When we started talking about growing trees in pots and planters, there was so much to say about choosing a container, soil, planting and pruning, that we never got around to looking at the kinds of trees that are suitable for this. So now we are going to do that – take a look at the kinds of trees that grow well in pots and planters, and that can be sustained for many years, growing more and more attractive as they mature.
Although many gardeners grow evergreens and bushes in containers, and create beautiful planters with balls of boxwood, or pyramids of yew or cedar, that is not the kind of trees we are thinking about here. Instead, we are looking at how to have plants that actually look like trees, with a trunk and branches, growing in a pot. Not so small that they would be seen as bonsai, but of a substantial size, making an attractive feature in the garden. This is especially useful for smaller gardens, and even more so if you have a courtyard or a terrace, where it is impossible to plant a tree, and where most trees would grow too large for the space. There is one other great thing about trees in pots. If you move to a new house, you can take your tree with you – a completely portable garden.
What Trees Not to Grow in a Pot
Let’s start by thinking about what we don’t want, which will then leave us pretty wide open to choosing what we do. Here are so,e undesirable features in trees that would make them bad candidates for growing in pots or containers.
- Very Fast-Growing Trees – unless you just want a quick effect for a year or two, avoid super-fast-growing trees, like many willows for example. Because they grow so fast, and have large, extensive root systems, they will soon become too big, and possibly even crack the pot they are in. As well, it is much harder to develop a natural look, if you are constantly pruning and hacking of big branches from your tree.
- Trees That Grow Very Large – since we are planning to keep this tree in a pot for years, we don’t want something that can potentially grow to 50 or 100 feet tall. It is not so much because they will grow that large in a pot – they won’t – but because they will not easily develop the mature look we are seeking. Instead they will be constantly pushing upwards, with long branches, and not developing a mature crown – always looking like a gangly teenager.
- Trees That are Prone to Pests and Diseases – growing in a pot is inevitably a bit more stressful than growing in the ground, even with the best of attention. Trees that develop pest issues easily will be even more likely to get them growing in a container. Instead we want to choose trees that are tough and resistant to problems, so that our tree-in-a-pot will thrive and live a healthy life.
- Trees with Just One Point of Interest – since your potted tree is going to be a center piece, make sure it has several features that make it interesting to look at all year round. Don’t choose a tree for one seasonal feature, that is then a bit boring the rest of the year.
Suitable Trees for Growing in Pots and Planters
Let’s now take a look at some trees that are top choices for pot and container growing.
- Japanese Maple – these trees tick all the boxes. Small size, beautiful foliage, spring and fall interest, handsome in winter – we could go on and on. Because they do need a steady supply of water, it is actually easier to grow them in containers than in most gardens, where they often struggle for water in summer. In a pot you can always makes sure they have the right amount, and you won’t see their leaves shrivel and burn in summer. Good choices will be varieties that are more upright, and taller. Although weeping forms are very popular, if you want that, choose a variety that will grow taller, or that can be staked-up, to give you some height for your tree. Some top choices are the Coral Bark Japanese Maple, which has brilliant red twigs in winter, adding terrific interest at that time. This is a relatively upright tree, that will soon be taller than you, and look spectacular with its pure gold fall leaves. Another great choice is the Ed Wood Full Moon Japanese Maple. This tree has much fuller, and rounded leaves, which turn yellow, orange, and red in fall – like a firework display in your courtyard garden. For red leaves in spring and summer, choose the Crimson Queen or Emperor varieties. If you live in colder parts of the country, then the classic Bloodgood form is renowned for its hardiness and beauty.
- Magnolia Trees – for a spectacular spring display, nothing beats magnolia trees. Many people find it hard to believe that these trees will grow well in pots, but indeed they do. It is also easy to give them the rich, slightly-acidic soil they grow so well in. The deciduous varieties are the best choice, as they are more ‘tree-like’ when young, and choose a smaller growing variety, like the Royal Star Magnolia, which is also a very hardy variety. It is true that magnolias are a ‘one season’ plant, but that season is so spectacular that we can forgive them for being a bit boring the rest of the year. Anyway, you can always move the pot to a less prominent spot when it is not in bloom.
- Other Suitable Trees – here is a quick run-down on some other trees that work well in pots and planters.
- Mimosa Tree – this lesser-known flowering tree (Albizia) is a great choice for zones 6 to 10, and forms a lovely rounded crown. The beautiful pink flowers in summer are a real joy to behold.
- Crape Myrtle – in warmer areas, and especially if you can’t always get out a water regularly, then Crape Myrtle are lovely, drought-resistant small trees. Choose the taller varieties, like ‘Natchez’, or ‘Muskogee’, and prune hard in spring to produce a bold display of color all summer long. The brilliant fall leaves are a great climax to the season.
- Redbud – these small trees flower very early in the year, so they bring color before almost anything else. The rich purple flowers are a knockout, and the handsome rounded leaves look good all summer long
- Apple Trees – yes, you can even have fruit on a potted tree, and in warmer areas the low-chill variety, ‘Pink Lady’, is the perfect choice. Or consider a 5-in-1 tree, so you can have a whole orchard in just one pot, and no issues with pollination either.
Whatever trees you choose, prune early to develop an attractive, scar-free trunk, and do some summer trimming to build a mature, rounded crown. Your tree in a pot or planter will be a joy all year, and it takes a whole lot less work than you imagined.