Best trees to grow in pots – low maintenance types that will thrive in containers

Pick out the best trees to grow in pots and see how even in the smallest of urban gardens trees can thrive

courtyard garden ideas with retractable glass roof
(Image credit: Imperfect Interiors / Photography: Chris Snook)

When you are squeezed for space in an urban garden, the idea of bringing in a full-on tree might at first seem unrealistic. But, spend some time choosing and researching the best trees to grow in pots, and you'll see lack of square footage needn't deter you from growing trees in your backyard/patio/courtyard/square of sidewalk in front of your apartment.

Sure, you aren't going to be able to grow a flourishing forest, but even smaller trees that can be grown in containers can add structure, depth, and height to a tiny garden. And they are perfect for privacy too and can even flourish on a balcony or a rooftop.

Potted trees can be surprisingly low maintenance too, there are plenty of types that will quite happily live out their lives without needing much more than a sunny spot and a regular water. As with all container gardening, it's just about choosing the right varieties and the perfect pot for your space.

Small garden with lawn, pots and trees

(Image credit: Lisa Cohen)

The best trees to grow in pots

Whether you are already green-fingered or a total gardening novice, growing trees in pots is easy if you have a bit of know-how. So we've asked the experts for their top tips on what are the best types to look out for and how to care for them.

'You can grow some trees successfully in pots. This will restrict their roots and therefore their growth. However, they will need a big container, regular watering, and a sheltered spot if you want them to remain happily potted for a number of years.' explains garden designer Dan Cooper

'I love Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette' and Ginkgo biloba 'Menhir', both of which have sensational autumn foliage. Another option is to grow trees that are happy to be pruned, which includes many of the evergreens, fruit trees, limes, beech, and hornbeam. The green olive, Phillyrea latifolia is a particular favorite of mine and totally bullet-proof. For enormous, exotic foliage, try growing the Indian bean tree, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' or the foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa, and pollarding them annually to 5 or 6ft. Pruned this way, they will never outstay their welcome.'

1. Olive Trees

Olive tree in terrcotta pot

(Image credit: Getty)

As Dan mentioned, the olive tree is pretty much bulletproof. Despite the Med vibes it instantly gives your backyard, they are surprisingly hardy when temperatures drop and it's not until it hits around 15˚F you should consider bringing your pot indoors (they can look equally chic in a kitchen) or you could cover them if you don't have the room indoors.

As you would expect, Olives like a sunny and sheltered spot so ideal for urban gardens. They don't need lots of water, but do keep an eye out that the soil doesn't get too dry and give it a little weekly water if it feels like it needs it.  Turn the pot regularly so it grows evenly. 

Something we love about olives in pots is that you can totally change the look to suit your style of garden. Depending on how your prune (or don't prune) you can choose between a very formal lollipop tree, that you see flanking the front doors of elegant homes or for a more relaxed Mediterranean feel, let the plant do its thing and be sure to repot it if it starts to grow too wild. 

2. Dwarf Lemon Trees

Lemon tree

(Image credit: Getty)

If you have a small backyard and want to ensure your pick of tree won't grow too big for your space, a sure-fire way to know is to look for dwarf varieties. Dwarf fruit and citrus trees will only grow to a certain height, so the best option if you don't have lots of room or you plan to put it on a balcony. 

'Dwarf lemon trees are a great pick. They look decorative, take up little space when there are space constraints, can produce a beautiful scent that lingers in warm weather, and can produce fresh fruit.' explains Melanie Ward-Warmedinger founder of Green Garden Living.

'They can be a little demanding though. The secrets of success include: ensuring good drainage using a soil mix 1:1:1 of loam, leafmould, and horticultural grit. Place them in a sheltered, sunny spot next to a south or west-facing wall. Water and feed them using a citrus fertilizer once a week.' 

'Plant them in a terracotta pot that doesn’t hang onto moisture. Protect them from cold weather over winter and repot in the spring every two to three years in a slightly bigger pot each time.'

3. Japanese Maple 

potted plants mixed with stones and tree trunks

(Image credit: Future)

Japanese Maple, or Acer trees, grow happily in pots and give any outdoor space that calming feel of a Japanese garden. They look glorious all year round and come in a variety of bold shades, from vivid greens to deep reds. Even when the leaves drop in the winter they look beautiful. 

They aren't the hardiest of plants, and are a bit of a Goldilocks tree, not too much sun, not too little. And have the pot in a fairly sheltered part of your yard so that they aren't too affected by harsh weather.

4. Apple Trees

Rooftop garden with potted plants

(Image credit: James Merrell)

This one may surprise you, often associated with sprawling orchards and large English gardens, but Apple trees, and in fact most fruit trees are amongst the best trees to grow in pots. Again, look out for a dwarf variety. If you want to get technical lookout for the rootstock, which will you determine how big the tree will tree and whether it's suitable for a pot. 

Ask at your local garden center for help choosing, or lookout for the rootstock on the label. For a small apple that would be best grown in a container, you would ideally want a plant with a rootstock of M26.

5. Bay Trees

With its glossy leaves and lovely scent, bay trees can thrive in pots and provide greenery on a patio or courtyard garden all year round. Not to mention they add a lovely flavor when thrown in soups and stews – looks chic and tastes delicious, win win.

They are pretty low maintenance too, they'll need watering weekly (less in wetter months) and would benefit from a feed every two weeks over the warmer months. You'll need to pot them about every two years and like the olive tree, you can prune it into a classic lollipop shape if you want a more groomed too to your outdoor space.

6. Fig Trees

The key to growing a fig tree successfully in a pot is to pick the right cultivar. Some figs can grow huge, and could be a plant to avoid in a small garden but choose a fig that's suitable for a container and they can thrive, adding a Mediterranean vibe to any space, not to mention the tasty fruits. 

Look out for Blanche, Brown Turkey, Verte and Celeste cultivars, all of which are small-medium in size and will live happily in a pot. Just be sure to plant them up in a large container and pick as sunny as spot to you have – figs like direct sunlight and as much exposed to those rays as possible.

7. Italian Cypress

If you prefer a low-maintenance garden, Italian Cypress are incredibly hardy and one of the easiest trees to go in a pot. Similar to the olive tree, they give a garden a lovely Mediterranean feel and you can prune them into shape or let them grow into a more natural shape. 

They don't need much watering, once a week during the dryer months will be fine, and be sure to remove any cones if you want to keep that more classic formal shape. Italian Cypress grows tall, but can be pruned hard to keep them smaller. However, its iconic tall and slender shape can in fact be ideal for adding privacy.  

Do trees grow well in pots?

Yes, trees can grow well in pots, you just have to pick the right type. If you stick with slow-growing and dwarf varieties, they will be best suited to life in a container and won't grow too large. You want to avoid trees that are fast-growing as it'll be a lot of work to maintain and you'll have to repot often.

Just like planting a tree in the ground, the success of the tree in a pot will come down to care and that the positioning is right. Do your research on the needs of your tree and the bonus of pots is you can move them around your yard if the tree is not thriving in a certain position. 

How do you care for trees in pots?

The key thing is watering. Trees in pots don't have any direct access to water, so even drought-resistant plants will need watering weekly, and potentially more in the warmer, dryer months.

Repotting is also a big part of container gardening. It's not like you'll have to do it all too often, but do keep a close eye on whether your tree is becoming rootbound – if so it's time for a bigger pot. It will depend on the type how often you will need to repot but approximately you shouldn't leave a tree in the same pot for more than 5 years. 

You also may need to bring potted trees inside, but this again depends on the type and on your climate. In warmer regions, trees will be able to stay out all year round, but in a cooler climate where temperatures tend to drop below 50°F, your pots will either need to be covered or brought indoors. 

Hebe Hatton

Hebe is the Digital Editor of Livingetc; she has a background in lifestyle and interior journalism and a passion for renovating small spaces. You'll usually find her attempting DIY, whether it's spray painting her whole kitchen, don't try that at home, or ever changing the wallpaper in her hallway. Livingetc has been such a huge inspiration and has influenced Hebe's style since she moved into her first rental and finally had a small amount of control over the decor and now loves being able to help others make decisions when decorating their own homes. Last year she moved from renting to owning her first teeny tiny Edwardian flat in London with her whippet Willow (who yes she chose to match her interiors...) and is already on the lookout for her next project.