades - and may even produce a few "bumper" crops along the way.

The right container, location, soil conditions, and precise watering schedule are needed for successful container gardening.

If you are working on a class or family project with your child, growing a plant from the seeds of supermarket fruit is fine. Do not expect to see any fruits or flowers for several years, however. Young trees grown from seed also produce protective spiny thorns along the trunk and can be unpleasant or dangerous to handle.

Contact your local nursery or shop online for plants that are cuttings or are grafts from a like plant. If you are not sure the plant has been grafted, look for a small knot or diagonal scar about 6-8 inches above the soil line. Be sure to remove all growth below this line; these are called suckers and will drain nutrients from the soil and may even cause die-off in the upper portion of the plant. Established plants from grafts and cuttings are most likely to provide fruit within a few weeks or months and are mature enough to be productive year-round.

Several types of citrus can thrive in containers, including limes, lemons, cherries, and mandarins. Acidic fruits - such as limes and lemons - seem to perform better than the sweeter fruit varieties. Look for those plants labeled "dwarf." That only means they will remain at a reasonable height; the fruit is still standard in size.

Before you select plants, be sure you can give them the right living conditions. Many will thrive indoors all year long while some will do best outside during summer months. Choose a sunny south-facing location with wind protection. Indoor fruit plants require about eight hours of sun and can survive with a minimum of four sunny hours outside. Many types of fruits require several months of high temperatures to produce. If you live in an area with cooler temperatures, look for plants that have already been acclimated.

Bring container plants indoors throughout the winter months for healthier fruit production. Some citrus varieties will have 3 or 4 growing seasons in a 12-month period and you do not want to miss out on those limes for the holidays!

Choose your containers based on the size of the plant. A young plant can begin in a 1-gallon container. You can use any type of pot: plastic, ceramic, metal, clay, or wood. Each has its drawbacks: clay will absorb minerals, become non-porous, and encourage bacteria growth; wood can rot; and other types will draw additional heat to the root system.

Soil selection is another factor: never use dirt from around the house or garden. Look for a mix that contains 2 parts peat to 1 part sand, and 1 part vermiculite. You can add fertilizer designated for fruits and vegetables; just follow directions. Citrus requires high nitrogen content followed by potassium and phosphorous. Some products are composed of a 3:1:1 ratio or a 2:1:1 ratio; either will work.

Container fruit trees require a good drainage system. The container should have plenty of drainage holes; drill extra ones if necessary. Lay down a landscape mesh or screen to retain the soil. Add about 2 inches of pebbles or rocks and then add the potting mix. Leave the crown of the root exposed at surface level; the top layer of roots should be just below the soil.

Fruit trees are susceptible to the pitfalls of over-watering. Depending on the container and time of year, some plants will require watering once or twice a day. Do not depend on a dry surface to indicate watering needs. Always check for moist soil around the roots in the top few inches of the pot. An inexpensive water gauge is a good investment for container gardening projects. Your fruit trees may be able to suffer some neglect, but fruit production and the overall health of the plant will decrease. Maintain a regular watering regimen, always check the soil first, and your plant should produce edible and healthy fruit. Do not expect abundant crops like you would find in an orchard. Container trees are not up to that task.

Repot container plants each year. When you repot to a larger container, it is also time to replace all soil. If you see the roots are beginning to bind, gently loosen the outer tendrils. You can also use bonsai tactics for root trimming to keep your tree small. Some trees may require pruning. Use your discretion if you observe leggy growth. Trim back dead branches and do not let the top weight of the tree become too much for the trunk and roots to handle. Pruning can also encourage growth.

Young trees will lose some portion of the early fruits, so do not be alarmed. This is a natural process. You may find a few ladybugs or spiders around your plants during the outdoor season. These are beneficial to the environment and will do no harm. Ants, aphids, and scales are the most common form of pest. Try baits for ants and an insecticidal soap for other invasions. Horticultural oil is also a good treatment.

Once your fruit trees begin to thrive, you will soon reap all the benefits of having an orchard in the living room!

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