By Fiona Cumberpatch published
The best trees to grow in pots create an instant focal point in the garden. Placed on a patio as a feature, used to frame a path, or positioned to create shade or privacy, there is a suitable tree for every situation. Some will offer frothy blossom in spring, others are prized for their colorful autumn foliage, while evergreens are quietly reliable performers all year round.
Unlike some smaller plants in pots, once they are established container-planted trees will look after themselves, although watering will always be needed to keep them happy and healthy. If you are tight for space, and think any kind of tree might be too big, consider under-planting, that is using the soil underneath the tree to plant flowers (lavender under a standard olive tree is a classic combination).
There are a few simple rules to ensure success when picking the best trees to grow in pots. Always choose a large container, with room for the tree to grow (but not too big as it is best to pot trees on in gradual stages every 2-4 years).
Like most container gardening ideas, you will need to bear in mind that trees in pots will dry out more quickly than those planted in the ground, so they will need to be watered regularly in the warmer months. They will also need to be fed, to replace vital nutrients in the soil.
Finally, select a tree that fits with your garden style. Acers create a Zen-like feel, lollipop-shaped bay works in a classic, elegant space, and an olive tree is perfect for a Mediterranean look.
The best trees to grow in pots
Not all trees are right for container growing. Many varieties are simply too big to be confined to your garden planter ideas. It is very important to choose a slow growing or a dwarf type, which is also suitable for your chosen site and situation.
Sarah Squire, Chairman of Squire’s Garden Centres says: 'Trees are fantastic as a habitat and food source for wildlife and as a source of carbon capture. They also give structure and architecture to a garden.'
Check our pick of the best trees to grow in pots to find the right one to suit your garden style.
1. Acer (Japanese Maple)
With delicately shaped leaves, elegant form and stunning autumn foliage in shades of red, orange, yellow and plum, acers, also called Japanese maples, are top of our list of the best trees to grow in pots. They drop their leaves in winter, but the patterned trunks create interest all year round.
Choose acer atropupureum for trees with red or purple leaves, and acer dissectum for fresh green foliage. Water regularly during spring and late summer.
For best results with how to grow acers, make sure you grow them in a sheltered spot in sun or part shade, and keep away from drying winds. Pruning is not usually needed, and in fact it might spoil the naturally graceful shape of these stunning trees.
Evergreen, with glossy leaves, these trees look attractive year-round and are a great choice for low maintenance garden ideas. They will do well in pots with well-drained soil-based compost.
Add some control release fertilizer pellets or liquid feed about every two weeks in mid-spring to late summer. For standard lollipop-shaped bay trees, prune and shape the foliage in the summer – having the best secateurs to hand will help with this. As a rule, bay trees need repotting every two to three years.
Elegant and timeless, an olive tree brings instant Mediterranean garden ideas to your plot. They are evergreen, so year-round interest is guaranteed. Olives are easy to grow but they do not like harsh winters. If you're wondering how to protect plants from frost, one of the easiest ways is to cover them horticultural fleece if the temperature looks set to drop below 14˚F (-10˚C). By doing this, they will be protected from damage.
Grow olives in a warm, sunny site. They are drought-tolerant, but you will still need to add the task of watering plants to your gardening to-do list around once a week. Feed in spring with a granular general fertilizer.
With clusters of white star-shaped flowers on copper colored foliage, this is one of the best trees to grow in pots if you want a striking display in spring. The flowers are followed by small, pinkish berries.
Amelanchier is compact and slim, but will still need a large pot to thrive. Choose a smaller variety, such as Amelanchier Lamarkii ‘Ballerina,’ which should not grow taller than 4-5m. These trees prefer acid soil so plant them in ericaceous compost.
5. Sophora microphylla ‘Sun King’
For something exotic for the best trees to grow in pots, this is a good choice. Also known as the Japanese Pagoda tree, this has small evergreen leaves on long leafy stems, and generously thick clusters of bright yellow bell-shaped flowers from late winter to early spring.
Despite the flamboyant, almost tropical appearance of the blooms, it is hardy down to 14˚F (-10˚C). Place the pot in a sunny, sheltered spot for best results.
For more exotic looking plants, check out our guide to the best tropical plants.
6. Witch Hazel
The unusual spidery flowers in yellow, marmalade orange and plum red appear before the leaves on this multi-stemmed tree, and they glow like coals in midwinter and very early spring when everything else in the garden is brown and dull.
In a container, witch hazel grow slowly, at around 10cm a year, so they are ideal for small garden ideas. They do best in sun or part shade, and there’s no need to prune them.
There's more top picks for the best trees for small gardens in our guide.
7. Japanese Holly Tree
Also known as ‘ilex crenata’ these trees are often sold clipped into a lollipop shape, adding a touch of formality to the garden. They can also be pruned into striking cloud shapes to suit the look of Japanese garden ideas.
Japanese holly is evergreen, with dark, glossy leaves and they will need shaping with sharp secateurs twice a year in May and September. Plant in John Innes No 3 and keep the compost moist at all times.
These little trees do well in pots in sun or part shade, but do protect them with fleece if a cold snap is forecast.
8. Ornamental Cherry
Not all flowering cherry trees suit container growing, but there are plenty that do, and they will create a wonderful feature in the spring, garlanded with pretty pink or white flowers.
Try Prunus ‘Snowgoose,’ an upright tree which is good for containers and would work well as part of your patio gardening ideas. Another option is ‘Little Pink Perfection,’ a dwarf variety which is ideal for pots. When planting, add a layer of gravel to the tub for good drainage. Place in full sun or part shade and keep moist, but not soggy. Once established, they need very little attention.
There's more suggestions for the best flowering trees in our dedicated guide.
9. Sambucus nigra ‘Black Lace’
For a shot of drama, the almost-black dissected foliage and flat topped creamy pink flowers of this large shrub/small tree make this a must for the best trees to grow in pots.
It will need a large container, at least 24" or 60cm in diameter, and just as deep. Place in full or partial sun to retain the deep color of the foliage.
It’s a fast grower, but it can be pruned to keep it under control. Place near flowers with yellow or golden leaves for a lovely contrast in your garden color schemes.
10. Italian Cypress
Probably one of the easiest of the best trees to grow in pots, these pencil slim conifers are tough and hardy. Use their architectural shape to frame either side of a gate or doorway or to define a zone in the garden. They are drought-tolerant, but container-grown ones will need regular watering. Remove any cones that appear as these can pull the foliage apart and spoil the elegant shape.
How to plant a tree in a pot
Squires Garden Centres offer expert advice on planting the best trees to grow in pots.
- Choose a container with plenty of room to house the root ball, including space to grow.
- Choose a loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 3, which is designed for long term growing.
- Water the tree regularly.
- Use a slow release fertilizer every spring to boost growth.
- Some trees may need a stake to hold them upright. Staking kits are available to buy from garden centers.
How do you know if a tree needs repotting?
One of the biggest container gardening mistakes is to keep your tree in a pot that has become too small for it. Trees which are not happy can show signs of stress through yellowing leaves, leaf drop and die-back. If this happens, it might be time for a new container.
Loosen the edges of the soil, then carefully remove the tree from its pot, including the entire rootball. Replant in a bigger pot with fresh compost. You will need to keep the tree watered regularly as it re-establishes.
Do you need to feed a tree in a pot?
Even the best trees to grow in pots will need extra nutrients. According to the RHS advice, refresh the compost each spring by scraping off about 5cm of compost and replacing it with fresh. Mix in some control release fertilizer granules, or alternatively, use a liquid feed regularly during the growing season.
Now you've learned about the best trees to grow in pots, why not add some more interest to your garden by growing vegetable in pots too? Our guide has lots of tips to get you started.
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses. She's a firm believer that gardening is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you have a single window ledge or an acre, there’s always peace and joy to be found outside. The small town garden of her Edwardian terraced house is currently a work in progress as she renovates the property, but her goal is always to fill it with flowers, climbers, colour, fragrance – and as many of her treasured vintage finds as she can possibly fit in.
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