You’ve heard all about the myriad things you can do with an elderberry shrub. Their berries, leaves, and flowers are used in food and medicine. They attract pollinators. Elderberry blossoms are not only beautiful and fragrant in the early summer, but they, like the resulting berry, are edible.
Now you want to try growing elderberry, but what if you don’t have a yard or garden to cultivate it?
Fortunately, once you know a few key steps, growing elderberry in pots is easy to do on your spacious patio or balcony; ensure it survives the winter and produces a bountiful crop of elderberries each year!
Growing an Elderberry Bush in a Pot
Although elderberry shrubs can grow in conditions in which other plants might not thrive (for example, in climates that are too wet, cold, arid, or shady, or in unforgiving soil), potting elderberry gives you even more control over soil conditions and environment, allowing you to produce a prolific plant.
Seeds or Cuttings
Elderberry plants have a poor germination rate, so if starting with seeds, use a lot of seeds! This can be a blessing in disguise, as buying inexpensive elderberry seeds gives you the opportunity to choose from the myriad available varieties.
Begin seeds indoors where it’s at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Plant your seeds about 1/4 inch into the soil of a seed tray or directly into a pot. Consider using a warming or germination mat to encourage growth at this stage.
Or, even easier, buy a plant and get right to grow.
- Fill a large pot with potting soil and organic material.
- Plant seeds in the center of the pot, about 1/4 inch deep. Or, if you’re planting a bare-root plant, cover the roots with soil.
- Water immediately.
- Cover the soil with mulch.
- Place the pot in a sunny spot.
Water your potted elderberry with about an inch or two of water per week until your harvest period ends. Check the soil frequently to make sure it is not drying out–plants in containers dry out faster than those in a garden bed.
Annual pruning is necessary in early spring. Trim damaged or older limbs, and consider upsizing your pot if needed.
If you’ve planted your elderberry with compost, don’t worry about fertilizing until the second year of growth.
Choose a product like this one that contains 10 percent each of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)–often referred to as a 10-10-10 NPK blend. Follow the package directions on how much fertilizer to apply.
Elderberry shrubs prefer slightly acidic soil, so you might want to consider adding a fertilizer with sulfur or lime to increase acidity.
You also may find that a 10-10-10 isn’t giving you the nitrogen your elderberry needs as the plant ages. Nitrogen is depleted more rapidly than phosphorus or potassium during the growing season, so after a few years, your P and K may be just fine, but your N could use a boost.
Consider using a urea nitrogen plant food or other high-nitrogen fertilizer (ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate) to increase the nitrogen in your soil.
You can tell if you need a high-nitrogen fertilizer if your elderberry shrub doesn’t grow new canes as rapidly as in the past. On the flip side, if your plant is producing lots of new growth, cut down on nitrogen or get rid of it altogether, as too much nitrogen will give you lush foliage at the expense of fruit.
You can also take the guesswork out by testing your soil with a digital test kit.
As long as you have set your elderberry plant up for success in the spring and summer, using the right size pot, good soil, and proper drainage, you can allow the plant to go dormant outside in the winter. Place a shallow layer of mulch over the roots and your potted elderberry will be all set until spring.
If you live below USDA zone three, you only need to bring your elderberry plant inside during the winter. In that case, bring the plant into your unheated garage or basement. Elderberry plants must go dormant yearly in order to flower and fruit.
There are two main varieties of elderberry that backyard gardeners can grow easily–black and blue. Black elderberry hails from Europe but can be found easily in North America and Asia. Blue elderberry is native to eastern North America. Be sure to check the specifics of the variety you choose (black, blue, or some variety thereof). Some are more toxic than others.
Black elderberry can grow taller than 10 feet, while American elderberry usually grows about 6 to 10 feet tall. The berries on the American plant are sweeter and grow larger than those of the European variety.
Growing elderberry in pots gives you the greatest control over their conditions, including climate. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s hardiness zones, elderberries can thrive in zones three through ten. Growing your elderberry in pots makes it easier to keep them safe and healthy in less ideal hardiness zones, as you can move them to maximize sun exposure, or even move them inside for short periods of time (like during an unexpected frost).
Of course, different varieties do better in different zones, so just do some basic research to determine what works best in your area.
When you grow elderberries in pots, consider using smaller varieties. Some black elderberry plants grow to about 4 or 5 feet tall. You can also form your plant into a patio-friendly single-trunked tree.
You’ll need a fairly large container for an elderberry plant. Aim for one that’s at least 24 inches wide and 20 inches deep. Elderberry plants have a shallow root system, so if you have to sacrifice one over the other, go for wider rather than deeper.
Make sure the base of your container is wide, as well. Don’t choose a pot that narrows at the bottom. A wider root system will provide more stability for your plant.
Soil, Drainage, and Water
Your container should have several large drainage holes, and the elderberry needs well-draining soil. That being said, you don’t want to use the usual drainage material in your elderberry pot, like a rock. The soil should be allowed to hold moisture and drain through the holes in the pot.
Consider mixing native soil with compost for your pot, aiming for a pH of 5.5 to 5.6. Fertilize carefully, as elderberry can be sensitive to fertilizer.
Elderberry in pots do well with a couple of inches of mulch (leaves, newspaper, grass clippings) to help retain moisture.
Elderberry bushes–in a pot or a garden bed–require partial to full sun. American elderberries will produce well in the shade, unlike many other plants.
Pests and Diseases
Not too many pests or diseases trouble elderberry plants. Powdery mildew is the most common problem, but it won’t kill the plant and can be treated with fungicide or by removing the affected stems and leaves.
Even in pots, elderberry plants can get rather large, so if you want to grow one inside, make sure you have plenty of room (6 ft of space from floor to ceiling and anywhere from 3 ft to 6 ft width).
Because elderberry plants must go dormant in winter to produce in the spring, move the plant to an unheated indoor location and prune as needed. When spring rolls around, move the pot back to your warmer location and continue to prune as necessary, ceasing around mid-July.
Place your elderberry pot in full sun during the growing season (spring to fall). You will also have to pollinate the plant for it to fruit manually.
Be careful not to over- or under-water, frequently checking to ensure the soil stays damp but not soggy.
Be aware that elderberries can be toxic to household pets (and humans!), so be sure you research your elderberry variety before deciding to put the time and effort into growing the plant indoors.
A Plant With Many Uses
Follow these simple steps for establishing a healthy potted elderberry plant. Planting elderberry in a pot gives you more control over conditions like size and sun exposure while still reaping all the benefits of a prolific berry crop.
Dry and steep your elderberry flowers to make tea. Cook and mash the berries into a jam with anti-inflammatory properties. Let your kids make flutes out of any dried-out branches you prune off. There’s so much you can do with this versatile plant!
Want more? Keep reading to learn more about all things elderberry.
- About the Author
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Ronda Lindsay is a writer and editor who loves getting outside in her garden, whether that’s in the temperate climates of the Pacific Northwest or Mid-Atlantic or in the sweltering heat of south-central Texas.
Growing up, she was a regular at pick-your-own farms, where she and her siblings gathered anything that wasn’t already growing in her family’s backyard to eat, freeze, or can. As an adult, Ronda has taken the vast gardening knowledge bestowed upon her by her mother and used it to grow everything from strawberries to jalapeños, arrange beautiful container gardens, and nurse sick plants back to health.
With a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in professional writing, Ronda enjoys using her skills to share information and advice with Minneopa Orchards readers!