Container grown fruit trees - planing for winter protection

gtippittJune 23, 2010

I have planted a variety of dwarf fruit trees, brambles, and muscadines in 25 gallon plastic Rubbermaid tote containers. The containers are 18 by 20 and 16 inches deep. The dwarf fruit trees are peach, nectarine, plum, sweet cherry, apple, pear. I have Arapaho and Apache Blackberries, Autumn Britten Raspberry, Boysenberry, Blueberries, and muscadines.

I'm growing these in containers because I rent the house where I currently live. I hope to buy a house or condo in a few years, so I wanted to be able to take my trees with me and either plant them if I buy a house or leave them in containers if I buy a townhome with patio.

This week I added a Jaboticaba, which is a tree from Brazil which has muscadine like fruit. The Jaboticaba is not hardy, so I plan to bring it inside during the winter as a houseplant. This got me thinking about what protection the other hardy trees would need this winter. All of the other plants are all supposed to be hardy in my location which is between zones 6 and 7. We sometimes get a few nights each winter near 0.

Since the plants are in containers, do I need to provide any extra protection since the containers might freeze this winter, while they would not if they were growing in the ground? If freezing of the root ball will kill them, I am thinking of digging a hole for each one and sinking the containers in the ground until I am ready to move in a few years. Even though it's as hot as hades here now, I was trying to plan ahead for winter, because I don't want to have to dig 25 big holes the night before a big freeze this winter.

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Many and likely all of those can probably stand freezing of the roots without a whole lot of problem. Mine do on occasion. I don't get that cold though. The muscadines are the most worrisome I think. (Note for future reference, pawpaws are notorious in not standing their roots below around 20 or 7 degrees; I've seen both figures reported.) But why put them through it? For my more sensitive plants I surround and slightly bury the pots in fall leaves to insulate them and then clear that away in late winter. Insulating the pots into late winter also likely delays leafing out a bit, as the sun will warm the soil of exposed pots (mine are black) while the air still gets quite cold.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 9:28PM
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misterbaby(7a/b TN)

I grow apples and blueberries in 19-gallon totes and have no problems with the roots freezing. But, as GB says, you can add insurance with insulation using leaves, straw, etc. Don't lose sleep over this. Misterbaby.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 9:40PM
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Thanks for the info. For my muscadines, I've built arbors that look like a jungle gym for each container made of 1 inch PVC pipe. I'm training them with 4 cordons so that 1 goes up each corner of the arbor. I've sort of pictured the 4-Cane Kniffin system of pruning, but folded it up instead of out to each side. I may have problems with not enough air circulation, but it should at least work a couple of years while they get started. This far north the cordons are prone to freezing and dying. My plan for the muscadines is to wrap the whole thing in plastic, then fill it with dry leaves, then cover the top. They are going to be a bit top-heavy in their containers, so I was planning to sink them at least halfway into the ground, which will also protect the roots this winter.

I have a male cardinal that already loves the arbors. It comes each morning to perch on the top of one and sings for bit to stake out his territory.

My backyard looks a bit like a loony bin. Besides having the containers with muscadine vines' arbors, I have an assortment of other creative cheap solutions. I found the 25 gal totes on sale at WalMart this spring for $4 each. I have blackberries growing inside a wire tomato cage for each. I have 2 children's swimming pools for raised beds for tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. I bought them last fall for $5 each on clearance. They are 18 inches high and 6 feet across, which is a perfect size for my raised beds. My yard had really thick Bermuda grass, which would have been impossible to keep out of a garden without raised beds. The soil is heavy red clay, so it would have required much amending as well, so raised beds have been a great solution. I cut some drainage holes in the bottom of the wading pools and them filled them with leaves and grass clippings for the past 6 months. I composted all the leaves from my yard and several neighbors. By spring time, the two wading pools were full of nice rich compost. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so they are all a convenient height without having to stoop.

I found a great online nursery last spring called summerstonenursery that had bare root dwarf fruit trees for only $7 each. My total for each tree with container was only $10. I'm disabled on Social Security, so I'm always looking for a cheaper way to garden. My trees took off great as soon as the weather warmed and have been putting on more leaves every few days.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 10:56PM
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alexander3_gw(6 Pennsylvania)

Roots will get much colder in a container above ground than they would if they were planted in the ground. I think the rule of thumb is that you have to figure losing two zones of hardiness. For example, if you live in zone 6, a zone 4 plant should survive the winter in an above ground pot. I think most apples and blueberries are hardy to zone 4, so misterbaby's plants are pretty safe in his zone 7. Arapaho and Apache Blackberries I think are rated as zone 6 plants, so they would be at more risk in your area.

Search the container gardening forum for a more detailed explanation


    Bookmark   June 23, 2010 at 11:39PM
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Setting the pots in the ground will be the more sure method; it is unlikely that your ground temps more than a few inches down get below 40 or 45 even in the coldest parts of winter. The soil doesn't freeze at all here -- it sometimes gets cold enough but not cold enough for long enough.

But if you don't want to dig holes or deal with the pots being lower because of your arthritis, once the trees go dormant I'd bring the pots into a conditioned or semi-conditioned space over the winter if you can, like a garage or crawlspace or basement. If not, move them up against the lee side of the house and pile straw around the pots and bases of the plants. You'll get a few extra degrees warmer from the house and the straw will act as insulation.

    Bookmark   June 24, 2010 at 7:59AM
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I don't know about the others, but the jaboticaba will definitely need to come in every winter - I'd even research how that one would do at 40F. They take a long time to fruit - years - but if you can keep it happy, they are beautiful (the flowers and fruit form up and down the trunk and branches), and the fruit is really magnificent - the flavor is like a really richly, deeply flavored grape, with a slight tannic edge - just enough to give it some complexity.

I don't have containers near that size, but I've managed to keep guavas and a variety of citrus happy in North Carolina - inside over winter, and outside the remainder of the time.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 12:51AM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

All my containers sit in the garage during the winter. The outside temp is -20F and the garage door is not insulated (i plan on insulating it this year)... Everything i put in there leafed out just fine...

I have those cheap totes (round) from Menards..but they suck. Mine crack so easily. I wish i could either get huge black nursery pots (with UV protection) or wood, but the whiskey barrels i have weigh a lot, but should last a long time. With wheels they work fine.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 9:40AM
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post question in fig forum - ask for Al Tapla - resident pro on all things container.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 12:42PM
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Nice pick on the Jaboticaba. I take it you want to get an early start on it, since it can take a while to fruit. I have a Jaboticaba tree about 1 year old, I intend to purchase another older Jaboticaba tree soon to add to my collection.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 12:47PM
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I was reading about muscadines and found a reference to Jaboticaba. At first I did a double-take, because the webpage was describing what muscadines tasted like and said they tasted more like a Jaboticaba fruit than a regular grape. I looked further and realized the website was for Austrailian gardeners. Then I thought, "What is a Jaboticaba?" and searched for the word.

The first thing I saw was a picture that showed the fruit stuck to the trunk of the tree rather than on the tips of the branches, which really peaked my interest.

After reading about the Jaboticaba on wikipedia, I immediately went to google shopping, because I had to have one if at all possible. I found an Amazon merchant, Hirt's Gardens, that had them for $15, so I ordered it.

The tree is small but darling. Since I live in Zone 7, I may never get it to bear fruit, but it will make a great looking houseplant during the winter for years to come. It can provide company for my ficus tree that I've had for 30 years.

The place where I ordered it, sells them for Bonsai growers. It would make a great Bonsai because it has tiny leaves the size of my fingernail. From what I've read, they grow very slowly and make great Bonsai specimens. I'm planning to let it grow as fast as I an get it to grow by keeping it outdoors until frost and then bring it indoors for the winter.

My tree from Amazon/Hirt's Gardens is a small leaf variety of Myrciaria Cauliflora. It's funny that the Latin name is "Cauliflora", because when they bear fruit, they remind me of Brussels Sprouts. The one I got is actually prettier than the picture they have online. It is about 9 inches tall and really bushy. They had it pruned to look like a little oak tree or something.

How much has yours grown in the past year? I got mine about 2 weeks ago, and it has already put on a new set of leaves over most of the top. It has about 2 inches of fresh new growth this season.

Here is a link that might be useful: Jaboticaba Fruit Tree Plant - Bonsai or Houseplant

    Bookmark   July 1, 2010 at 1:28PM
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"Cauliflory" is the botanical term for flowering and fruiting on the main stems. I think I've seen it on giant tropical Ficus trees too (fig relatives).

Jaboticaba is a nice large bush (more so than a tree). Mine is in a 25 gallon nursery pot and often fruits here (z7/8) where it spends the winter on a glassed porch at about 40 degrees at night (and even the day in very cold weather). They like organic-rich soil and tend toward some iron deficiency. I use citrus fertilizer with trace metals.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2010 at 12:01AM
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alan haigh

I liked the answer where rule of thumb was subtract 2 zones for container trees that aren't insulated. I have a container fruit tree nursery and like other nurserypeople in my zone 6, I protect them by piling either soil or mulch at least 2/3's up to the top of the pots. I also throw a couple inches of airy mulch over the top.

I did this from the first because I knew that roots can't take same temps as tops but I haven't experimented much myself to see exactly what I could get away with. Blueberries that I've left unprotected have survived, but they are shallow rooted anyway so are probably relatively tough.

Last year I never got around to throwing the layer of mulch over the top of the pots and I lost a couple of apples. I can't be sure this is the reason, but I never lost apples without an obvious reason before.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 6:23AM
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gtippitt I bought a similar Jaboticaba from Hirt's about 6 months ago. It's a great little tree, mine has put on plenty of new growth. Keep it well watered!

I'll take some pictures for you


    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 1:32AM
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gtippitt I like the swimming pool idea. What do you use to elevate it to a comfortable working height? When I can, I try to bribe the grandkids to do my ground level work. I considered abandoning my strawberries but maybe the swimming pool will keep them in my garden. I'll steal the one my dog uses in summertime, he scratches holes in it anyway.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 5:38PM
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milehighgirl(CO USDA 5B/Sunset 2B)

I dug a trench last winter, intended for grapes, but the soil froze too quickly so I put the rest of my trees that were in pots and the grapes in the trench and filled with leaves. The ones that I thought would not make it because they were not fully covered actually did better, because mice ate the ones that were well protected. My precious apricots were not only girdled but eaten into little arrows! They just fell over when I touched them.

The two previous years I brought all of them into an unheated space. I had trouble with blooming in the dead of winter and then aphids. Then I had to remember to water them occasionally and harden them off also.

So, this year I will dig a hole exactly the size of the pot and bury the pot up to the soil line and not put any leaves or mulch around. The ones that were done this way last year all survived just fine.

I lost close to $1000.00 worth of trees, grapes, and various berries! Personally, I would discourage the use of leaves or anything that would make a nice nest with a tasty meal handy.

Fortunately I only have a few trees not yet planted, so I will have a better time this winter.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2010 at 10:55PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

Yup...i put hardware cloth around every trunk now. Voles around here will girdle trees even under 2ft of snow.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2010 at 10:03AM
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you were lucky, following your tip I goggled summerstonenursery and found they may be out of business. The attorney general for Tennessee sued them and autumn ridge nursery (apparently the same owners) and they declared bankruptcy, it might be a filing that allows them to remain open. The AG sited more than 400 complaints against them and Dave's Garden has negative comments strongly outweighing positive ones. I almost bought from autumn ridge before I checked their rating.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 2:09AM
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I grow only Figs in containers. 8 gallons containers. I made lots of holes in the containers and I dig them in the garden soil until late December. Then I dig them out and takes them in the Garage until the danger of freeze is gone. We enjoyed delicious Figs this year. Digging the containers from the soil where the roots traveled from the holes into the garden soil is a big job.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 3:26AM
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