Patio gardens allow homeowners to produce a bounty of fruit in a tiny space. Choose small fruit trees to create mini groves and vest-pocket orchards in planters and small-scale garden beds. Alternatively, train trees against a south-facing foundation, espalier-style (a specialized, virtually one-dimensional decorative method of growing apples and other fruits that requires careful pruning). Check with your nursery for growing recommendations, planting depths and suggested container sizes based on the varieties you choose.
For container culture or a foundation planting, consider the "colonnade" form, a branchless tree bearing regular-size apples. Plant at least two of any of the varieties available in the columnar form---or pair an apple with a crabapple, which makes wonderful jelly and provides natural pectin for other fruit preserves.
Dwarf apple trees will fit in most patio gardens, as long as you provide a deep, well-tilled growing hole to get it off to a good start. Virtually all apple varieties, from Golden Delicious to Fuji to the traditional Winesap, are now available in dwarf form and grow no taller than 8 to 10 feet. Make sure you have room for at least two dwarf apple trees, or one dwarf and one miniature variety, for cross pollination. Some nurseries even offer "step-overs"--a foot-high variety meant to be trained espalier-style along pathways or to frame a patio or terrace.
Choose a container-friendly plant like Dwarf Cavendish, and you'll harvest small, 4- to 6-inch bananas on a small tree with tropical leaves. Dwarf bananas grow to about 3 feet. Bring the tree inside for the winter in colder climates.
Many fig varieties grow nicely in containers or in small spaces. Look for hardy varieties such as Brown Turkey, or bring the figs inside during winter in colder climates. Figs planted in the ground can be protected with burlap in colder climates. Follow the nursery's pruning recommendations to keep the figs to the height and spread best suited to your patio. The trees make a decorative statement, with their twisting, spreading habit and glossy leaves, while the brown, elongated, chewy brown fruit beats any store-bought fig cookie.
The gourmet dwarf version of the Meyer lemon works especially well in containers. The plant's 8-foot height can be contained in a patio pot, or controlled with pruning. The trees even produce lemons indoors during the colder months.
Another tropical fruit well-suited to pot culture, key lime, thrives on the patio. Keep the 6-foot tree smaller through pruning, if desired. The small limes produce quantities of the famous key lime juice, while the tree itself bears fragrant white flowers in the spring. Bring the tree inside for the winter in colder climates.
Miniature nectarine trees grow well in containers or in small garden beds on the patio. Protect them with burlap in the winter if you live north of zone 5. The 4- to 6-foot trees bear regular-size nectarines. Nurseries also offer dwarf nectarines, which grow no taller than 10 feet and are hardy zones 5 through 8 or 9, depending on the variety.
Like miniature nectarine trees, miniature peaches bear the same size fruits as the larger trees. They fit in containers or small patio gardens, and need protection north of zone 5. Or, grow the columnar form, a branchless form that produces full-size fruit and looks handsome against a foundation, framing the boundary of a patio or in a container.
Naturally Small Trees
Several fruit trees, though unavailable in true miniature or dwarf forms, make suitable trees for the slightly larger patio, or next to one. Some varieties of cherry, persimmon and mulberry, and most pawpaws and quince trees, stay within the 12 to 15 foot range. Grow them in the center of a patio as an elegant alternative to a shade umbrella, or on the south-facing edge of the patio. Just be aware that mulberries tend to stain when the fruit drops, so avoid planting them if your patio contains elegant slate or brickwork.