Small space gardening doesn’t mean sacrificing flavors. With rising prices people are looking to reduce their grocery bills while getting fresh produce. Fresh fruit can be container-grown for your family in a limited space, such as a balcony, patio, or small backyard. The key is to look for dwarf cultivars that can be planted in containers.
Even if existing backyard gardens have downsized or new gardeners may not have space, one thing has remained constant: the desire for fresh produce. In response, the horticulture industry has been releasing new cultivars of blueberries, strawberries, brambles (raspberries and blackberries), and apple trees.
In Europe, columnar fruit trees, also known as Ballerina fruit trees, have been grown since the 1950s. They are bred with a natural mutation inherited from the 'McIntosh Wijcik' apple. A popular apple series in the United States, Urban Apples, was developed in the Czech Republic. Hardy to zone 4, Urban Apples have an upright, narrow growth habit. Another available upright, columnar series of apple is the Spire® Series.
Mature columnar trees range in height from 7 to 10 feet and in width from 2 to 3 feet, depending on the cultivar. Available varieties depend on the series. Select the cultivar based on disease and insect resistance, taste, use, and storage. Columnar apple trees have one central leader loaded with small branches and fruiting spurs. This tight growth habit makes them perfect choices to be planted in containers for gardeners with limited space. But this same characteristic means they may not be ideal for a commercial operation. As with in-ground apple trees, container-grown trees require cross-pollination between two varieties for total fruit set.
Berries & Brambles
A popular berry collection bred specifically for containers is BrazelBerries. Containers have been an ally to anyone who wants to grow berries with a reduced risk of them spreading around the yard. Another benefit of using a container in Illinois is that it is easier to modify the planting medium (soil, soilless mix, etc.) to suit growing requirements. Most berries prefer a pH of 5.5 to 7.5, with the exception of blueberries, which are productive in a more acidic soil (pH 4.8 to 5.2).
Blueberries are one fruit crop that many home gardeners want to grow, and container gardening allows them to do it economically due to the limited amount of planting medium needing to be acidified. Planting mixes can be acidified using peat moss, pine needles, or elemental sulfur. One popular blueberry is Jelly Bean, with a super-dwarf (1 to 2 feet high) and ball-like growth habit. Peach Sorbet is known for its colorful foliage. Varieties will ripen at different times offering the ability to extend harvest with both.
Brambles can be one of the most costly berries to purchase due to their highly perishable nature. Container brambles make the fruit more cost effective, plus they are a beautiful accent on a patio. Raspberry Shortcake is a compact raspberry that is thornless, hardy to zone 5, and great for containers due to its 24- to 36-inch habit. Baby Cakes is a fall-bearing, primocane blackberry that fall ripens and is hardy to zone 4.
When growing plants in containers, especially if you are used to growing in-ground, remember that maintenance schedules vary. Watering will need to be increased—how much depends on which media you planted in and the environmental conditions.
Plants grown above ground don’t get the same geothermal heat during the winter as in-ground plants do. This may be an issue for plant roots, especially with blueberries, whose roots are shallow and spread out. Having roots in contact with a container also creates potential for cold injury. When placing your containers, be sure to think about the predominant direction of winter winds and how to avoid them, as well as where snow, which is an insulator, tends to accumulate.
Whether you’re used to growing in 10 feet or 10 acres, container fruit gardening rewards with money saved on your grocery bill and fresh-picked-on-the-patio flavor.
Photo caption: Freshly planted blueberry plant in a 20-inch container, showing signs of transplant stress due to extreme heat last week.
About the author: Bruce J. Black is the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator serving Carroll, Lee, and Whiteside counties. Black’s primary areas of expertise are in fruit and vegetable production, plant propagation, and community and youth garden education.
Special note: As of April 29, 2022, Richard Hentschel has retired from University of Illinois Extension with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois. As this growing season begins, a selection of qualified Extension guest authors will occupy this space.