According to the proverb, ‘To be happy for a year, get married; to be happy for life, plant a garden'. A well-chosen tree makes the perfect finishing flourish, and by planting trees in a pot, it is perfectly possible for even a balcony-sized garden to enjoy its many benefits. Container-grown trees make an attractive focal point and add variety, height, colour and even fruit to the garden. For ‘Generation Rent’, a pot-grown tree has the added flexibility of being able to move with you.
Best small trees for pots
Trees that are naturally small or slow-growing are the obvious place to start when looking for a suitable garden tree to grow in a pot. As with any tree purchase, think carefully about where it will go and what you want from it – whether that be a long season of interest, fragrant flowers, vibrant foliage, or structure. Here are some of our favourites.
Japanese maples are elegant small trees that make an excellent subject for containers. In autumn, the delicately serrated leaves accent the garden in vivid shades of red, orange and gold. If you have space, grow a selection of different varieties to enjoy a sensational colour palette through summer and into autumn.
2. ‘Kilmarnock’ Willow
This dwarf weeping willow is a popular choice for pots. Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’ has a compact, pendulous habit that’s tailor-made for injecting architectural interest into small gardens or patios. In spring, its fluffy grey and yellow catkins provide an important early source of fodder for pollinating insects; in autumn, its foliage turns golden yellow before falling to reveal the dramatic silhouette of its bare branches.
Add a touch of Mediterranean glamour to your garden with a potted olive tree. These silver-leaved evergreens are slow-growing and work well in containers. Over time they will develop into real characters with gnarly grey bark and contorted trunks. Choose a compact variety, and an occasional light prune will be enough to keep it in shape. Place in a sunny spot and use a well-drained loam-based compost such as John Innes No. 3.
Best evergreen trees in pots
Plants have to work hard in small gardens, and trees are no exception. Evergreen trees are good value as their foliage offers year-round interest, screening and structure. Here are some top evergreen trees that can be grown successfully in containers.
4. Dwarf conifers
Although best known for their towering height (Italian cypress can grow to 20 metres tall, Leylandii cypress to 40 metres), conifer trees come in all sizes, including extra small. A neat dwarf pine, cedar, cypress or juniper tree is perfect for popping in a pot to bring a calming evergreen presence to a patio. Place in part shade and avoid full sun to prevent the foliage from scorching.
Bay trees are the classic evergreen trees for containers. Nothing looks smarter than a pair of standard bay trees on either side of a front door. Bays clip well and can be trained as topiary, so you could equally well have pyramids, cones or spirals beside your entrance. The aromatic leaves can be used in cooking, so a container-grown bay is much more than just an ornamental tree.
English holly is another option for a front door tree grown in a pot. The traditional lollipop shape looks handsome in suitably large containers beside a front porch or stationed in a courtyard. If you want to enjoy bright red winter berries as well as glossy green foliage, choose a female tree, or plant several trees to ensure pollination. Japanese holly is worth considering, too: it grows well in containers and clips easily to shape (it's often used as an alternative to Box as it’s resistant to blight).
Best fruit trees in pots
There can be few more rewarding activities in the garden than growing fruit. Potted patio fruit trees make this possible even in tiny gardens, and if you’re growing tender fruit such as lemons or peaches in a container, containers mean you can easily bring your trees into a frost-free greenhouse or porch to overwinter safely. Here’s our pick of the crop:
Juicy and flavoursome, a freshly-picked apple is worlds away from supermarket fruit. Patio apple trees grown on highly dwarfing rootstocks are ideal for pots as they won’t exceed much more than about 1.5 metres. If you only have room for one tree, choose a self-fertile variety such as ‘Braeburn’ or ‘Cox’s Orange Pippin’. For versatility in the kitchen, opt for ‘James Grieve’, a lovely dual-purpose apple tree.
As with apples, growing pear trees successfully in pots is down to the rootstock. Also known as ‘miniature trees,’ these patio trees are grown on an extremely dwarfing rootstock, producing small trees of up to 1.5 metres maximum. The well-known dessert variety ‘Conference’ makes a great choice for a small garden as it’s self-fertile, and you’ll get fruit even if you only grow one tree. If you prefer cooking pears, try ‘Gieser Wildeman’, a delicious heritage Dutch culinary pear.
With their lush foliage and succulent fruits, fig trees bring added value to any garden. They naturally perform better when their roots are restricted, but even so, varieties such as ‘Brown Turkey’ can become very large. Enter ‘Little Miss Figgy’, a self-fertile dwarf fig variety that won’t exceed 2 metres in height and spread. This petite fig tree is ideal for containers and will produce generous crops of sweet, burgundy-coloured fruit. Position against a south-facing wall and protect with horticultural fleece in winter.
Just imagine adding a slice of homegrown lemon to your gin and tonic for sundowners in the garden... bliss. This doesn’t have to be a fantasy: it’s surprisingly easy to harvest your own lemons if grown correctly. Although citrus trees thrive in much warmer climates than ours, varieties such as Citrus x limon (lemon) can survive in the UK if kept in a cool, frost-free place over the winter. Terracotta pots are the traditional container for growing citrus trees; use a well-drained compost such as John Innes No. 3 and position in a sunny, sheltered spot.
Best flowering trees for pots
Lovely in their own right, a tree that flowers is just the icing on the cake. There’s no need to miss out on the floral fireworks if you have a small garden – here are some of our favourite flowering trees that can be grown in pots.
11. Star Magnolia
This slow growing small tree blooms prolifically in early spring when flowers of any kind are particularly welcome. Magnolia stellata produces its white star-shaped flowers on bare stems before the leaves emerge, making the display all the more sensational. It prefers acid soil, so growing in a large pot will handily provide the right growing conditions if your garden soil is alkaline. Choose a partially-shaded spot for the best results.
One of the trees most often recommended for small gardens, amelanchiers are also one of the best garden trees for pots. Part of their appeal lies in their long season of interest: abundant racemes of starry white flowers in early spring are followed by bold copper coloured foliage which blazes brilliant red in autumn. In summer, the juneberries that give the tree its common name are popular with birds, making it a wildlife friendly choice too.
Best trees in pots for screening
Planting trees can be as much about problem-solving as it is about pleasure. Trees are a brilliant way of providing screening, but it’s not always possible to plant them in the ground. Thinking out of the box sometimes produces an original solution:
13. Fan Palm Tree
When it comes to screening, plants with exotic or large foliage really earn their keep. Chamaerops humilis is an RHS award-winning dwarf palm tree that rarely exceeds 2 metres when grown in the ground, but it can also be grown as an outdoor potted tree to make an attractive evergreen screen. Provide it with an ericaceous (acidic) compost and a sunny sheltered spot, and it will thrive; you’ll need to bring the pot indoors over winter as fan palms are not totally hardy in the UK (particularly in the colder hardiness zones 5-6).
Best large trees in pots
Given the right conditions, it’s technically possible to grow any tree, regardless of size, in a pot. The Japanese arts of bonsai and cloud pruning are the best-known and perhaps most effective ways of accomplishing this (Bonsai literally translates as ‘planted in a container’). Here are a couple of large trees that can be grown as bonsai or cloud pruned.
Evergreen English yew (Taxus baccata) is a native conifer that responds particularly well to clipping and training. Although it will reach up to 20 metres as a full-grown tree, it will grow happily in containers where you can restrict its size by annual pruning. Keep container-grown yews well-fed and watered to maintain their luxuriant feathery foliage.
Few gardens have room for a full-grown oak tree, so growing one in a pot as a bonsai might be the perfect solution. They are simply magnificent trees, and there are numerous varieties to choose from. Oak is famously slow-growing, and growing a bonsai from an acorn will take up to 15 years – the alternative is to grow one from a sapling or buy a ready-made bonsai. Prune pot-grown oak trees in early spring and apply a liquid fertiliser weekly throughout the spring and summer.
Tips for caring for potted trees
Growing a tree in a pot is a bit like having a pet, as your tree will depend on you for its care. Regular watering, feeding and pruning will keep potted trees in tip-top shape and, unlike a dog, at least won’t have to worry about taking it on walks! Here are some of the key points to bear in mind when caring for trees in pots:
Choose a large enough pot, making sure it has drainage holes at the bottom
Pots made from porous materials such as terracotta and wood offer optimum growing conditions for trees and other permanent plants
Containerised trees need regular watering, particularly in dry spells
Provide frost protection in cold weather – use horticultural fleece to protect tender leaves, buds, and stems, and bubble wrap to insulate the pot (and the roots inside)
Potted trees can’t access nutrients in the same way that trees in the ground can, so feed regularly in the growing season
Maintain the size of potted trees by regular pruning
Pruning the tree’s root system every so often is another effective way of controlling the size of mature trees
Refresh the compost in spring – either by repotting entirely or replacing the top few inches with fresh compost
Growing a tree in a pot has many advantages and is often the most practical option for gardens with limited space. A potted tree offers the ultimate in flexible gardening and, given the right growing conditions, will thrive and give pleasure for many years. Browse our extensive range of ornamental trees to find the perfect potted tree for your garden.