Horticulture Magazine

10 Small Trees That Grow Well In Pots

lemon tree in a grey pot growing indoors

Bring the great outdoors into your own garden or terrace with one or more of these potted trees.

Trees are truly magnificent creatures. Not only do they offer a whole host of environmental benefits, but they can also transform the aesthetic appearance of your property. As an ornamental addition to a terrace or balcony, they can create the illusion of spaciousness, while a well-placed tree on a patio or back yard can provide a striking focal point to draw the eye. What’s more, choose a fruit-bearing variety and they can provide sustenance for you and your family!

For those with a smaller garden – or perhaps just a balcony or terrace – it might seem like the allure of trees is out of reach… but thankfully, there are plenty of smaller specimens perfect for planting in a pot. Indeed, potted trees are not only space-efficient, but they lend themselves well to ease of maintenance and relocation. That’s especially handy for more tender varieties, since they can be easily moved indoors when the temperature begins to drop.

As with all horticultural decisions, you should base your choice of tree on the individual circumstances of the environment in which you intend to place it. That means selecting a tree that will thrive in the climate, light exposure and soil moisture of your garden, patio or terrace. You should also look out for “dwarfing” varieties of trees, since these will flourish well within the confines of a pot. Having said that, it’s likely that you’ll still have repot the tree to ensure its roots don’t become overcrowded in the limited space available to them. (Alternatively, you can simply prune the roots back and repot the tree in the same receptacle with fresh soil).

Much like all green-fingered decisions, choosing the right small potted tree for your property depends upon accessing the right information. With that in mind, this list of suggested trees should point you in the right direction and give you the knowhow needed to make an informed decision when it comes to landscaping your home with one or more arboreal additions.

10 trees suited to container growing

1) Citrus

small orange tree in a pot
Stock up on that all-important vitamin C

Citrus trees make a great option for growing in a pot with ample dimensions, so take your pick from limes and lemons, oranges and tangerines, mandarins and kumquats. Not only can they furnish your kitchen cupboards with some delicious treats, but their slender trunks, lush green foliage and brightly coloured fruit add zest and zing to any backdrop they adorn.

Of course, you should be mindful that citrus trees are very susceptible to colder temperatures, but choosing a dwarf variety that will flourish in a pot means that they can be moved inside with the minimum of fuss. You should also ensure they receive plentiful nutrition throughout the year; one tell-tale sign that a citrus tree is lacking in nitrogen is a yellowing of their leaves, so be on the lookout for such an occurrence and take steps to remedy it with the appropriate fertiliser feed.

2) Conifers

coniferous trees in plastic pots
Heady scents and evergreen leaves – what’s not to love?

Due to the fact that they bear leaves (often in the form of needles) all year round, conifers are an excellent, low maintenance option for sprucing up your displays whatever the season. Again, it’s advisable to choose a dwarf or slow-growing variety, since failure to do so will almost inevitably result in the tree outgrowing its pot before too long. Having said that, there are plenty of such options to choose from, including cypress, fir, juniper, pine and many more.

Conifers require very little care throughout their lifespans. Simply plant them in a pot with well-draining soil and they’ll fend for themselves, only ever requiring watering if you experience a prolonged period of particularly dry weather. They enjoy full sun and will benefit from annual fertilisation if the soil is of poor quality, but that last step is not a necessity in the majority of cases. You can plant them in pairs for a classy aesthetic, or even line up a row of them to create a shaded screening for additional privacy.

3) Fig

close up of a fig tree
Harvest the fruit for your refreshment and the leaves for your modesty

There’s something about the spindly trunks, gnarled branches and drooping leaves of a fig tree that brings to mind the deliciously lazy languor of a Mediterranean courtyard in the full heat of summer. Why not recreate that aesthetic in your own home? Pick an edible fruit-bearing variety and you’ll even have some succulent produce to supplement your salads and desserts.

As is to be expected, fig trees perform best in warm climates with lengthy summers, but you can make them work in slightly cooler climes, as well. Just ensure they receive as much sun as possible and water them like there’s no tomorrow and you should still reap the fruits of your labour. You should, however, remember that a potted fig tree is likely to reach a smaller height and produce fewer and less juicy fruits than those grown in solid ground.

4) Flowering dogwood

white flowering dogwood up close
This beautiful specimen is not just all bark

With their striking white or pink flowers that blossom every springtime, flowering dogwoods are one of the most visually impressive items on this list. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the highest maintenance options out there. Although it’s certainly possible to successfully grow a flowering dogwood tree in a pot, it might take a little more time, care and attention than other alternatives.

That’s because flowering dogwood has complex root systems which grow at an alarming rate and an insatiable thirst for H2O. You can give yourself a head start by selecting the largest receptacle to plant it in that your available space allows, but even so, you’ll want to prune back the roots or upgrade to a larger pot on a fairly regular basis. You can also reduce the amount of watering that the plant requires by layering the topsoil with an organic mulch, which will help it to retain moisture. Having said that, flowering dogwood will still require a substantial amount of irrigation.

5) Japanese maple

Maple bonsai tree in a garden planter
Bring the appeal of the orient into your home

Japanese maples come in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the tiny bonsais which offer majestic spectacles in miniature, to their larger, looser leaved relatives. Whichever species you plump for, you’ll be guaranteed a gorgeous display of coloured foliage which positively shimmer in the right light. For best results, pick a weeping variety and prune it into your desired shape to create the aesthetic that you’re after.

Even larger varieties of Japanese maple never grow to a huge height, making them a perfect choice for a potted plant on your balcony, terrace or back yard. They’re a creature of moderate inclinations, so place them in full sun in cooler parts of the country and partial sun in hotter regions. They also don’t cope well in strong winds, so try to position them in a sheltered location if at all possible.

6) Olive

two olive trees on balcony decking
Mediterranean elegance at its finest

Continuing the Mediterranean theme started with figs above, olive trees are another sultry and stylish addition to a patio. Like figs, they also prefer plenty of sunshine and moist soil (especially during the growing season) and will definitely need to be transplanted indoors when winter rolls around, since even a mild frost can be fatal to their survival.

However, if you get those considerations right, olive trees require very little in the way of maintenance. The fact that their roots penetrate to far shallower depths than other trees of a similar size means that if you plant them in a large enough container at the outset, you may never need to repot them throughout the entirety of their life cycle. Although the fruit might be the major selling point for some people, it can create an oily mess if left to drop from the branches onto a patio or, even worse, a carpet, so keep an eye on them when the olives look ripe.

7) Privet

small privet bush in stone planter
Ornamental tree art eat your heart out

Are there any amateur topiarists in the house? If so, a privet might be the perfect tree for you. The stubby trunks and dense foliage of these deciduous plants make them an excellent canvas upon which to exert your artistic abilities by trimming them into pyramids, globes or pillars. Alternatively, you could plant several privets in a row to create a dense hedge, which not only provides privacy, but can act as a highly effective sound barrier, as well.

Potted privets require much the same treatment as they would when planted in the ground. Primarily, they demand good drainage in the soil, since they will quickly succumb to waterlogged roots. They enjoy full to partial sun and should be transplanted to a larger container every few years, or when their roots have outgrown their receptacle. That transplanting can be managed at any time of the year without any adverse effects to their growth.

8) Starry magnolia

starry magnolia flowers on branches
An eye-catching centrepiece

The drooping delicacy of the floral blossoms on a magnolia tree make them quite the impressive addition to any outdoor setting. Unfortunately, the sheer size of most magnolia varieties make them unsuitable for planting in a pot, but starry magnolias are one of the few exceptions to that rule. Even so, these beautiful specimens can still grow up to four metres in height, so stay on top of your pruning duties to ensure it doesn’t get too big for its boots.

Speaking of which, it’s imperative that you choose a container that’s several sizes larger than the initial root ball of the plant, since all magnolias like to spread out and occupy their space as much as they can. You should ensure that the soil remains moist but not saturated, so adequate drainage at the bottom and regular mulching at the top will help your starry magnolia to reach its full potential.

9) Sweet bay

bay laurel in 4 outdoor pots
Culinary and horticultural prowess in one sweet package

As notable for its aromatic leaves (which can complement a range of culinary dishes) as it is for its aesthetically pleasing appearance, sweet bay is a small and slender tree that lends itself well to potting. Like the privet mentioned above, the dark green foliage of bay can be easily trimmed into conical or spherical shapes to create a nice accent to your existing exterior décor. What’s more, those offshoots can then be hung up to dry and used to flavour stews, soups and curries.

Potted bay trees do best when given plentiful light and water, but they don’t react well to the most extreme rays of the sun in hotter environments. But water it well on a consistent basis and protect it from the most sweltering of afternoons (a rare occasion in the UK, we know) and you’ll be rewarded with an end product that’s as practical in the kitchen as it is easy on the eye.

10) Witch hazel

branches of witch hazel with yellow flowers
Bewitching by name, bewitching by nature

For a slightly unusual aesthetic in your garden, a potted witch hazel might just be a left-field option that’ll spice up your display. They’re characterised by their highly distinctive floral blossoms, which take the form of a dark red sphere bearing long, thin yellow petals. That stunning spectacle, coupled with witch hazel’s trademark fragrance, make it a perfect choice for placing on a patio or decked area where the colours will complement the backdrop and the scent can reach your nostrils every time you step outside.

Although these bewitching plants are often regarded as being more difficult to cultivate, they lend themselves fairly well to potting. That’s because they can tolerate most soil types, react well in both full and partial sunshine and require only moderate watering. Left to their own devices, they’ll soon outgrow the dimensions of their pot, but if you take the time to prune them back on a regular basis, they’re easily whipped into shape and kept in line.

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