Horticulture Magazine

20 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.

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 types 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.

Considerations

Be sure to select 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 re-pot 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).

Here are twenty ideal choices for containers:

1) Citrus

small orange tree in a pot
  • HARDINESS RATING: VARIES; AVOID LOW TEMPERATURES
  • MAX HEIGHT: VARIES
  • PREFERRED SOIL: LOAM-BASED
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN; SHELTERED
  • FRUITING MONTHS: VARIES

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.

2) Conifers

coniferous trees in plastic pots
  • HARDINESS RATING: MOSTLY H6/H7
  • MAX HEIGHT: VARIES
  • PREFERRED SOIL: LOAM-BASED; SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: ANY
  • RECOMMENDED VARIETY: Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minima Aurea’

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Ficus carica
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 4M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ALKALINE
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN; SHELTERED
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN

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 the ground.

4) Flowering Dogwood

white flowering dogwood up close
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Cornus florida
  • HARDINESS RATING: H5
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING

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 water.

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Acer palmatum
  • HARDINESS RATING: H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN

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 garden.

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Olea europaea
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SUMMER

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.

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Ligustrum ovalifolium
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4-H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 4-8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SUMMER
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN

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 offers 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.

Transplanting can usually be managed at any time of the year without any adverse effects to their growth.

8) Starry Magnolia

starry magnolia flowers on branches
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Magnolia stellata
  • HARDINESS RATING: H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 1.5-2.5M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING

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 grow too big.

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Laurus nobilis
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8-12M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN
  • RHS AWARD OF GARDEN MERIT

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
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Hamamelis
  • HARDINESS RATING: H5
  • MAX HEIGHT: 4M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: WINTER
  • RECOMMENDED VARIETIES: Diane; Jelena; Vesna

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 kept in line.

11) Creeping Blue Blossom

bees harvesting pollen from blue flowers of Ceanothus thyrsiflorus repens
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Ceanothus thyrsiflorus var. repens
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 1.5M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ALKALINE
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING / SUMMER
  • RHS AWARD OF GARDEN MERIT

12) Camellia

pink and white flowering camellia in a plastic pot
  • BOTANICAL NAME: CAMELLIA
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 4M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SHADE OR PART SHADE; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • AGM RECOMMENDED VARIETY: SPRING FESTIVAL

13) Crab Apple

small crab apple tree in a garden container
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Malus sylvestris
  • HARDINESS RATING: H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 12M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN

14) Juneberry

juneberry branches and blossoms contrasted against blue sky background
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Amelanchier lamarckii
  • HARDINESS RATING: H7
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8-10M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • FRUITING MONTHS: SUMMER
  • RHS AWARD OF GARDEN MERIT

15) Lilac

pink blooms of lilac 'miss kim'
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Syringa pubescens
  • HARDINESS RATING: H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 2.5M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ALKALINE
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • AGM RECOMMENDED VARIETY: MISS KIM

16) Yoshino Cherry ‘Ivensii’

cherry blossoms in pink and white
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Prunus × yedoensis
  • HARDINESS RATING: H6
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • RECOMMNDED VARIETY: IVENSII

17) Cider Gum

cider gum tree in a small plastic pot
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Eucalyptus gunnii
  • HARDINESS RATING: H5
  • MAX HEIGHT: 10M+
  • PREFERRED SOIL: SLIGHTLY ACIDIC
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SUMMER
  • RHS AWARD OF GARDEN MERIT

18) Sycamore

newly propagated sycamore in a tiny black pot sat on a garden lawn
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Acer pseudoplatanus
  • HARDINESS RATING: H7
  • MAX HEIGHT: 8M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN OR PART SHADE
  • FRUITING MONTHS: AUTUMN
  • RECOMMENDED VARIETY: Brilliantissimum

19) Mexican Orange Blossom

blooms of mexican orange blossom
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Choisya ternata
  • HARDINESS RATING: H4
  • MAX HEIGHT: 2.5M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN; SHELTERED
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING / AUTUMN
  • RECOMMENDED VARIETY: SUNDANCE

20) Flamingo Willow

a medium sized flamingo willow tree in a garden
  • BOTANICAL NAME: Salix integra ‘Hakuro-nishiki’
  • HARDINESS RATING: H5
  • MAX HEIGHT: 2.5M
  • PREFERRED SOIL: ANY
  • PREFERRED ASPECT: FULL SUN
  • FLOWERING MONTHS: SPRING
  • AWARD OF GARDEN MERIT

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