Growing orchard trees in containers

If it's difficult to get into the orchard, why not bring the orchard to you?

I often wish I could fit all my orchard trees in thecourtyard. That way, I’d know what they were doing every minute of the day. I’d remember to soak them weekly, water them more often if they needed it, feed them, de-bug them as required, and make sure The Partner didn’t ringbark them with his over enthusiastic use of the weed eater.

Of course, there wouldn’t be room to sit in there and enjoy a gin and lime, but the trees would produce alarming quantities of fruit, and I could bottle and pickle to my heart’s content. (It’s very scary that a love of gardening seems to have turned me into my mother. Next I’ll be getting an apron and wearing my hair in a bun.)

At the moment, my forays into the orchard (in serious gumboots) are intermittent at best, the positive side of that being that I will always see something surprising down there. Guava, for example. I’d forgotten we had guava. And masses of limes, which I truly didn’t deserve since I’ve hardly fed them this year. So if, like me, you’re a bit of an airhead about things that are not right there in front of you, consider growing fruit trees in containers and keeping them close to the house.

First up, they need to be big containers. I like terracotta, because it looks good and I can fool myself that it “breathes”, although, even if that were true, I can’t imagine why it would be an advantage. What is an advantage, though, is the constant reminder to feed and water the trees diligently.

Citrus trees have been grown in tubs for centuries, and if you don’t have the right soil for them in the garden, they are a great option. The main limitation with container-grown citrus is their need for constant moisture. They want a weekly soaking to prevent the water stress that leads to early fruit drop.

You need to feed them in spring with a controlled release fertiliser (don’t use powdered fertiliser in pots) and with liquid feed regularly, till autumn. Aside from all that, they need a warm climate and free-draining soil – either in a pot of out of it – and they’ll likely behave themselves. Most problems occur when the roots are too wet or too dry, and if they’re not getting enough nutrients, the leaves go yellow and you won’t get great fruit.

When you’re communing with them every morning, check for curled young leaves, which could be a sign of aphids. If you see any, you can squash them by hand, if you’re not squeamish, or clean them up (literally and figuratively) with a spray of soapy water.

Plant some marigolds or lavender nearby – they’ll enhance the Mediterranean look of your courtyard or terrace, and they’re reputed to be an aphid repellent. Compact trees, such as Clementine mandarins, Meyer lemons and limes are great to grow in containers.

Other fruit trees that should do well are olives, figs and apples on dwarf rootstocks. And if you really want to have a close relationship with your orchard trees, turn them into standards. Compact, smaller leafed citrus varieties respond well to training as clipped standards, and they look very smart in a courtyard setting either as a centrepiece, or in a row, lined up along a wall in matching pots.

Select trees with a good shape, plenty of foliage and a straight, strong trunk. Remove the side growth up to where you want your “ball” to start, and trim into the desired shape. Snip bits off whenever the fancy takes you.

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