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Growing Cherry Trees in Pots: Keys to Success

Growing Cherry Trees in Pots: Keys to Success

Cherry trees are a delightful addition to a garden or home orchard. Their blooms are beautiful in the early spring, their fruit is delicious, and they even add color in the fall! However, growing cherry trees may seem like a pointless endeavor if you lack space, good soil, or live in the wrong kind of climate. 

The good news for growers is that cherry trees can succeed and even produce fruit when they’re grown in pots, as long as you properly care for them.

Read on for some keys to successfully growing cherries in pots. 

Key #1:  Rootstock Selection vs. Planting from Seed 

While it is possible to plant a cherry tree from seed, this is probably not the best course of action when planting your tree in a container.

Even if you are sure that your seed is the variety that you want, it still may produce a full-sized tree that would be unsuitable for container gardening. This is partly due to how the seeds themselves develop.

Seeds are a product of pollen and the ovule in the tree’s blooms. If the pollen came from a different type of cherry tree, your seed will carry characteristics of both the tree where it grew and the tree that pollinated it. This means that you may end up accidentally planting a tree that is unsuitable for growing in a pot (source).

You are more likely to have success with rootstocks. A rootstock is the root system and base that is grafted onto the trunk and branches of a fruit tree. Genetically speaking, the rootstock and scion are not related to each other (source).

Rootstocks control a lot of variables, including the tree’s lifespan, the amount of fruit it will produce, and even its tolerance to drought or pests. 

Most importantly, rootstocks also control the size of the tree’s root system as well as its above-ground height. These are the two most crucial reasons to choose rootstocks over planting from seed.

In fact, growing a cherry tree, or any other fruit tree, in a pot will only be successful with a dwarf rootstock (source). 

At full maturity, a tree grafted onto a dwarfing rootstock will have a root system one-tenth the size of a full-sized tree (source). Depending on the variety, a dwarf cherry tree will grow from eight to fifteen feet tall (source).

A local Extension agent or horticulturalist can help you find dwarfing rootstocks for the type of cherry tree you wish to plant.

Key #2:  Cultivar Selection

Next, you must select the right type, or cultivar, of cherry tree. This may seem like an easy decision, since you may prefer the flavor or blossoms of a certain kind of cherry.

However, even with the right rootstock, your preferred cultivar may not be quite right for your situation. 

Almost all sweet cherry cultivars are self-unfruitful and will require a second tree for pollination (source). Because it’s important not to overcrowd your tree’s roots, it’s not a good idea to plant two trees in one container.

However, if you have room for a second pot, you could plant a companion for your sweet cherry tree. 

As they grow, make sure that one is not casting shade over the other. They will each still need space to absorb plenty of sunlight. A good rule of thumb is to use their maximum height to determine how far apart they should be; for example, if your trees will grow to be fifteen feet tall, they should be spaced fifteen feet apart (source).

If you don’t have room for a second tree, opt for tart cherry cultivars that are self-fruitful and don’t need a second tree to produce fruit.

Tart cherry trees are also smaller by nature than sweet cherry trees, which is another reason they are a great option for growing in pots. You may find yourself needing to move your tree at some point, and it will certainly be easier to move a smaller tree than a large one.

Buy cherry trees online (link to Nature Hills Nursery)

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Key #3: Planning for Winter 

It may seem strange to make a plan for winter before your tree has even been planted. However, your plans for tree care during the winter months could affect the type of pot you use, or whether you’ll even be able to plant a cherry tree at all. In other words, don’t skip this step!

Even in the colder zones of the northern U.S., tree roots can still draw on the stored heat underground. Trees planted in containers can’t do the same. Their roots are at a higher risk of freezing beyond recovery than trees planted directly in the earth (source).

You can mitigate this risk by moving your tree into a shed, garage, or other unheated space for the winter. This will protect it from the most severe winter temperatures (source). 

If your local climate is cold but not severe in the winter, you could try digging a shallow hole and placing your pot part of the way inside. This will allow your tree’s roots to absorb some warmth from the ground. Another option is to surround your pot with straw, mulch, compost, or soil to protect it against winter winds (source).

However, mild winters don’t guarantee your success. Cherry trees need approximately 50 days (1,200 chill hours) with temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit to prepare to be fruitful in the spring and summer (source). 

This is also why it would not be a good idea to bring your cherry tree into your heated home during the winter. 

If you live in a zone with mild winters, there are still things you can do to help your tree get as many chill hours as possible. One possible solution is to keep your tree in a shady spot when air temperatures are likely to be cooler. 

It may also help to ask at your local nursery for tree varieties that have “low chill” requirements. You might also consider growing an ornamental cherry tree, like the Taiwan Cherry (Prunus campanulata), that can thrive in warm areas like USDA zones 7b-9a (source).

It’s important to know your cherry tree’s required number of chill hours before you plant. When you know ahead of time, you can clear a space in your shed or garage, choose the right place to partially bury your planter, or rethink your choice of cultivar. 

Key #4: Container Selection

There are a number of considerations to make when choosing a container, including the following:

  • Size, including depth
  • Material (wood, plastic, etc.)
  • Mobility

Size

The recommended container volume for a dwarf cherry tree is 15-30 gallons (source). A dwarf cherry’s root system will need between one and two feet of depth and approximately three to six square feet of area. 

A variety of different container shapes will meet these requirements, and shape is not as important as depth and area. 

Material 

You can plant cherry trees successfully in containers made of ceramic, clay, metal, plastic, or wood, as long as there are enough holes in the bottom to allow for water drainage (source).

However, each of these materials comes with advantages and disadvantages. For example:

  • Plastic pots and containers aren’t very heavy, but they deteriorate more rapidly than other materials.
  • Clay and wooden pots are widely available and relatively inexpensive, but don’t maintain moisture as well as other types of planters. 
  • Glazed ceramic planters are attractive, but very heavy.
  • Containers that are darker colored will absorb more warmth than lighter colored ones.

Some growers recommend using a whiskey barrel cut in half or a custom-made wooden planter (source). 

Mobility

As you shop for containers, keep in mind that a 15-30 gallon container will be much heavier when filled with soil, moisture, and a tree, and you will most likely have to move it during the winter months.

One solution is to look for planters that have attached wheels or casters. Depending on what your planter is made of, you may be able to add wheels to it yourself.

Another solution is to place your container on a caddy with wheels. Caddies have the added benefit of allowing your pot to drain completely, since many of them have slats or mesh. This also helps maintain adequate airflow (source).

Key #5:  Soil and Fertilization 

Soil

Cherry trees need soil that drains well. Most of the potting soil you can buy at garden centers will work. Avoid using soil directly from a garden, as it may contain bacteria and organisms that could harm your tree (source).

An alternative to traditional potting soil is to mix equal parts sand, peat, and bark. This mixture will allow water to drain sufficiently while also providing oxygen and nutrients to the roots (source).

A dwarf cherry tree will need approximately one cubic yard of soil or a potting mix. This may not sound like very much, but one cubic yard is roughly equivalent to 202.5 gallons (source).

Planting

When you’re ready to plant, follow these steps:

  • Put your container where you intend to keep it for the growing season.
  • Partially fill your container with soil or potting mix. Leave at least 28 inches of open space.
  • Plant your tree, making sure to spread its roots carefully in a radial pattern.
  • Gently fill the pot with the remaining potting mix. Leave one to four inches of space near the container’s rim.
  • Carefully press the soil around the base of the tree to firm it up.
  • Give plenty of water to your newly planted tree, but don’t fertilize just yet.

Fertilization

As your tree grows, pay attention to the color of its leaves. If the leaves are a healthy green color, you do not need to fertilize.

If necessary, use a water-soluble fertilizer with equivalent proportions of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Be careful not to over-fertilize, which can lead to high amounts of salt in the soil. Too much salt can lead to die-back, poor fruiting, and other issues (source).

Key #6:  Sunlight Requirements 

Cherry trees need full sun, which means six to eight hours per day of direct sunlight. They can tolerate some light shade, but if you want your tree to produce fruit, it needs as much sunlight as possible (source).

If you intend to move your cherry tree into a covered shelter for the winter, it is important that you acclimate your tree to the reduced light it will have. 

About two or three weeks ahead of time, start gradually reducing the amount of light your tree receives. You can use sun shades or other lightweight fabrics, or if your plant is portable enough, simply move it out of direct sunlight for increasing lengths of time per day.

In the late winter or early spring, you should also gradually re-acclimate your tree to direct sunlight by bringing it into the light for increasing lengths of time (source).

Key #8:  Watering Requirements 

Overwatering is the primary cause of failure for potted trees. Temperature, humidity, and a number of other factors determine how much water your tree actually needs. A good rule of thumb is to avoid watering until the soil’s surface feels dry to the touch (source).

When you water, slowly fill the pot. Going slow will help you determine the right amount and prevent you from under or overwatering.

Don’t keep a saucer underneath your pot. The excess water that collects there can cause root rot.

Key #9:  Pruning Requirements

The good news about pruning is that you don’t have to do very much when you plant your cherry tree in a container. Dwarf trees will mature into a natural shape without training.

If your tree starts to develop “leggy” branches while it’s indoors, prune them back to increase their bushiness.

If you notice some die-back or leaf-shedding from your tree’s upper branches, you will need to do more significant pruning. These are signs that your root system can’t keep up with the above-ground growth of your tree. Heavy pruning can help lower the stress on the roots and revive your tree but be careful of over-pruning.

Conclusion

Planting a dwarf cherry tree in a container is an excellent solution for an apartment balcony or a grower whose yard or garden is less than ideal for fruit trees. With proper preparation and care, you can enjoy the literal fruits of your labor for many growing seasons to come.

Buy cherry trees online (link to Nature Hills Nursery)

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