How to Grow an Apple Tree in a Container

You don’t need a huge yard to enjoy homegrown apples. It’s possible to grow an apple tree in a container when you don’t have a yard to plant them in, your garden space is temporary, or you’ve got contaminated soil. But you will want to choose the right kind of apple tree, and meet their needs in your climate. Keeping it happy is important, especially if you want organic apples. The less stressed it is, the easier it will be to grow a harvest year after year without big pest and disease problems.

grow an apple tree

Don’t just rush out and buy the first apple tree you see. Size matters greatly. If you are going to successfully grow apples in containers, you want starter trees labeled as a dwarf, very-dwarf, or miniature (sometimes called patio trees). Sizing isn’t due to variety, it has to do with the rootstock the nursery used.

While the rootstock controls the mature size of your tree, when you grow an apple tree in a container, the container itself adds to the dwarfing effect. And some dwarf rootstocks give you a smaller tree, but can also reduce your harvest size. One of the best options is M9 rootstock, which is used worldwide.

So, what size container do you need to grow an apple tree? This also depends on the rootstock used for grafting. If it’s got the right rootstock, a dwarf tree will do well in a 24″ wide pot that’s at least 16″ deep. A miniature or very-dwarf Apple in an 18″ wide pot. While you might be envisioning a lovely patio pot, a whiskey barrel planter, or something else decorative… your wisest choice could very well be a fabric pot, and here’s why:

Fabric pots allow you to grow in straight soil, gives you instant excellent drainage, and does the root pruning for you. Orange Pippin Trees in the UK suggests growing in a mix of actual soil and compost, because straight compost dries out too quickly, and apple trees fare better in real soil as opposed to a potting mix.

Additionally, potting mixes will totally break down in 3-5 years, making removing a good portion of the poorly draining remains from your tree’s roots and replacing it. This calls for partial bare-rooting, and can only be done during normal dormancy. Container fruit tree pros suggest root pruning at this time too, because in a non-breathing container – ceramic, resin, plastic, wood, or glazed clay – the tree roots will be circling around looking for a place to grow towards.

If you start out with a fabric pot, you won’t have poor drainage issues. So, if it rains for a week straight, your apple tree will suffer far less. Fabric pot growing also means you’ll have no need for gravel in the bottom, and your tree will never blow over in the wind as is common when growing in potting mix. A light base of a fully leafed out tree makes them fall over all the time. This causes broken branches and dumped out potting mix, which is hard on roots on a hot day.

Other benefits of growing apples in fabric pots include no need to root prune to make your tree happier in its tiny home because the airflow through the walls continually prunes the roots. The moisture retention is hugely increased in actual soil (even as the pot drains from all sides), and your tree will develop a stronger root system too. Just amend it each spring with compost or manure as in any garden to replenish the tree’s soil health.

For the optimum harvest, when you grow an apple tree in a pot or the ground, you will want to fertilize it every year. To grow organic apples, you’ll want to feed the soil regularly. That could mean once or twice a month, depending on the fertilizer sources you choose, and your apple tree needs proper nutrition from spring blossoming through September. Once harvest arrives, it’s the end of the tree’s work for the year, and it’s time for it to prepare for winter rest – not produce new growth.

grow an apple treeHopefully, you’ve put a plant caddy under the container, because a container-grown apple tree needs shelter from temperatures below freezing. This means moving it into an unheated building where temperatures will remain above 32°F to protect the root system from cold damage.

That plant caddy would also come in handy in a spring cold snap. The threat of frost after apple blossoms start forming spells disaster for orchards, but you with your tree in a container on wheels can whisk it indoors overnight and ensure you will have fruit despite Mother Nature’s fickle ways.

There are a couple more important things to know before you start shopping for apple trees. Firstly, get a variety rated for your climate, because not every type thrives in zones 4, 9, and 10 due to heat index and growing season length.

Secondly, not all apple trees are self-fertile (a.k.a. self-pollinating), and some aren’t pollinizers at all. There are partially self-fertile varieties that will bear fruit grown alone but will produce more heavily when another variety is grown along with it. Follow the first link below for a complete list of your single tree orchard options. But if there’s a flowering crabapple tree in yours or an adjacent neighbor’s yard, it might serve as a pollenizer tree for a single container-grown apple 😉 … as long as the two bloom at the same time.

By the way, the smaller the size at maturity, the faster your apple tree will start producing fruit. Very-dwarf and miniatures will give you sweet, crunchy apples in just 1-2 years!

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Images courtesy of Deb’s Dust Bunny, A Cultivated Nest, and The Hearty Soul (respectively).

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.