Frank Hyman
January 18, 2016

Courtesy Hemera/Thinkstock

Just because your yard isn’t big enough to plant a sapling that will grow into a majestic tree (or you have no yard at all!), doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the fruits trees have to offer. Consider planting a tree in a container, and perhaps, keep it indoors if it doesn’t need full sun. If you choose dwarf tree varieties, your tree can stay a manageable size.

I grow several dwarf tropical fruit trees, a coffee tree, an Italian stone pine and a ceiling-sweeping Benjamin ficus tree all in containers. The coffee tree lives on the porch in summer while the tropical fruit trees are out in the garden. They all come inside for the worst of the winter months. The ficus stays indoors year-round, and the stone pine stays outoors at all times.

Here are nine tips I’ve acquired over the years to help beginning tree farmers grow happy plants of any size in containers, whether indoors or out.

1. Mulch with style.

From what I see when I visit other gardens, you’d think there was a law against using mulch in containers. Thankfully, there isn’t. I use a variety of attractive mulches to keep my pots from drying out too fast. A 1-inch layer of colorful gravels, river rocks or even repurposed wine corks make attractive, permanent mulch that cuts watering time in half.

2. Pick your best pot.

Terra-cotta pots look good, but plastic pots hold moisture longer. Choose dark-colored plastic pots—they set off the color of the tree better. Opt for a square pot to hold more soil and, therefore, more roots.

3. Forget the drainage layer.

There’s no need for a layer of broken pots in the bottom of your container. Modern potting soils drain just fine without a “drainage layer.” Just make sure your container has holes to keep water from pooling at the bottom and to prevent soil from staying too moist.

4. Go organic with your fertilizer.

When planting your container tree, mix a few handfuls of organic fertilizer with the potting soil. It won’t burn the roots the way a synthetic fertilizer can. Plus, it will supply the tree with nutrients for a long time—no need for weekly doses of liquid fertilizer.

5. Pile on the compost.

Potting soil is made of organic matter. Over time, it breaks down into air and water. Every year or two, you’ll need to refresh the soil. Here’s how: Spread a tarp, remove the mulch, gently extract the tree from the pot, add 1 inch or more of compost and a few handfuls of organic fertilizer to the bottom of the container, and reset the tree. Also add some compost and fertilizer around the edges of the container, between the container and the root ball. Be sure to leave enough room at the top of the container to reset the mulch.

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