The Q&A Archives: Can Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees grow and thrive in a container environment?

Question: I live in a condo complex on the 5th floor (SW exposure - lots of summer sun). Several years ago I purchased 2 Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees (maybe 3ft) from Wannamakers in Downers Grove, Illinois. I wanted to have some greenery year round on my balcony. I also purchased 2 containers recommended to me as providing more warmth that the usual container planter would. When spring rolled around last year they recommended a fertilizer stick that turned everything brown and this year they are dead.

Can container (approximately 5-10 gal) gardening work for small trees during the winter or do they need ground cover? How do I accomplish this and what type of fertilizer and nutrients do I use and when?

Thanks for your help!

Answer: As far as fertilizing, I think the sticks were probably coincidental to the plants dieing, that would be about the time when the winter stress became insurmountable as they tried to do their spring growth spurt. On the other hand, I would suggest using a slow release granular fertilizer such as 10-10-10 plus minors at the lower rate on the label, you could also top dress with a good quality compost. Since these are container plants you want to keep them healthy without encouraging excess growth. Feed only in spring and early summer.

In my experience it is very difficult to overwinter plants in containers outdoors in your cold winter climate. (A much warmer climate of say winter hardiness zone 7 combined with a sheltered location and a large container providing ample insulation to the roots seem to be about the line for good chances of success.) Sun exposure as well as wind exposure add to the difficulty. The plants become stressed and often do not survive.

The best things to do are provide wind protection and insulate the roots as best you can (possibly wrap with bubble wrap or other insulating material or heap mulch around the pots), place them in a shaded spot up against a wall -- to reduce reflected heat -- and also protect them from wind and then make sure to keep the soil damp any time it is not frozen. By the time you do all that they do not look all that decorative. Even so, I would consider it an experiment. I'm sorry I can't be more encouraging.

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