How to Grow a Dwarf Fruit Tree

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

dwarf lemon tree
Photo: Piolo Daniel Manalili/Getty Images

Growing your own fruit not only gives you a tasty harvest, but it beautifies your property. And nothing will turn your backyard into a luscious oasis like an orchard of dwarf fruit trees. You don't even need a lot of ground area to grow a small tree; put them in containers and reenergize your outdoor living space with pots of flowering peach and apple trees. With a little patience and work, you will soon be harvesting sweet produce from your own dwarf fruit trees.

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.

Choosing the Right Type of Tree

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.

Getting Started with Containers

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 can make it possible to grow certain 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.

Tips for Successful Planting

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.

How to Care for Dwarf Fruit Trees

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 it out, 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.

As mentioned above, 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.

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