Although many TV gardening programmes would have you think otherwise a very large percentage of the UK population have a very small garden or perhaps just a patio. This makes those owners of these small spaces wonder what they can grow. My advice is always that you can grow many plants nowadays in containers so why not have a go yourself if the majority of your garden is a patio? For many years shrubs, perennials and even small trees have been grown in containers but – despite a small following – it is only recently that there has been a trend towards growing fruit in containers.
Some fruits will actually benefit from being grown in containers. Blueberries are, perhaps, the prime example as it is very hard to achieve ideal growing conditions for them unless your ground has just the right acidity for them to thrive. Figs, whose roots need to be potbound for them to start fruiting well, are ideal grown in containers and strawberries in pots or hanging baskets are perfect for having outside your back door as you can then pick them at any time with ease!
But before I get carried away with what you can grow I need to go through a few basic principles of fruit growing in containers:
- The container (and I include all pots in this) needs to be of a reasonable size for what you are going to grow in it. You must allow some room in the container for the roots to grow and I usually reckon to assume an additional 75mm all round from whatever container the tree or plant was grown in previously.
- The container must (and I mean must) have a good number of drainage holes in the bottom to allow good drainage. If you don’t the water in the container will very quickly build up, go stale and in effect “drown” the roots. Improve the drainage at the bottom of the container by adding a layer of small stones first, then some gravel or shingle and then the compost.
- The container must be strong enough to take the weight of the soil you are going to use. I have seen cheap pots, in particular, burst with the pressure of frozen soil. Additionally if you are planting trees in containers you need to ensure that they are deep and stable enough to prevent them being blown over in windy weather.
- The container must be of a frost proofed construction as they are going to be outside in all weathers and cheap terracotta pots will quickly shatter.
- An ideal container which meets the above four criteria is the Vigoroot Planter which is lined with a special fabric that prevent roots from spiralling within. It comes in two sizes and is ideal for growing all types of fruit bushes and trees.
- You must always use a soil based compost and not a peat or peat substitute based compost. This is primarily because the compost is going to be the “home” for the tree or plant for a considerable time and soil based composts both retain nutrients well and provide stability within the container. The only exception that I allow for this is when growing strawberries or blueberries (see below). Don’t just dig up soil from your garden but use a good quality John Innes No.3 compost.
- If growing strawberries I strongly recommend you use a light, free draining compost such as coir (if like me you try to be organic) or a peat based compost (as used by commercial growers) as this provides ideal conditions for these plants.
- If growing blueberries it is essential that you use a good ericaceous compost and feed using ericaceous feed.
- If growing top fruit i.e. apples, pears, cherries, plums etc. never use a very dwarfing rootstock to control the tree. Use a medium vigour rootstock (M26 or MM106 for apples, Quince A or C for pears, St. Julien A for plums and Colt for cherries).
- You will need to water container grown plants very often in sunny weather and this may well mean daily – so be prepared!
So what to grow? Well, to be honest, you can almost grow any fruit you want to – although some are easier than others. All fruits trees and plants that I recommend are available from Pomona Fruits:
- Apples, pears, plums and cherries can easily be grown as vertical cordons but you will need a stake to grow them up. You can even grow these trees as mini bushes but I would advise you to grow them as cordons as they will be far more productive in terms of cropping.
- The genetically dwarf peaches ‘Diamond‘ and ‘Crimson Bonfire’, nectarine ‘Snow Baby‘ and apricot ‘Aprigold‘ are just perfect for growing in containers as bushes and will produce good crops.
- As I noted earlier figs are ideal grown in containers to encourage them to fruit.
- All blueberries are ideal for growing in containers and ‘Ozarkblue’ and ‘Sunshine Blue’ are fairly compact and will not produce a large bush.
- If you would like to try growing a quince or medlar you can do so by planting Sibley’s Patio Quince and Sibley’s Patio Medlar. These trees have be grafted at about 12 in (30cm) above soil level to reduce the vigour and ensure they will thrive in containers for many years to come.
- Autumn fruiting raspberries can be grown in pots quite easily by planting three canes to a large container and growing them as a wigwam. They can then be cut down to ground level when they have finished fruiting each year. Three excellent varieties to consider are ‘Autumn Treasure’, ‘Joan J’ and ‘Polka’.
- The newly introduced primocane blackberry ‘Reuben’ is an ideal plant for a container and one plant will provide you with a very large crop of berries each year.
- Cordon redcurrants grown up canes or stakes are another ideal fruit plant for growing in containers. I would advise planting the fairly recently introduced and heavy cropping ‘Rovada’.
- Finally strawberries must be considered – not necessarily the usual main crop varieties but perpetual varieties such as ‘Flamenco‘ and ‘Malling Opal’ that will crop over a fairly long period of time.
So there you have it – basic principles to underpin my suggestion that you consider growing plants and trees in containers and my suggestions as to what you might like to try. I thoroughly recommend that if space is limited you have a jolly good go!
18th October 2013
Gerry is an experienced amateur fruit grower who is Chairman of the RHS Fruit Group, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Fruit, Vegetable and Herb Committee and also their Fruit Trials Panel. Gerry judges fruit nationally for the Royal Horticultural Society and is also a qualified National Vegetable Society judge.