Complete Beginner’s Guide to Growing Dragon Fruit

Dreaming of fresh tropical dragon fruit? With cuttings and a proper trellis, you can harvest ultra-sweet fruits from this captivating cactus right from your backyard. Garden expert Logan Hailey explains the nuances of growing dragon fruit for beginners.

The Dragon Fruit plant features sprawling, green, fleshy stems with pronounced ridges and striking, bright pink fruits adorned with green scales.

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Tropical fruits often feel like a foreign language to temperate gardeners. We see their vibrant colors in grocery stores, but it’s hard to imagine them growing in our gardens. Dragon fruit is particularly unique because this subtropical cactus is fairly rare in the U.S. Growing it yourself ensures the ripest, sweetest fruits possible. You can grow it outdoors in USDA zones 10-11, but cooler zones can grow it in containers and move them indoors in the winter.

Epic founder Kevin has been growing dragon fruit at the Epic Homestead in San Diego for five years. He attributes most of his success to the wisdom and expertise of master dragon fruit grower Richard Lee of @graftingdragonfruit. This article outlines the nuances of this fruiting cactus and how to make the most of its vigorous growth!

Let’s dig into everything you need to know about growing dragon fruit as a complete beginner.

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What is Dragon Fruit?

Characterized by its long, green, cactus-like stems, the Dragon Fruit plant produces vibrant pink fruits with green-tipped scales.
Grow vibrant, exotic dragon fruit effortlessly in suitable climates.

Dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) is a subtropical cactus that yields vibrant fuchsia-pink fruits with tiny black seeds. The frost-tender plants are native to Mexico, Central America, and South America but can be cultivated in USDA zones 10-11.

Sometimes called pitahaya, these cacti have intriguing vine-like leaves filled with spikes that yield stunning, brightly colored oval-shaped fruit. In spite of the intimidating spikes and wild appearance, they are easier to grow than you think.

How Do You Grow Dragon Fruit? 13 Beginner-Friendly Steps

Dragon fruit is unique because the fruits stop ripening as soon as you cut them from the plant. Contrast this to bananas or tomatoes, which ripen on shelves after harvest. This means that store-bought fruits are almost never ripe, which often leaves them lacking in flavor. The only way to enjoy this plant in its full glory is to harvest it ripe and fresh straight from the garden. 

Here’s how to get started growing your own:

Choose the Right Variety

The Dragon fruit is oval-shaped with vibrant pink skin adorned with green-tipped scales, and its interior reveals white flesh speckled with tiny black seeds.
Choose dragon fruit varieties wisely for successful cultivation and fruiting.

Big box stores often sell dragon fruit as “red” or “white,” but this doesn’t properly represent the different varieties of this cactus. Instead, you must understand the different types of flowers and fruits that these plants produce. When looking at any cultivar, learn to differentiate between these three types:

  1. Self-fertile means the plant doesn’t require cross-pollination to produce fruit. It can be grown as a single plant and successfully set fruit on its own but may need some human help moving the pollen around in the flowers.
  2. Self-sterile varieties need to be crossed with a different variety in order to set fruit. They require a little extra work and are better for advanced varieties.
  3. Self-pollinating varieties don’t need ANY human intervention.

Two of the best beginner varieties are ‘Vietnam White’ and ‘Sugar Dragon.’ These self-fertile plants still require hand pollination, but they yield amazingly delicious fruit that you’ll almost never find in stores. Self-fertile means the plant can pollinate itself, but you have to hand-transfer the pollen between its flowers. Don’t worry, this process is very simple, and we’ll explain it below.

Cuttings vs. Seeds

Close-up of many Selenicereus undatus plant cuttings in black plastic pots with a layer of mulch.
Begin your dragon fruit journey with reliable cuttings for success.

It is best to start your dragon journey with cuttings. Cuttings are much more reliable than seeds because cuttings are vegetative (cloning) propagation, whereas seeds come from sexual propagation. When you start from a cutting, you can be certain that you will harvest the exact fruit as the original plant. 

But if you start from seed, you won’t know if it will taste like the fruit you tried. The flowers may have cross-pollinated with other types, resulting in different flavors and shapes. It can be a real bummer to put in all the effort of growing this plant only to find that its fruits are not the juicy, sweet, tropical gems that you’d hoped for. Avoid this disappointment by starting with cuttings!

Even though this cactus looks exotic and intimidating, growing from cuttings is similar to any other plant in your garden. From a vegetable grower’s perspective, the stem of the pitahaya cactus can be rooted just like any cactus. The herb cutting will root and grow into a new plant that is exactly the same as the mother with the same genetics. The only difference is, the cactus has a lot more fleshy growth and spines.

Growing from cuttings is also much faster than starting from seeds. A cutting can start fruiting in one to two years, while a seed may take five years or more to reach maturity. 

So, where do you get dragon fruit cuttings? You can take them yourself from a neighbor’s plant, or you can purchase established seedlings from a tropical nursery. Sometimes, these plants are sold as houseplants. Verify the variety is an edible one before proceeding.

Preparing Cuttings

Close-up of a gardener in a brown apron and blue gloves cutting a Dragon Fruit cutting using pruning shears in the garden.
Start with a healthy, woody stem for successful rooting.

To start your journey, look for a large, plump stem branching from a mature cactus. Stem cuttings are the easiest to root because they already have a woody base, and there is less risk of rot. A flesh cutting involves slicing through the thick green stems of the cactus and then drying them out before planting.

You can spot a cutting-worthy stem because the base will have a woody nub connecting it to the rest of the plant. The brown woody nub is like its own dry stem. It does not need to sit out and callous like other succulents.

Use sharp, sanitized shears to cut at the base of the nub. Make sure it is a seven to eight- inch long cutting from the mature pitahaya of your desired variety. Remember, the cutting will be an exact clone of the mother. Don’t forget to clean and sanitize your shears in between cuts, and sharpen them regularly. Next, gather these materials to plant and root your cutting.

You need:

  • Medium-sized pot, like a 5 gallon pot
  • Bamboo stake, about 18” long
  • Extra well-drained soil, such as a cactus or succulent blend
  • Tape, like garden tape
  • Pen, for “graffiti” decorating the dragon fruit (we’ll explain!)

Planting the Cutting

A row of black plastic pots planted with Dragon Fruit cuttings that feature green, fleshy, segmented stems standing upright, ready to develop roots and grow.
Plant your cutting shallowly to prevent rot, supporting it securely.

You should plant eight inch long cuttings about one inch deep around a post or trellis and bind them with garden tape to keep them upright. Grow in well-drained soil that is high in organic matter and fertilize the plant with a high nitrogen fertilizer. Fill your pot with well-drained soil, ensuring that it doesn’t hold too much moisture. If the soil becomes soggy or waterlogged, it may rot the cutting before it can form new roots. 

Bury the cutting about one inch deep. You don’t want to bury it too deep, or the flesh will become susceptible to bacteria and fungi that can decay the stem. Clearly, your long cutting won’t stand up on its own with just an inch buried into the soil. This is where your bamboo stake and tape come in handy!

Once the cactus stems reach the top of the trellis and start to spill over, “chop the top” by removing the growing tips to promote bushy growth. In one to two years, the thorns will begin to develop flower buds that grow into fruit within 35-70 days.

Staking

Close-up of pitaya plant stems taped to vertical wooden posts in a sunny garden.
Stake and secure your cutting for wind protection.

Hold the cutting straight up and dig the stake all the way to the bottom of the pot right next to it. Use the tape to tightly bind the cutting to the bamboo stake. This will protect it from toppling over in the wind. 

Use a marker with ink that holds up to the elements and write the variety directly on the plant. This is super helpful because dragon fruit can grow quite crazy and you don’t want to lose track of the plant variety. Don’t worry; the marker won’t harm your cactus nor contaminate the fruits.

Give the cutting a bit of water, but not too much. Keep it in the shade for 2-4 weeks. While it may seem counterintuitive, shade is very important for this part of the process because the cutting must channel its energy into growing new roots. This is typically a sun-loving plant, but too much sun during the rooting phase can delay growth or scorch the flesh.

How Do You Know When Dragon Fruit Cuttings Are Rooted?

Close-up of a dragon fruit stem with thin creamy white roots against a blurred background.
Observe node growth and root formation for successful transplantation.

After cuttings rest in the shade with moderate moisture for 2-4 weeks, you should notice small whitish-green nodes growing from the leaves. The nodes look like little warts on the margins of the cactus leaves where small thorns grow. Both stems and flower buds eventually grow from these nodes.

If you give the cutting a gentle tug, it should be difficult to pull out, indicating that it has formed roots. You may see the roots growing from the large drainage hole at the bottom of your 5 gallon container. At this point, the cactus is ready to transplant into a larger pot or in the ground. 

Prepare a Container and Trellis

Dragon fruit is a unique cactus because it prefers to vine. A large wooden post or trellis is crucial for keeping this heavy plant upright. But first, you must decide where to plant your cuttings. 

This perennial evergreen cactus can live for ten years or more, and its roots grow incredibly fibrous and thick. This means that choosing the right location and trellis are key to years of delicious tropical fruits.

Should I Grow Dragon Fruit in the Ground or in a Container?

The Selenicereus undatus trailing from hanging pot, displays thick, green, segmented stems and tiny spines.
Opt for containers that can be moved indoors for climates that experience frost.

If you live in USDA zones 10-11, it’s best to grow dragon fruit outdoors in the ground or in a raised bed. However, for most climates, It is highly recommended for beginners to grow in containers. Kevin lives within dragon fruit’s hardiness range, but he grows his in containers, too! 

If you live in USDA zone 9 or colder, you must grow in a pot in order to move the plant indoors in the winter or in rainy weather. A container makes it way easier to tend your plant, protect it from harsh weather, and move it if necessary. You can also fully control the soil that the cactus grows in.

Plant in a 20-35 gallon pot that is made of very sturdy material. Ideally, it should be wider than it is tall. Wide lower growth supports a more stable plant and larger root zone. Alternatively, grow in a small metal raised bed like the Birdies Short Metal Raised Garden Bed.

Creating the Trellis

The Dragon Fruits plantation features rows of sturdy trellises supporting the sprawling, green, cactus-like stems of the plants.
Sturdy trellises support pitahaya’s sprawling growth and abundant fruiting.

Pitahaya is not a compact plant. This cactus grows robust roots and long vining stems. But the weight of its fleshy leaves (and hopefully an abundance of fruit) can easily cause it to topple. To create a trellis, we highly recommend the post method

You will need a 4×4 wooden post about 4-6 feet long. Ensure the post is made of untreated hardwood, ideally cedar or redwood. It’s very important that the post is not pressure-treated because the chemicals in pressure-treated wood can be very toxic to the plant and your health.

Next, find a concrete pier at your local hardware store. The tetrahedral-shaped pier blocks work best, and they often already have holes or stakes to support a 4×4 post. Screw the post into the pier and then prepare your hole or container.

If you are growing in the ground, you will need to dig a hole to bury the trellis post. Check that the concrete and wooden base are at least 10-12 inches below the surface, then backfill with soil. Place the raised bed around the base of the trellis.

For container growers, secure a t-post, wooden stake, or another sturdy trellis to the bottom of your container, such as a large terracotta pot. You may need an x-shaped wooden base or sturdy concrete block at the bottom to keep it upright.

Add a Frame to the Trellis Top

Dragon fruit naturally wants to grow straight up in its first year. Then it begins to vine outward and down. The shape looks like a tall tree with a wild head of hair at the top. To support this upper growth, build a square-shaped frame for the top of your trellis. This is easy to do with four to six pieces of 2×4 framing lumber. Secure the open box to the top of the post, and your trellis is finally complete!

Plant in an Area with Full Sun and Well-Drained Soil

The Dragon Fruits plantation with trellis showcases rows of vibrant green, cactus-like stems climbing and sprawling over sturdy trellises, with bright pink fruits hanging prominently amidst the structured growth.
Select a sunny spot with well-draining, organic-rich soil.

Choose an area in full sunlight with fast-draining soil. Ensure that no buildings or neighboring trees cast shadows over the area. Dragon fruit only tolerates dappled afternoon shade in the hottest climates. For most gardeners, six to eight hours of direct sun per day is necessary to produce fruit.

Fast-draining soil is also crucial because this plant is adapted to tropical conditions. In the tropics, the soil drains water very quickly because seasonal monsoons bring loads of rainfall at once. You never want pitahaya to sit in waterlogged soil.

But unlike many other succulents, dragon fruit also needs soil that is high in organic matter. This subtropical cactus is very different from desert cacti. 

If your native soil is heavy in clay or lacking in organic matter, you will need to generously amend it with compost, horticultural sand, perlite, and/or vermiculite. Growing in a raised bed or pot is much easier because you can fill the container with a quality potting soil blend.

Plant Multiple Cuttings Per Trellis

View of a plantation with young Dragon Fruits cuttings planted and tied to vertical white supports.
Position rooted cuttings strategically for optimal growth and fruiting.

With a container or raised bed and trellis in place, it’s time to move your rooted cuttings out to the garden. You don’t need to harden them off like other seedlings because we will show you how to protect them from weather extremes once they’re in the soil.

You can generally plant four cuttings per trellis. In order to maximize your space, you will want four separate vines to grow on each side of the wooden post. Growing multiple cuttings per bed ensures more vines and more fruit! You can grow multiple different varieties around a single trellis or grow several cuttings of the same type. 

Notice the direction of the sun on your trellis and plant accordingly. The largest cuttings can go on the most sun-exposed side. Their fleshy growth can handle more UV rays without dehydrating in the early stages. Smaller cuttings should be planted on the shadier side so they can adapt and catch up over time. 

Depth and Orientation

Plant each cutting one to two inches deep maximum. Try to place the flattest side of the cutting up against the post. Orient each cutting very close to the trellis and ensure it is pointing straight up. The goal is for each vine to race to the top of the trellis and then produce the floppy hair-like growth at the top (which yields the fruits). 

Use garden tape to tie all the cuttings to the post. This will keep their roots in place and protect them from disturbance. You can wrap the tape around multiple times, but try not to cover too much surface area of the stem. After all, the cactus still needs to photosynthesize!

Give your newly planted cuttings a light watering. You don’t need to water them as much as other garden transplants. They have a small amount of tissue, and they store a lot of moisture in their fleshy stems. Once the soil is slightly moistened, about the consistency of a wrung-out sponge, it is time to fertilize!

Feed With High-Nitrogen Organic Fertilizer

Close-up of a female gardener spreading granular chemical fertilizer at the base of a dragon fruit tree in the garden.
Nurture young plants with nitrogen-rich organic fertilizers for vigor.

In the early stages, dragon fruit needs plenty of nitrogen to help the stems develop and climb to the top of the trellis. An all-purpose organic fertilizer blend high in nitrogen is ideal. You can use granular or liquid fertilizer, but a slow-release organic product is ideal. 

Synthetic quick-release fertilizers make it easier to overfertilize and potentially burn the cuttings. Organic products still provide a generous dose of nutrients, but the fertilizer moves through the “digestive system” of soil microbes before it reaches the plant. This ensures that your young cacti don’t get an overdose of nutrients all at once.

Feed the plants generously, up to once a week. Fish emulsion is a great option! High-frequency fertilization promotes rapid growth. This cactus grows so quickly that you can often see it grow every single day! For a fun monitoring trick, draw lines along your wooden trellis to watch how fast the vine climbs. 

Protect from Sun

Close-up of Dragon Fruit plant with robust, green, succulent stems and eye-catching, bright pink fruit dotted with green, leaf-like scales, covered with water drops.
Shield young plants from direct sun to aid acclimatization.

It may seem strange to protect a sun-loving plant from the sun, but this quick step is important, particularly if you planted un-rooted cuttings directly in the soil. If you followed the steps above, your cuttings likely developed in partial shade. Since we didn’t harden them off, it’s important to help them gradually adjust to their new location. 

Wrap cardboard or a soil bag partially around the base of the trellis to protect the cuttings from drying out. Shade cloth or row fabric can also be helpful for the first week or so. It is crucial that these plants grow in completely frost-free weather, ideally above 60°F (16°C). Cold weather will kill the plants.

Prune, Train, and Trellis

The Dragon Fruits plantation with trellis displays orderly rows of green, fleshy stems supported by trellises.
Train and prune your cactus for optimal growth and yield.

As your cactus grows, it’s important to keep training it in the shape of the trellis. You may need to tie the plant with twine or garden tape to keep the cuttings close to the post as they climb.

As part of the training process, we highly recommend pruning away side shoots! Remove every side shoot from the plant until it reaches the top of the trellis. Side shoots cause more competition and stunt overall growth, which can reduce fruit sets later. We don’t want side shoots until the plant reaches the top of its trellis!

Once the plants grow to the top of the trellis, it’s time to “crop the top.” Cutting off the top of the plant causes it to bush out. This happens because of something called the apical meristem. Apical meristem is a fancy botanical word describing the collections of cells at the upper growing tips. This area is a hub for plant growth hormones. 

When you remove the top growth tip, the plant channels its hormones and energy into lateral meristems (side growth tips) instead. Rather than growing ever-upward, the top-pruned cactus will now produce lots of side shoots to yield that bushy growth. 

It may take four to six cuts to remove all the tops of the vines. Use sharp, sanitized shears to remove about two inches of each main stalk tip. You will remove a tip from every stem that you originally planted. So if you planted four cuttings, ensure that you cut all four tips.

Force the Fruit

Featuring trailing, fleshy, green stems, the Dragon Fruit plant bears large, vibrant pink fruits with dragon-like green scales.
Encourage abundant fruiting by strategically tipping new growth annually.

After a year or two of growth, the dragon fruit tips should start branching prolifically. This is when the cactus begins to look wild and monstrous. Don’t worry; monster growth is exactly what we’re looking for! A large amount of stem chunks means a large harvest of fruit!

You can wait for the plant to naturally produce flowers and fruit, or you can use this expert tip to “force the fruit” to produce more quickly. Intriguingly, this hack involves “tipping” the stems again. In mid-to-late summer, use sharp, sanitized shears to cut one to two inches off the tip of every stem. 

This will force the new nodes to stop producing new vegetation. Instead, they will focus their energy on producing flower buds. This is where things really get exciting! 

Look for the Flowers

The Dragon Fruit plant features sprawling, green, cactus-like stems with no true leaves and large, white, flowers that bloom nocturnally.
Thorns signal future flowers, marking the blooming timeline.

A really cool thing about dragon fruit is that its thorns are multifunctional! Every growing season, the thorns can either produce new growth or put out flower buds. Each thorn will start to swell like a little wart, indicating that a bud is forming. The thorn falls off, and a flower will bloom into a gigantic blossom in 30-35 days.

The ultra-special gigantic flowers only bloom for about twelve hours and then fall off. So it is absolutely essential that you pollinate them while they are open! In order to catch the flowers in bloom, it helps to mark when the buds start forming. Use your marker to write the date on the stems with a flower button, or mark the date in your calendar. About 30 days from bud formation, you can keep an eye out for when the blossom opens. 

Pollination

Close-up of a gardener's hands in white gloves pollinating dragon fruit flower with a brush.
Celebrate blooming day and assist pollination for fruitful growth.

Get super excited on the day of blooming! The bulb starts to open its petals in the afternoon, and within three to four hours, it will fully bloom. These are night-blooming cacti with stunning white petals. 

It is very important to know your variety at the flowering stage. For example, a simple ‘Vietnam White,’ which is the most common beginner variety, is the easiest because you don’t have to do anything. You can just enjoy the flowers and let them take care of pollination because they are self-fertile AND self-pollinating.

However, if you have a variety that is not self-pollinating, you must be awake to catch those flowers during the short time that they are open. Varieties like ‘Sugar Dragon’ can still pollinate itself, but it’s helpful to shake the flower or use a little paintbrush to move around pollen inside the flower. This helps ensure proper fruit formation.

Once you get super excited about dragon fruit, you may want to dive into growing multiple unique varieties and crossing them together. Clearly, this means you must catch both plants with open flowers and cross them at the perfect time. The short window of opportunity is exciting but definitely a bit more complicated.

How Do You Know That A Dragon Fruit Flower Has Set Fruit?

The sprawling, green cactus-like stems of the Dragon Fruit plant are dotted with brown, desiccated dragon fruit blossoms, signaling the end of their bloom cycle.
Monitor for successful pollination by observing withered blossoms.

It is tricky to know if floral pollination was successful. About four to five days after the flower closes, you will see a dead blossom hanging from the plant. Don’t panic! The flower actually dies because it is no longer needed. At the base of the withered flower, there will be a little ball

The little ball will start to develop into a dragon fruit within 35-70 days. The wide variation depends on the cultivar. A ‘Vietnam White’ ripens in just 35 days. It helps to calculate the estimated ripening date in your calendar and mark the flower opening date on your plant with a marker.

Remove Rust and Sunburnt Parts

Close-up of a gardener's hand with pruning shears trimming diseased stems of a Dragon Fruit plant, showing symptoms of rusty brown spots.
Maintain plant health by addressing rust and sunburn issues.

Once you’ve planted, pruned, and harvested your first fruits, you’re probably wondering how to maintain your dragon fruit plant over time. Rust and sunburn are common issues with these plants. The cactus may start to develop little orange dots, which are signs of cactus rust. If they are localized (confined to one area), it isn’t a huge deal. The rust probably isn’t spreading and it can quickly be eradicated with a copper fungicide. You can also prune off the entire stem.

If you notice that the plant is turning golden-yellow and mushy, it is probably getting sunburnt. The flesh will feel melted and “cooked” by the sun. It lacks its usual green fleshy growth. It’s important to prune away any sunburnt areas. Rest assured, the plant should regenerate itself with no issue. In ultra-hot climates with scorching sunlight, you may need to move the plant to an area with dappled afternoon shade or build a shade cloth cover to protect it through the sweltering summers.

Prune Regularly

Close-up of a farmer in a white t-shirt and purple bucket hat trimming the stems of a Dragon Fruit plant with red pruning shears in the plantation.
It’s important to prune for optimal fruit production, especially in late fall.

Like many fruit-producing plants, pruning is helpful to maximize flower and fruit production. Dragon fruit cacti can become overgrown, and the excess vegetation detracts from fruiting. Use sharp, sanitized shears to cut away any side shoots that are growing way out beyond the trellis. Focus on removing the small shoots that are shorter than six inches. If you see lots of sub-branches on a given stem, remove about 50% of them, leaving two to three evenly spaced lateral branches. 

The best time to prune is at the end of the season, in the fall. Pruning pushes new growth and hormones into new buds. Don’t be afraid to generously thin out mature plants at the top of their trellis. In the next season, you’ll want to provide plenty of fertilizer and water to help it regenerate. Practice “tipping” the growth tips every spring to promote strong fruit production.

In cold climates, be sure to protect the plants from chilly winter nights or move them indoors. Row cover or plastic greenhouses are very helpful. You can also use a frost blanket or move dormant potted cacti into your home or garage where they will stay above 35°F (2°C). Water very sparingly in the winter months and move the cactus back outdoors as soon as the risk of frost has passed.

Final Thoughts

Dragon fruit is different from any other plant in the garden! This unique fruiting cactus is a culinary delight that is rarely enjoyed ripe off the vine. There is a bit of a learning curve to understand this subtropical plant’s vining and flowering style, but the endeavor is worthwhile once you taste the extraordinarily sweet fruits.

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