Best trees to grow in pots

Best trees to grow in pots

No garden? No problem, grow a tree in a container 

This year is the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and to commemorate this she has initiated the Queen’s Green Canopy where we are all encouraged to plant a tree. If you have no space to plant a tree you can still join in by volunteering to plant community woodlands in your area but if you do have even a little space you can grow a tree in a container. There are even varieties which you could grow on a balcony, just check first that it can take the weight. If you choose wisely your tree can give you many years’ pleasure especially if you choose one which has a level of interest throughout much of the year. Many of the recommended trees flower in spring producing a valuable source of nectar for insects and have masses of fruit in autumn and winter again providing a valuable food source for the birds and as an added bonus the leaves give a fantastic show in autumn.

Choose as large a container a possible, it must be at least 18ins x 18ins (45cm x 45cm), preferably much larger and you will probably have to re-pot into a size larger every 3 – 4 years. Don’t re-pot unless the tree actually needs a larger pot, you can check this by removing the tree from the pot and if the roots are circling around the outside of the compost then it needs a size larger pot. Don’t put a small tree into a huge pot thinking it will grow into it as trees don’t like sitting in a lot of cold wet compost over winter. Ensure it has enough drainage holes in the base and cover each hole with a piece of broken crock to stop the silt from the compost restricting drainage. Fill with a good quality peat-free compost, preferably one which is formulated specifically for trees. Plant your tree at the same level it is in the container in which it is bought.

You can grow an oak in a container but after a few years it will begin to struggle and its leaves will become fewer and fewer so if you want the tree to last many years start with something smaller and less demanding. Below are a few suggestions which are interesting shapes or have something to show over several seasons, such as flowers in spring, delicate leaves in summer, fruit and good leaf colour in the autumn. Even better if they provide a benefit for wildlife such as the hawthorn and rowan which have masses of berries for the birds in autumn.

Acer japonicum (Japanese Maples) are ideal for growing in containers as they are slow growing and don’t reach an enormous height. There are masses of varieties from the deepest blood red to pale lemony green. They need to be out of the midday sun and away from cold winds. Acer japonicum shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ has beautiful pale green leaves, ‘Osakazuki’ is one of the best for autumn colour turning a fiery scarlet, ‘Dissectum Nigrum’ has deep red leaves turning red in autumn and ‘Senkaki’ has gorgeous orange red stems and soft yellow leaves in autumn.

Acer japonicum aureum shirasawanum

Amelanchier (Snowy Mespilus) is a small tree which has masses of small white flowers in spring and gorgeous autumn colour. It has to have a lime-free soil well-drained so must be planted in ericaceous compost.

Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Tree) is one of the most attractive small evergreen trees and has deep red/pink strawberry-like fruits in autumn, often alongside small white flowers.

Betula utilis jacquemontii (Himalayan Birch) is grown for its beautiful white bark but it is also a graceful light airy tree. It looks fabulous in a black or dark graphite container which contrasts beautifully with its white bark. It may need the trunk washed in spring with a mild solution of washing-up liquid and tepid water to retain its stark white colour. They are occasionally available as multi-stemmed specimens which look beautiful as a focal point in a minimalist contemporary garden. Try underplanting with tulip ‘Queen of the Night’ or ‘Angelique’.

Conifers which have been Cloud Pruned look fabulous in containers, don’t forget to use a dedicated compost for conifers as they like slightly acidic conditions. Although they are expensive they are ideal for a minimalist contemporary garden and being slow growing they will last many years. All they need is clipping over once a year to keep them in their original shape.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Katsura Tree) is a gorgeous small tree grown for its yellow/pink autumn colour and most important is the sweet heavy scent of candy floss.

Citrus trees are one for a very well sheltered garden which receives a lot of sun and no frost, so for most of us they are best grown in a sunny spot in the conservatory or home. They have beautifully scented white flowers, are semi-evergreen and best of all produce delicious fruit.

Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (Wedding Cake Tree) has beautiful pale green and cream leaves which look stunning in a floral arrangement. It can be a fairly wide tree which grows in tiers hence it’s common name.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata'

Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ (Corkscrew Hazel) is a small many stemmed tree or large shrub grown for its bizarre, twisted stems which look great sprayed in a metallic colour and used in a Christmas arrangement. Also has winter interest with its golden catkins. 

Crataegus monogyna (Common Hawthorn) has beautiful white, pink or red flowers on spring and masses of red berries in autumn which are loved by the birds and an important winter food source. They are extremely tolerant of adverse conditions so ideal for a windy coastal garden.

Eucryphia x nymansensis has beautiful large open white flowers in spring however it must have a well sheltered frost-free position. It is quite a narrow tree so one for the smaller outdoor space.

Ilex aquifolium (Common Holly) needs a male and female to produce berries but if you live in an urban area with plenty of garden nearby you may be able to get away with just one tree; J. C. van Tol is a self-fertile variety with virtually no spines so ideal if there are no other trees nearby. The berries are a valuable source of winter food for the birds. They are often available as a standard tree on a stem which positioned either side of the front door make a stylish entrance to the home and they can be decorated with battery operated LED lights and bows at Christmas.

Laburnum is grown for the gorgeous long drooping yellow flowers produced in late spring and early summer. However, all parts of the tree are poisonous so not suitable to grow if you have children or pets. If you want to experience the sheer beauty of this tree pay a visit to Bodnant Garden in Wales where they have a well-established world famous laburnum tunnel.

Magnolia stellata is the smallest of the magnolias with masses of beautiful white star-like flowers in late spring. However, a late frost can ruin the whole display so a sheltered spot would be preferable and if frost is forecast just throw some horticultural fleece or an old net curtain over the tree.

Malus (Flowering Crab Apples) give you a beautiful spring display of blossom with flowers ranging from white to the deepest carmine pink and delicious fruits in autumn which are loved by the birds and they also make a delicious jelly to accompany meat or just to eat on toast. Many of the flowers have a slight fragrance. Try ‘John Downie’ with stunning white flowers and large bright orange/red fruits and ‘Profusion’ with its deep wine red fruits and flowers.

Malus Profusion

Olea europaea (Olive Tree) need the same conditions as the citrus trees, both coming from the Mediterranean, however they are slightly hardier provided they have a sheltered spot and really well-draining compost. Often available as a standard in variable heights so you can choose exactly how tall you want your tree, as if kept pruned will keep to that same height as when bought.

Prunus (Japanese Flowering Cherries) are the epitome of spring and one sight we all look forward to, flowering from March to mid-May and often giving glorious autumn colour as a bonus. They are available in shades of white to dark pink with single and double flowered varieties available. Some of the best are ‘Armanogawa’ which is the slim upright variety (if you are offered one which is tied up and you are advised to leave it tied until it gets into shape leave it alone as they are naturally columnar and don’t need training). ‘Kanzan’ has beautiful large dark pink double flowers, ‘Kiku-zakura’ is quite slow growing and has masses of soft pink double flowers. ‘Kojo-no-mai’ is a small slow growing Prunus with soft pink flowers and interesting zig-zag stems, ideal for a container. Possibly the best white flowered variety is ‘Taihaku’, it has large sparkling white blooms but can become a large tree so may eventually become unsuitable for growing in a container but is well worth growing for a few years to enjoy its dazzling display.

Prunus Kansan

Sorbus (Mountain Ash) are one of the best value group of ornamental trees, giving you flowers in spring, beautiful autumn colour and masses of berries which are a valuable source of winter food for the birds. Try S. aucuparia ‘Autumn Glow’ which has glorious purple/orange/red leaves in autumn and pinkish-white fruits which turn yellow/red. S.cashmiriana (Kashmir Sorbus) has stunning clusters of pure white fruits and ‘Eastern Promise’ has huge clusters of rose pink berries and stunning purple leaves in autumn turning to fiery orange/red.

Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.