Growing a Container Orchard


Many people dream of having their own orchard, but as they look out on their small balcony, or their small inner city garden, they sigh and resign themselves to store bought apples.

But, no matter how small a space you have, with a bit of planning and thought, you can still have a little orchard of your own.

Table of Contents

A container orchard

Most people think of an orchard as a big field full of regimented rows of giant mature trees. True this is often the case, you can have your own orchard in the space of 18"x18". Here's how.

Which Container

What I did

For my own containered apples I started of using 18" terracotta pots, before replacing them with whiskey barrels that were on offer for about 14 ukp at the local garden center. Two of my trees are in wooden planters I constructed myself, they are square, and made from interleaved layers of 18" x 1.75" x 1.75" battons, with a plywood base.

If you look in your local garden center you will find there is a vast wealth of containers to choose from. Some are ideal for apple trees, most however are not ideal. The cheapest containers are generally made from plastic, unfortunately they are not suitable for your container orchard. Plastic doesn't have enough insulation to stop the roots of your apple tree from getting damaged in the winter frosts. The ideal container is a frost proof terracotta pot of about 18" diameter, or a similiar size container in wood. Old whiskey barrels are ideal.

Which Variety to grow?

Ask 5 people who grow apple trees which variety to grow, and you will get 10 answers. The varieties you choose are a very much a personal thing. Do you want a cooker? Do you want an eater? Do you want just the one tree? Do you have room for more?

There are two things to consider when growing apple trees, pollination, and rootstock.

What I grow

1 - Dessert Apple - Falstaff (M26)
1 - Culinary Apple - Reverend Wilks - (M26)
1 - Culinary Apple - Bramley Clone M20 (M9)
1 - Cider Apple - Harry Masters Jersey (MM111)
1 - Cider Apple - Michelin (MM111)

Most varieties of apple tree require one or more other trees to pollinate properly. Without proper pollination, you are not going to get any apples. On first reading this it can seem quite worrying. But it's not as bad as it seems. In densely populated areas with lots of gardens there are bound to be lots of other apple trees about to pollinate your tree. On most allotments this is especially the case. If however you are concerned about this and are not sure that there are other apple trees about, you will need to grow suitable polinators. If you have only room for one tree at this point you may sigh and think it's not possible. But the wonders of modern horticulture mean that all is not lost. Several companies produce trees where three varieties of apple are grafted onto one rootstock. Meaning that from one pot you can get three different types of apple, an impressive feet in itself. This is a slightly more expensive option, but remember you are getting two or three trees, for the price of one. A typical combination on one root stock would be Bramley/Falstaff/Fiesta. There are other combinations, but this one gives a nice mix of eating and cooking apples.

Some tree varieties are self-fertile and can be grown alone. Braeburn is a nice juicey eater which is self-fertile. However most varieties do need more than one to be able to produce fruit. So if you have the space for more than one tree, then things get easier. Trees are divided into pollination groups, based on when during the year they produce flowers. There is no point trying to get a tree that flowers in march pollinated with a tree flowering in June. Each pollination group gets a letter. So you want to make sure all your trees are from the same or adjacent letters. Say all C, all D, or a mix of C and D. However to confuse things further, some trees are merely self-sterile, and just require a single friend, and some are a triploid and require 2 partners. Check this when you are browsing the catalogues.

For simplicity and if you just want to phone up and say "send me these trees" without to much messing about, a couple of recommended combinations:

  • Bramley M20 clone, Falstaff, Reverend Wilkes
  • Bramley, Falstaff, Fiesta

Rootstocks are the other major thing to bare in mind when choosing your tree. Now most people's response would be "whatstock? is that like woodstock the music festival?". If you took the pip from the apple you just ate, and put it in the soil, it would in all likely hood sprout, produce a couple of leaves, grow to about 6" tall, and do not much else. As they come apple trees on their own are really poor performers. However due to the wonders of science and the work of the east malling research station, it has been found that if you graft a twig from an apple tree onto another plants root ball, the resulting tree is much stronger. What they also found was that by changing the root part they graft onto, the vigor of the tree could be contained, from giant m25s growing to over 15ft, to m27s at about 4ft tall.

Simply put, if you want a small tree, you get a dwarfing rootstock. And to make it simpler, here is a table of different rootstocks with how big they are likely to get:

RootstockMature heightPlanting distanceYieldComment
M274-6ft5-6ft10-15lbNeeds good soil conditions and to be perminantly staked.
M96-8ft8-10ft apart, 12ft between rows25-50lbNeeds good soil conditions and to be perminantly staked.
M268-10ft8-12ft apart, 15ft between rows30-80lbCan be grown in most reasonable soil conditions, stake for the first 5 years.
MM10610-13ft12ft apart, 15ft between rows50-100lbWill grow in wide range of soils including relatively poor soils and grass orchards, stake for first 5 years.
MM11113-15ft15ft apart, 20ft between rows100-400lbSuitable for a wide range of soils including grassed orchards and poor soils. Staking preferable but not necessary if planted as a one year old. Stake for first 3 years if planted as 2/3 year trees.
M25over 15ft20ft apart, 25ft between rows200-400lbSuitable for a wide range of soils including grassed orchards and poor soils. Staking preferable but not necessary if planted as a one year old. Stake for first 3 years if planted as 2/3 year trees.

If you read all of that you are probably thinking "I though she said this was simple?". Well, for growing in containers it is. You really aren't going to get a 15ft tall plant in an 18" pot. Realistically you can ignore all bar the first three. M27 is a good choice if you want a small plant. It can be trained into a nice standing tree with fruit all along its length. M9 and M26 also work well, but you are using the container as well as the rootstock to keep this one small.

See, rootstocks aren't that difficult to deal with! A final note on them tho, you can put bigger rootstocks in a container, the container will contain their vigor slightly. I do this with a couple of MM111 rootstocked cider apple trees in order to get a nice tall tree with a canopy I can walk under.

And finally, where to buy it from. I am going to get shot for this, but skip the diy stores, and you can probably skip most mainstream nurseries. When buying fruit trees you really need to goto the experts. I personally got mine from Keepers Nursery who gave fantastic service, and when one of my trees failed to survive its first season, they sent a replacement free of charge. I can't recommend them enough. Local to you there will be a similiarly good nursery, however keepers do delivery to all over the UK, so are well worth giving a call. Tell them what you need, and they will endeavour to help you. Please note I am not affiliated to them in anyway other than being a very satisfied customer. The rootstock data above also came from their site.

Planting your orchard

Having selected which trees you want to plant, bought your containers to put them in, now is time to plant them. Planting an apple tree in a container is pretty simple.

Start off buy lining the pot with plastic. Old compost bags are a good bet, or a thick bin bag. Poke a few holes in the lining so that you get some drainage. Next cover the bottom of the pot with coarse gravel or small stones, something 1-2" in size is ideal. I like to put the supporting stake in next. Depending on the size of the tree you have gone for you will need something in the region of a 1-2" stake to support it. Any apple tree you grow in a container will need supporting for the entire life of the tree. Gravel and support in place. Hall fill the container with a soil based compost. Finally its time to put the the tree in. If you have order a bare rooted whip, then carefully unwrap from the packaging, being careful not to damage the roots. If you got a tree that is already in its pot, carefully remove the pot again being careful to not damage the roots. At this point it helps to have a third hand to help.

Carefully place the tree on top of the soil in the half filled pot, next to the support stake. With your volunteer holding the tree in place, carefully fill in the remainder of the pot making sure to keep the soil level below the point where the main part of the tree (the scion) is grafted onto the root stock. The join is usually quite easy to spot. If you want you can put a small handful of Blood Fish and Bone in to the compost as you top up the pot. You should now have a rather bare looking twig poking out of a nice pot of compost next to a support stake. All that is left to do is water the pot thoroughly, and to tie the tree to the stake using a horticultural tree tie.

At this point the tree is planted, sit back and enjoy. However if you want to you can take it abit further. Adding a 2" layer of chipped bark is a good way of keeping in moisture. To add abit of colour during the bland months of the end of winter, you can plant a few bulbs round the base of the tree, 5-10 daffodil bulbs makes all the difference. Don't go over the top or the bulbs will end up competing with the apple tree for nutrients.

Caring for your orchard

Apple trees grown in containers are quite easy to look after. Most important is to make sure you water the tree, especially in the hot weather of summer when the soil in the pot dries out quickly.

In the Autumn you will need to prune the tree. Full details of how to prune an apple tree are well beyond the scope of this article, get a book on pruning apple trees. My personal recommendation is "The Fruit Expert" by D G Hessayon. This book is a must for anyone growing fruit trees of any kind.

Beyond formative pruning the other major maintainence task is to repot the tree every 2 years. This should be done in the dormant months, autumn and winter (October to march in the uk). Simply remove the tree, remove most of the old soil, and repot in much the same process as you originally planted the tree (see above). If you want on the first replanting you can use a slightly larger pot. I did this when I repotted my first lot of trees, moving from an 18" terracotta pot to a 19" wooden container.

Sit back and enjoy. If looked after well your tree should have much the same life as any other apple tree. Cropping will not happen till the tree is 3 years old, and will take several years to reach full productivity. When the fruit starts to form, thin out so there is room for it to develope fully.