August 19, 2022

Extension Notebook: Save money and space with container-grown fruits

By Bruce J. Black

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 limited spaces such as balconies, patios or small backyards. Look into dwarf cultivars that can be planted in containers.

As existing backyard gardens have downsized and new gardeners may not have space, one thing has remained constant: the desire for fresh produce. In response to the size trend, the horticulture industry has been releasing new cultivars of apple trees, blueberries, strawberries, and brambles (raspberries and blackberries).

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 their spreading around the yard. A 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 this 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 and 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 growing in 10 feet or 10 acres, container fruit gardening rewards with money saved on your grocery bill and fresh-picked flavor.

Bruce J. Black is a University of Illinois Extension educator, horticulture.