If you were under the impression that growing fruit trees and berries on decks, patios or in tiny townhouse gardens was just wishful thinking, then it’s time to make those pipe dreams a reality. Truth be told, there are a myriad of gardeners (including myself) who grow apples, cherries, blueberries and even exotics such as Strawberry Guava in containers quite successfully. The trick is to choose the right cultivars or species and here are some of your best options;
I have been growing the Columnade Apples ‘Scarlet Sentinel’ and ‘Golden Sentinel’ in containers for about ten years now, with the fruit resembling ‘McIntosh’ and ‘Golden Delicious’ respectively. Both trees are about 5-6’ tall by 2’ wide now and nicely screen the end of my west-facing backyard patio. Two different varieties are needed to provide cross-pollination in order to get a decent yield, which are inevitably transformed into delicious pies by my wife. A new prairie-hardy Columnade variety (zone 2) from the University of Saskatchewan, ‘Treasured Red’, will also be available this year. Another option is to grow what is called a Mini-Apple, which is essentially one that is grafted onto an M9 rootstock which matures at 6-8’ tall but needs permanent staking or support. Also, if you are only going to grow one of these, it is essential to choose a self-fertile cultivar such as ‘Spartan’.
My 'Golden Sentinel' and 'Scarlet Sentinel' Apples in bloom, Ripening 'Scarlet Sentinel' Apple
Peaches & Nectarines
The genetic dwarf peach ‘Empress’ and nectarine ‘Golden Prolific’ have been with us for quite some time now. Both are self-fertile, although I find they bloom quite early when few bees are about, so I hand-pollinate with a cotton swab. Mine is growing in a 15-gallon pot and is about 3’ x 3’ now with the magenta-pink flowers making a beautiful addition to the early spring display. One issue specific to Peaches and Nectarines on the coast is their susceptibility to Peach Leaf Curl, a fungus brought on by exposure to excessive rain. I avoid this altogether by growing my Nectarine just under an overhang on the west side, where it stays dry but still gets adequate sun.
Nectarine 'Golden Prolific' with developing fruit, Hand-pollinating Nectarine, Peach Leaf Curl
Your best choice here are the Romance Series from University of Saskatchewan, which were bred from crossing Sour Cherries (Prunus cerasus) with Mongolian Cherry (Prunus fruticosa). These particular hybrids have a high sugar content and are self-fertile, with a maximum height of 6-8 feet and a hardiness of zone 3. They are worth growing just for the prolific display of snow-white blossoms and there are numerous cultivars to choose from, including ‘Romeo’ (the variety I grow), ‘Juliet’, ‘Carmine Jewel’, ‘Cupid’, ‘Valentine’ and ‘Crimson Passion’.
Cherry 'Romeo' Fruit, Cherry 'Romeo' in Container, Cherry 'Romeo' in Flower
Blackberries & Raspberries
The thorns, unruly growth habit and heavy feeding requirements of these berries makes them nearly impossible to grow in containers with any degree of success. Two exceptions here are the dwarf thornless ‘Raspberry Shortcake’ and Blackberry ‘Baby Cakes’ which come from the Bushel and Berry Collection. Both are self-fertile, with the former being summer-bearing, while ‘Baby Cakes’ often produces two crops a year, in summer and in fall. Success lies in providing them with a large container and pruning out second-year canes that have fruited, leaving the new ones for future production.
Blueberries are excellent candidates for container culture but my very favourite is a cultivar called ‘Blueberry Glaze’ (soon to renamed ‘Berrybux’) which I have grown for about 7 years now. It features glossy boxwood-like foliage, beautiful white heather blooms, musky black berries and burgundy-red autumn foliage (which is often evergreen) that makes it a must-have for the garden. This is the only blueberry in my garden and yet it is always chock full of berries, so it is quite self-fertile. ‘Blueberry Glaze’ is a part of the Bushel and Barrel Series which also produces many other container blueberries such as ‘Jelly Bean’, ‘Pink Icing’, ‘Perpetua’ and ‘Peach Sorbet’. ‘Tophat’ is another popular hybrid for containers as it only grows about 18” tall and wide, however, the V. angustifolium lineage means that it can often suffer fungal problems in persistent rains, so consider sheltering this variety under cover.
'Blueberry Glaze' berries, 'Blueberry Glaze' in flower, Blueberry Glaze' foliage in January
Wild Strawberry & Lingonberry
Both these berries are hardy to zone 3 and adapt quite well to smaller containers. Most cultivars of Fragaria vesca are runnerless and produce tasty (think strawberry and bubblegum flavour) tapered fruits of either red or yellow (‘Yellow Wonder’) and some such as ‘Golden Alexandria’ having brilliant foliage. They are also everbearing, continuously producing from late spring into autumn. Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is an evergreen sub-shrub which matures at 12-16” tall and features white heather blooms followed by clusters of red berries (taste like cranberry) that dangle over the edge of the pot.
Fragaria 'Golden Alexandria', 'Yellow Wonder' Alpine Strawberry, Lingonberry in Bloom
I grow several exotic fruits in containers including Dwarf Pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’) and Strawberry Guava (Ugni molinae) but I also have protective sleeves to cover them during prolonged below-freezing temperatures. Figs are another option, with ‘Little Ruby’ (which I grow) and ‘Petite Negra’ both being dwarf in nature. However, you cannot expect the same fruit production as those being grown in-ground.
Dwarf Pomegranate Fruit, ‘Petite Negra’ Fig
Start by potting using a compost-based container mix such as Sea Soil Container Complete, as traditional peat-based mixes do not provide enough nutrition and will simply produce poor, tasteless fruit. Drainage is also essential for container fruits, so make sure there are adequate holes and raise your pots in winter using tile or pot feet to make sure these don’t freeze over. Fertilize once a year in April using a 14-14-14 slow release and some Gaia Green Glacial Rock Dust to help replenish trace minerals. Consistent watering is vital, particularly as the fruit or berries are growing in size. Fruit trees will require some light structural pruning, followed by a dormant spray (before flower or leaf buds open) to keep pests and fungal problems to a minimum. One last hint if you have cats in the neighbourhood (or own one like I do) is to topdress the containers with a little fine river rock to deter them from digging and implementing their own fertilization program.