Choosing a dwarf fruit tree for a garden
March 31, 2013 6:01 PM   Subscribe

I have a large container in my back yard that I want to use for a dwarf tree. The container is at least 3 by 3 feet and gets full sun. It's very important that the tree stay short - four feet is best, five feet would be ok. I want to get tasty fruit from it. I want it to stay healthy and require minimal maintenance. Please give me species recommendations and tips.

I like apples but I can get organic apples fairly cheaply so I don't really need an apple tree. I don't like apricots or plums. I do like pears and cherries. I live near Seattle. I will probably almost ignore this tree except for picking the fruit.

Would it be worth it for me to go to the local garden store and pay big bucks for a tree as opposed to ordering from territorial seed catalog?
posted by bq to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: A fig tree is also a good choice compared to, say, a citrus or pear tree because fresh figs do not keep very well at all, so having a really fresh supply would be handy. Prunus subgenera (cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, etc) are generally best fresh, but they keep considerably better than fresh figs.
posted by jedicus at 6:45 PM on March 31, 2013

Best answer: I want to get tasty fruit from it. I want it to stay healthy and require minimal maintenance.

Generally, fruit trees need lots of maintenance, as Seymour said. Figs are indeed pretty easy, as are feijoas and dwarf citrus. Any Rosaceae family fruit tree is going to need serious care: apple, pear, plum, cherry, apricot, peach, &c. Spraying, proper pruning, &c. None of the above will remain under four feet without pruning, though dwarf citrus can be pretty small for a very long time, depending on the variety. A dwarf mandarin might be the thing, though they are not care-free. If you're in the NW you could probably do a self-pollinating blueberry with some success, but it's not a tree.

You will need to water any young tree generally, and any tree in a container will likely need supplemental water throughout it's life during warm periods. Container soils also develop deficiencies easily as soils become leached, so at some point supplementation or re-potting may become a need.

I would buy a five gallon whatever-you-choose for that size pot. Anything larger has a harder time acclimating (it's good for plants to grow into a site), and anything smaller will be subject to root rots in a planter that large. You need to start small things in smaller pots, then move them up so that they aren't sitting in wet soil their roots can't use. Containers have issues that the ground does not because there is a resistance to total drainage (due to having a bottom, which creates resistance to gravitational flow), unlike the ground (which always has gravitational drainage, unless there's hardpan below). There is always a zone of wet soil at the bottom (unless you let the pot dry beyond anything the average plant can handle), so you should avoid over-sizing a pot with perennial plants.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:01 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Kumquat trees are ridiculously hardy, will fruit to your annoyance, and even left wild will take decades to get too big for your guidelines. Kumquats are mighty tasty too, great for salads, mixed with chicken or seafood, jams, marmalade etc and are excellent right off the branch.
posted by chasles at 7:02 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You mention Territorial - are you in the northwest? If so, I'd recommend Raintree Nursery instead; they specialize in fruit/nut trees for the northwest. I've had my eye on a Meyer Lemon tree for some time now, you may need to wrap it if it gets truly cold for along stretch, but - citrus! They are sweeter, and are ideal for making preserved lemons. They are also the perfect container fruit.
Otherwise, be sure to select a variety on dwarf root stock, and takes a class on how to keep it pruned properly; all fruit trees should be pruned yearly.
posted by dbmcd at 7:11 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Consider bushes instead of trees; at some point they're somewhat indistinguishable. What about medium-bush blueberries? (highbush are taller than that you want.) I'm growing bush cherries and that might suit you well.
I was going to recommend Raintree, but I see dbmcd has beat me to it.
posted by aimedwander at 7:19 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I love figs. Loooooooove figs. I am allergic to figs.
posted by bq at 7:32 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the suggestions. I hadn't considered citrus at all. Unfortunately I am stuck with this container to work with so I will make do.
posted by bq at 8:08 PM on March 31, 2013

If you might try a bush, I bet raspberries would work pretty well. They freeze well, are always expensive and would be damn tasty fresh and ripe. You might need to net them to keep more of your harvest from the birds.
posted by amanda at 8:50 PM on March 31, 2013

Visit Molbak's in Woodinville and get their advice. It's a great great plant nursery---if we have spirits that walk the Earth after death, that's where you'll find me.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 10:19 PM on March 31, 2013

I've seen huge, healthy, and producing (as in so many fruits I got sick of eating them) fig trees here on Whidbey Island, just across the water from you, so I think climate should be ok. Allergies are another matter.
posted by The otter lady at 10:38 PM on March 31, 2013

I hadn't considered citrus at all. Unfortunately I am stuck with this container to work with so I will make do.

We have a Meyer lemon tree that we keep indoors, in front of a window. The moderate temperature and sunlight mean that, although it's never in danger of frost or pests, it grows very slowly. We get a lot of fragrant flowers but typically only a handful of lemons at a time. We fertilize it three times per year and water it about once a week and that's about it.
posted by jedicus at 9:19 AM on April 1, 2013

Response by poster: I also hadn't considered nuts, but I do love nuts. Are they very messy?
posted by bq at 11:07 AM on April 1, 2013

Blueberries grow pretty easily in a pot if it's large enough and fresh blueberries are great. You need the right soil for them and the occasional prune. I've never found fruit trees hard work beyond pruning, occasionally netting to keep birds off. If you want hundreds of perfect fruits then yes you can fuss them like mad, but be prepared to loose some to birds and bugs and dodge a few blemishes and most fruit trees are low maintenance but for pruning and fertilizing.

Kumquats grow great in pots too. Strawberries, taste so much better fresh. Depending on where you are you are climate zone wise you might want to consider grapes, they can get top heavy though, pomegranates, small nectarines, and peaches do well. You want to keep the plants pruned though so they don't outgrow their pots. I've also grown a passionfruit in a pot but that was in Australia so not sure how they do in the USA.

Oh and don't write off an apple tree, a fresh from the tree apple tastes nothing like the ones you can buy, even if organic.

The advice oneirodynia gave to watch the pot sizes and move the plant up as they grow until they fit in the pot you have in mind for them is important
posted by wwax at 11:53 AM on April 1, 2013

Response by poster: I am actually planning to buy three or four grape vines for a fence that we have installed, but I want to clarify the nature of the containers I've working with - this is an area that is completely decked off except for large square containers lined with concrete and filled with soil. As they were put in before we purchased the house I don't know how far down they go (I suspect that this one I am planning for does not have a closed bottom). I do have some pots but I am trying to figure out a way to make the remaining square containers (this one is about 9 to 13 square feet) productive.

I have another similar container devoted entirely to strawberries and I agree that they are fantastic. A huge improvement.
posted by bq at 12:17 PM on April 1, 2013

Mulberries? In my area they grow wild and produce HEAPS of fruit, so by implication they need little attention.

Can be somewhat staining to the surface below if you let the fruit naturally drop.
posted by trialex at 5:08 PM on April 1, 2013

just revisiting this because i got curious. i think mini citrus is definitely the answer here. they grow in zone 8 (which i suspect you are in) stay smallish, are trees which can take beating, and don't have humoungous damaging root systems. anyway, good luck!
posted by chasles at 11:47 AM on April 2, 2013

Response by poster: I was in Woodinville Monday so I stopped into Molbak's and talked end to them about citrus. They said that Meyer lemons are great - but not really outside plants here in Seattle. So I'm thinking apple or cherry.

Now I need to pick a variety. And what's the difference between a shrub and a cherry?

Three Canadice vines went in the ground yesterday and are currently getting rained on.

This is all very exciting.
posted by bq at 8:51 AM on April 10, 2013

Response by poster: Also, I keep getting spam about a fruit salad tree that grows five kinds of fruit. Is this real?
posted by bq at 8:53 AM on April 10, 2013

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