If you think that you have to forgo fresh fruit just because your yard is too small—or non-existent—to sustain a large tree, think again! You might want to think about planting your tree in a container, and even just keeping it inside all the time if it’s not the kind of plant that needs full sunlight. If you go for one of the dwarf versions of some common trees, you may be able to have plenty of fruit from a small, easy-to-manage plant.
Personally, I’ve been growing the dwarf versions of some tropical variety fruit-bearing trees, as well as a pine tree, a ficus, and a coffee tree. Every one of these is in a container. I keep the tropical trees in the garden, and the coffee tree on my patio. When the frost comes, I simply take them inside, except for the ficus, which lives indoors full-time, and the pine tree, which only lives outside.
Here is some experience that I’ve amassed over the years, and which I’d like to share with any aspiring container farmers:
1. Use Plenty of Mulch.
Most people, for some random reason, seem to forgo any kind of mulch when they are planting in containers. There’s no reason to avoid this just because your plant is confined. It’s a good idea to use mulch to keep the soil from drying too quickly. You can reduce the amount of time you spend on watering significantly if you add some rock, gravel, or even recycled cork to your tree’s container.
2. Get a Decent Pot.
Ceramic pots may be more attractive, but plastic is durable and keeps water from evaporating too quickly. If you want your plastic containers to look aesthetically pleasing, darker colors usually look more attractive and contrast well with the color of your trees. As far as shape goes, pick a rectangular / square pot if you can, since these will hold more volume, which means they can accommodate a larger root system.
3. Don’t Bother With a Draining Layer.
Nowadays, commercial soils drain well enough that you don’t have to put a layer of broken ceramic at the bottom of your pot for drainage. Just make sure that there are holes poked into the underside of your container to keep moisture from getting out of control.
4. Use Organic Fertilizer.
Too much artificial fertilizer can harm your tree’s root system, so mix in a small amount of organic fertilizer when you’re first planting your tree in its new soil. Organic fertilizer also lasts longer, so you won’t need to add it week after week.
5. Start Composting.
Soil is basically dead organic material. As time wears on, it will break down, so every one or two years, you will want to replenish it with nutrients. The easiest way to do this is to gently extract the tree from its pot, add some compost and fertilizer to the bottom of the container, and then put the tree back. You might also want to place some compost on the sides of the container as well, but make sure not to overdo it, since you want to leave room for mulch near the top.
6. Get in the zone.
If your container tree spends the winter outdoors, its roots will be exposed to colder temps than an in-ground tree—a whole zone colder, in fact. For example, if you live in zone 6, your container tree will feel like it’s living through a zone 5 winter. Keep this in mind when selecting container trees for hardiness.
7. Invest in some wheels.
If you want to move your container trees indoors for the winter, consider investing in a hand truck (also called a dolly). I consider my hand truck the best $60 I ever spent because I no longer have to lift or carry my heavy containers. And it’s useful for other tasks, such as moving furniture and appliances.
8. Set up where the sun is sure to shine.
Remember, sunlight is the plant’s main source of food. Place indoor trees in a sunny window. Mine spend the winter in front of a large west-facing window that gets strong afternoon sun.
9. Tune in to your tree’s language.
Here’s the most important tip: It’s impossible to maintain perfect conditions for a potted tree 24/7/365. At some point, your tree will wilt, drop leaves, not set flowers or drop fruit. These aren’t disasters. Instead, they are lessons in your curriculum as a new tree tender.
If your container tree has been content with watering once a week but then drops some leaves, this is an opportunity for you to discover why. Maybe it’s reacting to being moved to a new spot that’s too sunny or too shady or low on fertilizer and the newer leaves have raided the older ones of their nitrogen. Or maybe it’s just the season when even evergreens normally drop older leaves, so there’s nothing to worry about. Dwarf trees are living things and becoming a good gardener is a matter of recognizing the little clues they give you.
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