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Growing Fruit Trees in Containers

Yes, you can grow apples or other fruit trees in pots or containers! Growing trees in containers is a good option when you don’t have a yard or or have limited outdoor space. It’s also a good choice if you plan to move and want to take your tree with you. When you grow a tree in a container, you also have the option of bringing it inside a garage or an unheated basement to avoid freezing winter conditions or spring frosts.

Watering Trees in Containers

The main disadvantage of growing trees in containers is that the trees need more attention than trees planted in the ground. Trees in containers can dry out quickly, so they need to be watered frequently during the growing season, usually 2-3 times a week or even daily in hot weather.

A few things to keep in mind about container trees. People often think that rain is enough to water the trees, but that’s not usually the case unless there’s been a deluge. The smaller the container or pot where you have planted your tree, the more frequently you’ll need to water it.

Winterizing Your Container Trees

If you live in an area that experiences temperatures below freezing, you will also need to protect your trees from the winter cold. Trees planted in the ground are less vulnerable to freezing temperatures and cold air because their roots are insulated by the soil. A tree that’s planted in a container doesn’t have this protection. The cold air surrounds the roots and can cause damage. 

Because roots in a pot freeze a lot sooner than roots in soil, it is ideal to put your pot or container directly on the ground, rather than on a porch or deck. In locations with mild winters it may be sufficient to surround the pot with organic matter like straw or sawdust or even blankets to keep the roots warm and prevent them from freezing. In areas where the temperatures drop below freezing for an extended period (Zones 3, 4 and 5 for the Upper Midwest), it is best to bring the containers into an unheated garage or basement. NOTE: You should NOT bring the tree into an area that is heated.

What Kind of Trees Grow Well in Containers

Dwarf, specifically M.27 or B.9 (pretty much any rootstock not growing more than 10-12' in final, unpruned height), varieties of fruit trees work well in containers because the size of the adult tree is smaller, usually less than 6 feet.

If you want to grow apple trees in pots, it is helpful to understand that fruit trees have two basic parts: the rootstock and the scion. The scion is a cutting from a specific variety of tree that is grafted or attached onto the rootstock. The fruit grows out of the scion, not the rootstock. Both parts of the fruit tree--the rootstock and scion--determine the size of the mature tree. If you want to plant your fruit tree in a container, you will want to make sure that your rootstock and tree are dwarf height--four to six feet tall--so they don’t outgrow the container.

What Size Pot or Container Do You Need for a Tree

Apple trees on dwarf rootstocks fit well in a pot of between 18" - 22" diameter across the top. You can also look for containers with a volume 20-30 gallons.

For other fruit trees, use pots or patio containers that are a bit bigger. You can either start with a small pot with a top diameter of at least 24” across, then re-pot every year or so into bigger containers until the tree stops growing.

Be sure the container is stable or consider anchoring it to the ground or a nearby fence because they can blow away when the tree is in leaf.

What Kind of Soil for a Container Tree

You will want to use normal potting soil or a mix of compost and potting soil. Compost alone will dry out too quickly. 

Put some large rocks or broken clay pot pieces in the bottom to allow drainage like you do with any plant. You can also use mulch on top of the soil to keep moisture in. The key thing when growing fruit trees in containers is not to let the soil dry out.

After the tree has reached its final size, replace the soil every 3-5 years.