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How to Grow Trees in Containers (and the Best Ones to Choose)

Growing trees in containers is an easy way to add a variety of color, texture, and size to your outdoor garden or patio space, as well as an effective solution for small-space gardens that don’t have the room for full-sized trees. Plus, trees grown in pots can live in climates that would otherwise be too cold for them, so even gardeners living in cold climates can grow trees like fig and bay that are native to warmer climates. You might just feel like you’re in the Mediterranean!

The best trees to grow in containers

Trees add a sense of serenity, beauty, and wilderness to any space, but if you don’t have a very large yard, you might think it’s out of the question for you to add trees to your garden. Trees need a ton of space in order to thrive, right? Wrong! Growing trees in containers is actually a great way to cultivate many different varieties of tree. Simply make sure that you choose the right container and the right tree, and you’re on your way to growing your very own mini forest.

Choosing a Container

Pick a container that has good drainage holes and consider choosing something made of a breathable material like wood or clay to promote drainage. In general, your container should be no bigger than twice the volume of the tree’s roots. Keep in mind that very heavy pots are not the best choice for this project. Remember, you will probably be moving your container around once you’ve planted the tree, and a heavy pot planted with soil and a tree is a pain to carry.


Transplant trees from their nursery pots after the final frost of the season. Line the bottom of the new pot with a layer of foam peanuts to promote good drainage without adding extra weight. Plant the tree at the same depth it has been growing in its nursery pot, using a good, nutrient-rich soil mix. Follow individual instructions for watering and light requirements as stated on the plant tag.

Dwarf Fig (Ficus carica)

dwarf fig plant

Make sure you choose a dwarf fig tree marked “self-fertile” if you want it to produce fruit. Fig trees like lots of natural light, so place them somewhere where they will get 7 hours of full sun per day. If leaves turn yellow it is not a sign of too much sun, but of overwatering.

For more information on growing figs, check out this post.

Olive (Olea europaea)

olive tree grown in a container

Olives are very hardy and can live for up to a thousand years! Your container-grown olive probably won’t live quite that long, but it can thrive happily for many years. If you live in a cold climate, bring the tree indoors for the winter, placing it somewhere bright and away from heaters or drafts. Olives are happiest with 6 hours of full sun per day. Water when the top 3 inches of soil are dry.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Japanese maple in a container

Japanese maples take well to being planted in containers because they have a slow growth rate and small root systems. Choose a dwarf variety, place it somewhere away from wind and intense sunlight, and prune any dead branches as they appear.

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

Growing a bay tree in a container

Bay trees are aesthetically pleasing as they produce small yellow flowers in spring, purple berries in the fall, and can be pruned into topiaries. Use the sweet, earthy, flavorful leaves to amp up soups and other recipes. Harvest leaves when they are large and fully mature and allow them to dry out for 2-3 days before using, as the fresh leaves have a bitter taste that fades when they are dried.

Fertilize in the spring and water regularly and deeply, letting soil dry out somewhat between watering. Add a layer of pebbles to the top of the soil to deter hungry squirrels from digging up the roots.

Dwarf Conifers

dwarf conifers thrive in containers

Dwarf varieties of fir, cypress, hemlock, spruce, juniper, and pine are great for growing in pots as they are very low maintenance, come in many different colors, shapes, and textures, and they are very slow growing, which means they can live in the same pot for up to 5 years. They can also stay outside during the colder months, providing color to an otherwise drab winter landscape (you can even add some decorations, if you like).

Dwarf conifers have especially small root systems, so you can group several together in one container like I did in this window box planter project.

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  1. This was very helpful. I’m looking to put tree planters on my patio you gave me some very good advice, just what I was looking for, thank you for sharing this. Stay safe


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