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9 Best Trees To Grow in a Pot

Trees are a wonderful way to add vertical interest to the landscape. This can also be done on a smaller scale with dwarf cultivars in pots.

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Potted Trees Rei Kastrati / EyeEm/Getty Images

Why Grow Trees in Pots

Growing trees in pots may seem like a slap in the face to nature. After all, trees are supposed to grow big and dominate the landscape, right? Not so fast. Plenty of dwarf tree specimens are well suited to growing in pots. They don’t take up a lot of space, and they offer renters — as well as homeowners — the chance to have a tree in their landscape, albeit a portable one. Potted trees can warm up an entryway or add ambience to a porch, patio or deck. They also make nice gifts for special occasions, such as births and anniversaries.

Maintenance considerations

It’s easy to grow a tree in a container as long as you follow a few simple steps.

  • Select a dwarf variety (they’re better suited to containers and won’t require as much pruning) or a treeform shrub, which is pruned into a single-trunk.
  • Use a large container. It aids tree growth, allowing for a bigger root mass that better withstands erratic watering.
  • Fill the container with a potting mix containing moisture-retentive crystals to capture more irrigation water.
  • Water regularly. A pot-grown tree needs more frequent watering than one planted in the ground.
  • Winter protection is needed in cold climates. Store dormant deciduous trees in an attached garage, keeping the rootball slightly moist. Return it outdoors in spring. Evergreens still need light in winter, so unless the garage has a window, it’s best to “heel in” a potted evergreen. This means temporarily burying the tree’s roots in the ground for the winter and mulching heavily. Return the tree to its pot in spring.
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Alberta Spruce Malisa Nicolau/Getty Images

Dwarf Alberta Spruce

With an attractive conical shape and compact size, dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) has developed quite a following. You’ll even see it offered in late fall as a miniature Christmas tree. Dwarf Alberta spruce grow only two to three inches a year, topping out at about eight feet. Cultivars of this dwarf conifer are available with green or blue-gray needles. It is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 8.

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Ficus Benjamina Adél Békefi/Getty Images

Weeping Fig

This tropical native is a beloved houseplant. Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) can grow up to 60 feet tall outdoors in tropical climates, yet they are well suited to container growing. Homeowners can easily grow six-foot-tall ficus by limiting the pot size and doing occasional pruning. Ficus like bright, indirect light and actually perk up if they vacation outdoors in the protected high shade of a tall tree. Bear in mind they often drop leaves if their lighting situation changes, but quickly recover.

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Dwarf Blue Spruce ZoomTravels/Getty Images

Dwarf Blue Spruce

It’s tough and hardy like its parent, but Picea pungens ‘Globosa’ has a much more modest size — three to five feet tall compared to 50 feet or more for the larger. It’s also slow growing, putting on only a few inches a year, so it’s suitable for containers as well as small entryway gardens. While some ‘Globosa’ are sold as rounded shrubs, there is a topiary version that looks particularly stunning in a pot. This variety has blue-gray foliage that looks nice against a base of neon-pink petunias. It is hardy in USDA zones 2 to 8.

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Japanese Maple Johner Images/Getty Images

Japanese Maple

Breeders have made sure that anyone, no matter how small their yard, can enjoy a tree like the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). While some cultivars reach 25 feet over many years, others grow just two or three feet tall. These trees feature attractive mounded, vaselike or cascading shapes. There’s also a variety of foliage selections, including green, variegated and burgundy — in a choice of palm-shaped or highly dissected leaves. Most Japanese maples are hardy in USDA zones 6 to 8 but some accept zone 5. Where winter temperatures are a concern, shelter from cold wind helps. Also, potted trees can be taken inside in winter.

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Full Moon Maple Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

Full Moon Maple

Full Moon maple (Acer shirasawanum) is a Japanese native grown for its attractive palm-shaped leaves and beautiful fall color. The slow-growing species can eventually reach 15 to 20 feet tall, but cultivars such as ‘Autumn Moon’ are smaller and better suited to container growing. ‘Autumn Moon’ slowly reaches eight to 12 feet. The tree features colorful chartreuse foliage with orange and salmon undertones that eventually turn hues of gold or red in fall. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 7.

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Potted Apple Tree victorn/Getty Images

Miniature Apple Tree

Imagine your own mini orchard! And you don’t need a farm if you’re growing potted apple trees (Malus spp.). Many apple varieties are available in dwarf form, some even as columnar trees that take up very little space. You’ll need two for cross-pollination, or a crabapple tree nearby. And while you may start with a five-gallon specimen, you will need to upsize the container every few years until you get to about a 15-gallon size. Miniature apple trees are hardy in USDA zones 4 or 5 to 7 or 8, depending on cultivar.

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Crape Myrtle DNY59/Getty Images

Crape Myrtle

This Southern staple can be grown in the North when it’s pot-grown and can be taken to shelter in winter. Normally hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10, crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) grows 25 to 30 feet in the Southern landscape. Smaller varieties are just three or four feet tall and can be raised in large containers. That’s great news, because it means everyone can enjoy a bright summer flower show. Flowers include a choice of red, pink, white, lavender and fuchsia blooms, depending on cultivar.

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Laurus Nobilis annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

Sweet Bay

This broadleaf evergreen has a slender, conical form and highly aromatic foliage. That, along with its slow growth rate and drought tolerance, makes it a fine potted tree. Sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) can also be clipped into formal or topiary shapes, which is why you’ll often see matching specimens adorning either side of a formal doorway. It is hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11.

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Bonsai Blue Jacaranda

Anyone who’s ever been enchanted by the large jacaranda trees lining California boulevards will never forget the sight. These large, showy deep-purple blooms are also available on dwarf plants, such as Bonsai Blue (Jacaranda mimosifolia ‘Sakai01’). While a landscape jacaranda tree can reach 50 feet, Bonsai Blue is just 10 to 12 feet tall. Although it grows fast, you can keep it shorter because the attractive fernlike foliage takes pruning in stride. It’s also drought tolerant — a definite plus when it comes to container plants. Bonsai Blue jacaranda is hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.

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