If you have a small outside space, you may not think you have enough room to grow fruit. But apples, pears, plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines and apricots can all be grown as dwarf trees (also known as patio fruit trees or miniature fruit trees). These reach only around 1-2m tall and 50cm-1m wide and are suitable for growing in the ground or in pots, making them perfect for the patio, veg patch, allotment, garden border or balcony. They're the perfect trees for small gardens and make great trees for pots. Upright cordons, also known as columns or columnar trees, are also available – these take up even less space as they are narrow.
While some dwarf or patio fruit trees are naturally small, most are regular fruit trees that have been grafted on to a root system, or ‘rootstock’ of a naturally small tree, known as 'dwarfing' or 'semi-dwarfing' rootstocks. This means that you can grow a favourite fruit variety – such as a 'Victoria' plum or a 'Cox's Orange Pippin' apple – on a tree that will always remain small. Some patio fruit trees have two or even three varieties grafted onto the same rootstock.
Due to their compact size, dwarf fruit trees are easy to look after, prune and harvest from, they're also easier to protect from frosts and pests. Their fruits are the same size as those on a regular tree. While a regular fruit tree may take several years to begin producing fruit, a dwarf fruit tree should provide a harvest within a couple of years. They're not as long-lived as regular fruit trees, however – most have a lifespan of 10-15 years.
Dwarf fruit trees look attractive, too – aside from their attractive fruits, they have pretty blossom in spring. Bear in mind that most fruit trees need a sheltered spot and plenty of sunshine in order to produce a good crop.
How to grow fruit in pots
Most fruit trees do best in full sun in a sheltered spot (so that they don't blow over in the wind) – if you have only shade, consider a morello cherry, cooking apple or damson.
If you're growing a dwarf fruit tree in a pot, choose a large container (at least 60cm wide) and plant in a loam-based compost, such as John Innes No.2. Refresh the compost every few years when the plant is dormant (from November to March) – if the tree is too big to remove from its pot, scrape away as much compost as you can without damaging the roots and replace with fresh.
Water and feed generously throughout the summer.
Protect the blossom from frost in spring (when pollinated, these will become the fruits) by covering with horticultural fleece if low temperatures are forecast.
In the first few years, just tidy your tree up, removing any dead, damaged or diseased branches. When your tree has reached its desired size, prune as you would its full-sized counterpart. Restrict the height of upright cordons or columnar fruit trees to around 1.8-2.4m. Prune the sideshoots in summer to retain their columnar shape.
Advice on buying dwarf fruit trees
- Make sure you have the right conditions to grow a dwarf fruit tree – most need a sunny, sheltered spot
- Look for a dwarfing rootstock – the label or product information should give details about the rootstock the tree is grafted onto. This differs for each fruit type
- Check whether you tree needs a tree in the same pollination group growing nearby. If you're short on space, go for a 'self-pollinating' variety that does not need a pollination partner
- For the best selection of plants, buy from a specialist tree retailer or fruit tree specialist
Where to buy dwarf fruit trees online
Apples are a must in any garden and there are many varieties available; smaller types grow very well in pots. If you have room for only one plant, choose a self-fertile variety such as ‘Braeburn’ or 'Red Falstaff'; ‘James Grieve’ is partially self fertile and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Rootstocks: M27 (patio tree), M26 (cordon)
Pears are larger trees than apples, even on a dwarf rootstock. 'Concorde' is naturally compact and self-fertile, 'Doyenne de Comice' is a popular, sweet variety that thrives in the UK and needs a pollination partner.
Rootstock: ‘Quince C’ is the smallest rootstock
Plums, gages and damsons
There are many different types of plum, including sweet and cooking varieties, damsons and gages. 'Czar' (self-fertile) and 'Opal' are popular plum varieties; 'Victoria' is much loved variety but does not crop heavily every year. 'Black Amber' is a new, compact introduction.
Cherries bear attractive cherry blossom in spring and their foliage is attractive in autumn. ‘Stella’ bears bright red fruits, is self-fertile and is widely available. 'Sylvia' bears sweet fruits and is self-fertile, and 'Sunburst', also self-fertile, produces early dark, sweet fruits. If your garden doesn't get much sun, go for a sour/cooking variety, such as a Morello cherry.
Rootstock: ‘Gisela 5’
Peaches, nectarines and apricots
Peaches, nectarines and apricots, tend to be naturally compact so are well suited to growing in pots. Despite the fact that they hail from warmer climes, they are mostly hardy in the UK, although it's worth protecting them from severe frosts. They bear attractive blossom in spring and are self pollinating. Grow in a warm, sunny spot and be sure to protect from peach leaf curl by covering the plant in January and February. The peach variety 'Avalon Pride' is said to be resistant to the disease. 'Aprigold' is a new, naturally dwarf apricot. Prune in summer to restrict size.
Rootstocks: ‘St Julien A’ or 'Peach Seedling'
- Buy peach mini standard from Thompson & Morgan
- Buy 'Avalon Pride' peach tree from Primrose
- Buy apricot 'Aprigold' from Thompson & Morgan
Fig trees crop best when their roots are restricted, so respond well to being grown in a large pot (there are no specific rootstocks for figs). The pea-sized fruits that come through winter are the ones that will fatten and ripen. ‘Brown Turkey’, ‘Brunswick’, ‘White Marseilles’ do not need pollinators. The new 'Little Miss Figgy' is naturally dwarf and was shortlisted for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year in 2021.
Despite their exotic origins, citrus trees can be successfully grown in the UK. Lemon trees, Citrus x limon, and bitter or Seville oranges, Citrus x aurantium, are the easiest to grow. Both are vigorous plants and tend to tolerate the lowest temperatures. Most orange and lemon trees will require winter protection, though new hybrids are emerging that are pushing the boundaries of citrus hardiness; the 'Meyer' lemon is said to be one of the hardiest. Limes need warmer, more tropical temperatures and are often grown indoors year round.