How To Grow And Care For A Dwarf Fruit Tree

The vendors at the farmers' market will soon be missing you.

Dwarf Lemon Tree

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Anyone can turn a sunny backyard into a luscious oasis with an orchard of dwarf fruit trees. You don't need a lot of ground area to grow a small tree; put them in containers and surround your outdoor living space with pots of flowering peach and apple trees. Even if you don't live in a tropical climate, you can grow a miniature lemon or lime tree on your back patio, bringing it indoors for winter. After all, there's nothing better than tasting a sun-ripened peach or a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. With a little preparation and our tips on growing a home orchard, you will soon be harvesting sweet produce from your own dwarf fruit trees. (The stems, leaves, and seeds of fruit trees are toxic to pets and to people.)

What Is A Dwarf Fruit Tree?

Fortunately, no genetic engineering or modification is involved in making dwarf fruit trees. Instead, they are created using the old-fashioned technique of grafting. A scion (a cutting or shoot from the desired plant cultivar) is grafted onto a rootstock of another plant. Rootstocks are chosen for their hardiness, drought tolerance, disease resistance, soil adaptation, and size. The fruit tree will only grow as much as the roots will allow it; combining a scion with a specific rootstock allows the grower to control the size of the tree.

Dwarf fruit trees grow to about 8 to 10 feet tall and wide, providing an abundance of full-sized fruit without requiring a large amount of room to grow. The amount of pruning needed is decreased since dwarf fruit trees have limited root systems and a compact growth habit. Dwarf trees generally reach maturity and begin producing fruit more quickly than their larger counterparts.

Plant Attributes
Plant Type  Perennial fruit tree or shrub
Mature Size  8-10 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full
Soil Type Well-drained, sandy loam, loamy
Soil pH Acidic to neutral (6.0-7.0)
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color White, pink
Hardiness Zones 4-11 (USDA), species dependent
Native Area Asia, Mediterranean, Europe
Toxicity Stems, leaves, and seeds toxic to pets, toxic to people

Dwarf Fruit Tree Care

Fruit trees have a reputation for requiring a lot of maintenance, but dwarf trees have less surface area than standard trees so they require less work to maintain. You will still need to prune: suckers and water sprouts, damaged, diseased, and dead limbs, limbs growing inward toward the center of the tree, and about a third of the new growth annually, while the trees are dormant. Fruit trees don't do well in soggy soil and require full sun.


Fruit trees need full sun during the growing season in order to flower and produce fruit. Select a location that receives a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight a day—a total of eight hours is even better. If you are planting your tree in the ground, avoid buildings and tall trees that will obstruct the sun during critical daylight hours. Pruning trees properly helps sunlight penetrate the canopy.

Spring-flowering trees (pome fruits like apples and pears or stone fruits like cherries and peaches) will bloom earlier with a southern exposure and can lose their flower buds to a late frost. Trees that are better adapted to the Upper and Middle South, like apples, can develop sunscald from blazing afternoon sun in hotter climates. Northern exposure is not recommended for fruit trees, as the low light will delay fruiting on your tree.


Most fruit trees require well-drained and acidic or neutral soil. Loam or sandy loam soils are best. If you have heavy clay, create a mound, planting the tree in a berm to help water drain away. If you have fast-draining sandy soil, add compost to help retain moisture. In most cases, it's best to place a layer of compost or other organic matter on top of the soil, rather than in the planting hole, but you can amend the soil slightly to improve drainage problems. Surround the tree with 2-4 inches of wood mulch to control weeds, conserve moisture, and add nutrients.

For growing in containers, use a commercial potting mix formulated for fruit trees, or mix 1/2 potting soil with 1/2 high-quality topsoil. Potting soils formulated for houseplants are usually too light for fruit trees, while ordinary garden soil is too heavy and can carry pests.


Overwatering can be dangerous to young potted trees. Once the tree is planted in the container, keep a close eye on it and only water when needed. Daily watering may not be necessary, but avoid letting the soil dry out completely. Water when the soil is dry to the touch a couple of inches below the surface. The sun can play a big part in drying out containers, so be mindful of the location of the pot and how much sun it gets daily. When your potted trees are mature though, they may benefit from daily watering during the months when they are in full leaf. Use plenty of water, at least until the temperatures cool off.

Temperature And Humidity

The temperature needs of your tree vary depending on what kind of fruit you are growing. Apples, pears, and stone fruits require a certain number of chill hours, or hours where temperatures are below 45 degrees Fahrenheit, to produce fruit. Many of these trees cannot be grown farther South than Zone 8 or 9. If you live in Zone 9 or warmer, it's easier to find plums, nectarines, and peaches that require fewer chill hours. Always choose a variety recommended for your climate.

Fig trees only require about 100 chill hours and can be grown in Zones 7-10, and sometimes in Zone 6 with extra protection from the cold. They are also more drought-tolerant than many fruit trees, making them a good choice in a dry climate.

Citrus trees are evergreen and can be seriously damaged by frost. They should be watered well when frost is expected. Covering a tree with burlap can help prevent damage during a short-lived frost. Among dwarf citrus trees, 'Meyer' lemon is probably the best known and can be cold hardy to Zone 8b. Kumquats and some Satsuma mandarins are also known for surviving winters in Zones 8b, while other citrus trees cannot survive winters further north than Zone 9. Many gardeners choose to bring citrus trees indoors for the winter.


If you will be planting your tree in the ground, a soil test by your extension office will provide recommendations on what type of fertilizer or soil amendments (usually to adjust the pH of the soil) should be used to prepare the soil for fruit trees. Don't place fertilizer in the planting hole, which can burn the roots. A nitrogen fertilizer can be applied after planting, usually once a year in the spring or by early July at the latest. Sprinkle the fertilizer about a foot away from the trunk and extend about a foot beyond the ends of the branches. Ask your extension office how much fertilizer to use for your type of tree and its size—usually, less fertilizer is recommended for younger trees.

When planting fruit trees in containers, don't add fertilizer if your potting soil already contains it. The fertilizer will leach away after a few weeks. Use a fertilizer formulated for fruit trees, which will be higher in nitrogen, and apply according to label directions. Fruit trees shouldn't be fertilized in winter.

Types Of Dwarf Fruit Trees

Before purchasing your tree, carefully read the label or ask someone at your nursery to determine if you need more than one tree to ensure proper pollination. Some fruit trees, such as figs, lemons, and peaches, are self-pollinating, meaning you only need one tree to get fruit. Others, such as apples and pears, need another tree nearby for pollination.

Many of these dwarf tree selections are available in varying sizes depending on the rootstock. Make certain you choose a tree grafted on dwarf rootstock for growing in a small space, especially if you plan to grow it in a container.

  • Apples: Recommended varieties for the South include 'Gala,' 'Ginger Gold,' 'Granny Smith,' 'Jonagold,' 'Empire,' 'Red Delicious,' 'Golden Delicious,' 'Stayman,' 'Rome,' and 'Fuji.' Many will not fruit farther South than Zone 8. Choose a variety recommended for your climate to ensure enough chill hours. Most apples require another variety to be planted for pollination. Rome and Golden Delicious are self-pollinating, but having another tree can increase your harvest.
  • Pears: 'Moonglow,' 'Seckel.' Both can be grown in Zones 5-8 and are resistant to fire blight. Grow one of each for pollination. Asian pears: Twentieth Century ('Nijisseiki') is commonly available as a dwarf tree. Zones 5-9; requires a pollinator.
  • Peaches / Nectarines: 'Contender' can be found as a dwarf peach tree. Zones 4-8. 'Bonanza' is a true dwarf peach tree that grows to 6 feet; Zones 7-9. 'Garden Delight' is a miniature nectarine tree that reaches 5 or 6 feet; Zones 6-9.
  • Figs: 'LSU Purple' (Zones 8-10), Southern Living's 'Little Miss Figgy' (Zones 7-10)
  • Citrus: dwarf 'Lisbon' lemon, Meyer lemon (sweet hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange), 'Bearss' dwarf seedless lime, Nules clementine, dwarf 'Ruby Red' grapefruit, 'Nagami' kumquat (most citrus are hardy in Zone 9 and warmer)


Pruning your fruit tree when first planting and in later years will help it become established, grow more vigorously, and produce more and larger fruit. Remove any weak, spindly, or diseased branches. In the case of narrow angled or crossing branches, remove the weakest one. If you are training the tree to have a central leader, only leave one. Also remove any suckers that appear on the tree below the graft union, using a sharp pair of pruners and cutting flush to the trunk. For a very young tree with no or few branches, simply trim off the top to about 3 feet aboveground. Some nurseries will already have done this work for you before shipping, in which case you won't need to prune until the following year.

After planting, limit pruning to when the tree is dormant, usually in winter or early spring. In most cases, remove about 1/3 of new growth to thin out branches, leaving the strongest growth. You can also keep the tree to a manageable size by trimming branches at the height you desire. For miniature trees, you may not need to remove more than crossing, broken, or diseased branches.

Propagating Dwarf Fruit Trees

Most fruit trees can be propagated with cuttings, with the exception of varieties protected by a registered trademark. This is the best way to expand your orchard since trees grown from seed rarely bear the same tasty fruit as the mother plant. But there's a caveat: Most varieties of fruit trees are grafted onto a different rootstock with exceptional disease resistance and to control the mature size. If you plant a cutting from one of these trees, it may not be as tough or it may grow to a different size. Fig trees usually are not grafted and can be more easily propagated.

For most trees, it's easiest to propagate with soft green stems or semi-hard stems (new growth that is beginning to turn woody, usually in summer). Follow these steps to propagate your tree:

  1. Cut 4-6 inches off the tip of a stem. Choose a flowerless stem from the current or past season's growth that is located towards the upper part of the tree.
  2. Remove leaves from the bottom half of the stem. To increase the chances of success, you can dip the bottom of the stem in rooting hormone.
  3. Stick the stem in a pot or tray filled with moist, sterile rooting medium. This can be sand or a mixture of peat and sand.
  4. Water well and cover the cuttings with clear plastic. Place in bright, indirect light. Keep the soil moist and the environment humid to ensure survival.
  5. Cuttings may take four weeks or longer to develop a root system. At that point, you can transplant them into individual pots with potting soil. Keeping your new plants indoors until spring will increase the chances of survival.

Potting And Repotting Dwarf Fruit Trees

It is easy, and often advantageous, to grow dwarf fruit trees in containers. If you have poor soil in your yard, you can fill a large container with a quality growing medium that will give your tree the nourishment it needs. A container can be moved around outside to take advantage of the sun or moved indoors during extreme cold. Finally, using containers makes it possible to grow species of fruit trees that are borderline hardy in your region.

Start with a small pot, about a 5- or 7-gallon container. As the tree grows within its container, it will eventually become root-bound. Before this happens, re-pot it into a larger container. You can tell that your tree is root-bound by its lack of vertical growth. It will still produce leaves and even fruit, but you will want to choose a bigger container to support continual growth and increased production.

Be sure the pot has adequate drainage (holes in the bottom and/or sides) so that excess water can drain and air can access the soil. This will help prevent diseases such as root rot from developing. You should also add a layer of gravel or rock to the bottom of the container to aid good drainage. Next, add some of the soil mix for the roots to rest on, and place the tree in the center of the pot so that it is vertical and straight. Then add the rest of your soil until the tree is properly situated in the container. Tamp the soil down around the roots in order to remove any air pockets. Some dwarf fruit trees may need a little help to grow upright as they become established. You can accomplish this at the time of planting by using tree stakes.


If you are growing a fruit tree in a container, temperatures of 15 or 20 degrees can freeze and eventually kill the roots. You'll likely need to provide some kind of winter protection, regardless of what type of tree you are growing. Here are a few methods for overwintering potted fruit trees:

  1. Overwintering outdoors: If the tree is winter-hardy in your zone, you can leave the pot outdoors if you provide some protection for the roots. Pile a heap of mulch or shredded leaves around the pot, making certain to cover the top of the pot as well.
  2. Overwintering in an unheated space: Move the pot to a shed, garage, or basement that stays at a higher temperature than the outdoors. Water the pot well and check it occasionally for dryness. A dormant tree will require less watering than usual.
  3. Overwintering indoors: It's best to move potted citrus trees indoors if temperatures regularly dip below 50. In the fall, move the tree to a shadier spot to acclimate it to lower light. Spray the tree with insecticidal soap if pests are present. Then move the pot indoors to bright light, preferably near a south-facing window. Do not place it next to a heating vent, which can dry out the plant. Do not fertilize in winter. Water the soil when dry.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Pome fruit trees and stone fruit trees require careful management to prevent disease. Here are the most common issues for fruit trees and how to prevent or control them:

  • Bacterial spot: Commonly affects peaches, causing spots on leaves and sunken lesions on fruit. Look for resistant cultivars. Spray dormant trees with copper bactericide.
  • Brown rot: Fungus attacks stone fruit trees, killing blossoms and rotting fruit. Remove and dispose of affected fruit and branches. Spray with copper fungicide if problem continues.
  • Cedar apple rust: Fungus carried by cedar trees spreads, causing bright yellow spots on apple and crabapple trees. Spots grow, turning orange with black specks. Use fungicide for cedar apple rust, applying as directed until after petals fall off tree.
  • Fire blight: Affects pears and apples. New shoots turn black and die. Oozing cankers may appear on wood. Choose resistant cultivars. Limit pruning to summer and winter while disease is inactive, and remove all diseased tree parts.
  • Peach leaf curl: Opening leaves swell and curl, turn purple, and fall off. Infected trees can be sprayed yearly with fungicide after leaves fall.
  • Peach scab: Dark green or black spots form near stem end of fruit. Fungus may cause fruit to crack or shrivel. Prune trees for good air circulation.
  • Apple scab fungus: Grayish spots form on leaves. The spots turn black and leaves fall from tree. Fruit can become deformed. Prune trees for air circulation and remove any fallen leaves.
  • Powdery mildew: Grayish-white powdery mildew can coat the leaves of many plants. Usually, good pruning and cultural practices will help the problem.
  • Citrus canker: Bacteria first attack citrus leaves, resulting in tiny, blister-like lesions. The lesions turn tan with a yellow halo. Leaves begin to drop and twigs and fruit are similarly affected. Spray plants with copper fungicide.
  • Citrus greening: Bacteria cause yellow areas on leaves that eventually fall off. Fruit are small, lopsided, and bitter. Proper watering, fertilizer, and weed control may help.
  • Alternaria brown spot: Infects young shoots and leaves of lemons and navel oranges, causing dieback and defoliation. Brown splotches surrounded by yellow appear. Fruit may have sunken black or brown spots with yellow halos. Improve airflow and use copper fungicide.
  • Citrus scab: Warty growths appear on fruit and leaves. Requires repeat sprays with copper fungicide to control.

Fruit trees attract many kinds of insects, but don't start spraying just yet. Most of these trees require insects for pollination. Plus, spraying the area will kill predator insects that help you keep pests under control. You may have to tolerate some insect damage in order to have fruit. Here are a few methods to control insects:

  • Remove infested fruit from the tree and ground. Keep the area weed free to discourage pests.
  • Use a strong spray of water to remove spider mites, aphids, and other crawling insects.
  • With smaller trees, you can bag the fruit when it first appears to prevent insect damage. First, remove any fruit that is already damaged and may be hosting insects. Place a plastic sandwich bag around each remaining fruit while it is still small, generally less than an inch in diameter. Secure with a twist tie, tape, or staples. Remove when it's time to harvest.
  • If you have an infestation that requires spraying, do not spray while your tree is flowering. Many insects can be controlled with horticultural oil, but some require an insecticide specific to the species. Take photos and ask your extension office for advice if you are uncertain which spray to use.

Common Problems With Dwarf Fruit Trees

If you're having problems with the health of your plant, blooming, or fruiting, there may be other culprits. These are common problems with dwarf fruit trees:

  • Twig dieback: Diseases can cause twig dieback, but freezing temperatures or a lack of watering can also play a role.
  • Fruit splitting: Dry weather followed by heavy rain can cause fruit to swell and split open. Water consistently to reduce this problem.
  • Sunburn: Leaves and fruit can scald in very hot mid-day sun. If you notice this symptom on a potted tree, you can move the container to a more sheltered spot during the hottest portion of the day.
  • Late freezes: A cold snap can damage or kill off flower buds on your dwarf fruit tree. Move your tree indoors or to a garage when nighttime temperatures will drop below 30 degrees. You can also cover an outdoor tree with burlap or a blanket to preserve buds, removing the cover once the sun is up.
  • No blooms or fruit: Dwarf fruit trees mature fast, but your tree still may need a year or two before it is ready to produce fruit. Also, if your tree isn't self-pollinating, it will need a compatible tree nearby that blooms at the same time. Intense heat or cold can damage buds and mean you'll need to wait a year for fruit. And finally, if you have been fertilizing heavily, excess nitrogen can cause the tree to grow vegetation at the expense of fruit.
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