My favourite Small Trees For Pots & Containers

This list was thoughtfully compiled by gardener Hannah Miller and reviewed by horticulturist Elizabeth Smith. Published to Ideas on the 21st May 2022. Updated: 16th February 2023.

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Small trees aren’t just for those with limited space, they can be grown just about anywhere.

Whether you’re looking to grow a potted tree on a porch, a balcony, patio, decking, next to paths or as a feature in the garden, choose from these 12 delightful small trees. Each has been specially chosen for its ability to thrive in pots and containers.

In this guide, Hannah, our co-owner and lead content creator, lists her favourite potted trees:

Potted Small Japanese Maple Trees

No list of small trees for pots would be complete without including the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).

Deciduous and offering attractive foliage from spring to summer, Japanese maples come into their own when the foliage turns a beautiful deep red, yellow, orange or purple in the autumn.

Japanese maples often form a dome-like canopy, making them perfect for growing in pots.

I Recommend:

Acer palmatum (firecracker): Red and purple spring and summer foliage make way for deep red and orange autumn colour. Grows up to 2m when potted and up to 4m when grown in the ground. Takes 15-20 years to reach full height.

Acer palmatum (crimson queen): Dark purple spring and summer foliage makes way for deep red and orange colour in the autumn. Grows up to 2.5m when potted and up to 3m when grown in the ground. Takes 15-20 years to reach full height.

My experience:

I owned a potted Acer palmatum at my previous property that we later transplanted into the garden. It was super easy to look after, and while it didn’t do much in the summer, come autumn, the deep red foliage was the highlight of our garden.

Key points:

  • I’ve found that Japanese maples prefer a little shelter from the sun and protection from the wind.
  • Slow growing.
  • I’ve never felt the need to prune aggressively, but you can control the height of Japanese maples to around 1m by careful pruning.
Crimson red Japanese maple tree in a pot

Deep red acer foliage, typical of Japanese maples in the autumn

Green and red acer foliage

Colourful red and green foliage of Japanese maple trees in pots

2) Miniature Small Apple Trees in Pots

Miniature or dwarf apple trees are perfect for growing on a sunny porch or patio, in fact, the more sun you can give these trees, the more fruit you’ll be rewarded with.

Small apple trees are usually grown as rootstocks, meaning they are grafted onto existing roots (more info on the RHS website).

Key points:

  • Red Falstaff is a popular rootstock variety, produces plenty of fruit and is frost-hardy.
  • I’ve learned that dwarf apple trees prefer a sunny spot.
  • Fruits in autumn.

Alternatives:

Consider growing pears, lemon, plums, apricots or peaches as an alternative or addition.

My experience:

We have a Red Falstaff in a pot on our patio, and it fruits reliably each year, which was a surprise as I’ve heard the chances of getting fruit drop off each year.

Resources:

Chris Bowers has published a complete guide to growing dwarf fruit trees.

Red apples on a dwarf apple tree

Apples on a dwarf fruit tree

Dwarf apple tree in a container

Dwarf apple tree in a small container

Olive Trees

Olive trees are perfect for warmer and sunnier parts of the country but can be grown anywhere in the UK if they’re overwintered in a warm spot.

Ideally suited to south-facing balconies, patios and driveways, olive trees bring the Mediterranean feel to any property.

Olive trees come in many varieties, shapes and sizes, but my recommendation is the “lollipop“.

Key points:

  • The ultimate ornamental potted tree.
  • Ideally grown in pairs, I’ve seen them located either side of doors, paths etc.
  • Variable in height but most standard olive trees grow up to 1.5 metres tall.
  • Hardy to minus 10° so you may need to relocate during cold snaps.
  • Produces fruit at age 3-5 years.
  • Easy to maintain once established.

Resources:

Haxnicks has published a great guide to growing olive trees in pots.

Olive tree in a pot on a balcony

A lollipop olive tree in a pot on a balcony

Three olive trees in pots against a wall

Three potted lollipop olive trees in pots

Witch Hazel

Witch hazel made it onto my list of winter flowering plants and the good news is that this tree is perfect for growing in a container.

Expect slender, tassel-like blooms which resemble exploding fireworks in either yellow, red or orange.

Witch hazel is truly unique and we can’t think of any other tree with similar blooms.

Key points:

  • Grows slowly at around 10-15cm per year.
  • No pruning is required but by careful snipping, one can reduce the size of the tree or keep it to the desired height.
  • Best grown in full sun or partial shade for winter colour.
  • Fragrant, this tree brings much-needed aroma to winter gardens.

I Recommend:

Try Hamamelis Diane which I’ve previously grown. It produces deep red blooms from mid to late winter and reaches 4m high but can be pruned to keep it in check. I found it easy to grow, albeit rather slowly.

Red witch hazel blooms

Red witch hazel blooms

Yellow witch hazel blooms

Yellow witch hazel blooms

Coniferous Trees in Pots

There are over 400 species of conifers, and they are usually grouped by their shape and type of foliage.

I’ve always found that conifers make for excellent potted plants as I can easily control their height and shape with pruning.

Also, they’re evergreen, so they will offer interest all year round and make for excellent privacy plants.

Key points:

  • Grow in full sun to shade.
  • Evergreen.
  • I’ve found them to be one of the easiest trees to grow, and they require very little maintenance. I’ve never had problems with pests or diseases in my garden.
Various coniferous trees in pots

A collection of coniferous trees in pots

Topiary Potted Trees

Topiary is the art of pruning certain species of evergreen trees and shrubs into shapes which can be as simple as boxes, globes, rectangles etc or as elaborate as your imagination allows.

Popular species include yew, Buxus sempervirens (box) and Ilex crenata.

Key points:

  • Allows the gardener to be creative.
  • Evergreen.
  • Requires frequent careful pruning.
  • Ready-pruned shaped topiary available so you only need to maintain the existing shape.
  • Doesn’t require any special fertiliser requirements.

My experience:

I’ve never been interested in topiary, but a neighbour is crazy about it and has specimens in his front and rear gardens. He’s always having issues with box blight and is constantly treating them with chemicals to prevent it, but the shapes he creates are interesting, to say the least.

Resource:

Box Trees has an insightful guide to growing box topiary.

Box topiary in pots

Various box topiary

Elephant topiary in a pot

Elephant topiary shape

 Japanese Dogwood Tree in a Pot

I recommend Cornus kousa “cappuccino” – This delightful flowering dogwood produces young green leaves which turn bronze as they mature. 

Flowers and bracts appear from mid-summer, and this tree may produce ornamental strawberry-like fruits from early autumn.

Key points:

  • Deciduous.
  • Perfect for containers.
  • Slow growing – may reach 3 metres after 20 years but less if grown in a pot.
  • Grow in full sun or a bright spot with little shade.
  • Also known as Kousa dogwood, Asian dogwood and Chinese dogwood.

Resource:

GardenersHQ has a nifty guide to growing Japanese dogwood.

Japanese dogwood tree fruit and foliage

Green foliage and a fruit of the Japanese dogwood tree

Orange fruit against green foliage

Orange fruits and green leaves of the Japanese dogwood

Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo)

Another popular fruiting specimen is the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) which sits delightfully in pots and borders.

With year-round foliage and white flowers in November, and bright red autumn fruits, this is a popular tree and an alternative to a dwarf apple or pear tree.

Key points:

  • Prefers a sunny spot with some protection from the wind.
  • An evergreen fruiting tree.
  • Resilient and spreading, this tree will reach over 4 metres but can be kept in check with pruning and gradual potting-on.
  • Good for pollinators and birds which love the fruits.

My experience:

I’ve seen this growing at a friend’s house and the highlights are the fruits, I tried eating one once before, and while it’s safe, I didn’t like the taste which was excessively sweet with a gritty texture.

Yellow strawberry tree fruits

Yellow fruits of the strawberry tree

Ripening fruits on a strawberry tree

Ripening fruits on a strawberry tree

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) in a pot

Strawberry tree (Arbutus-unedo) in a pot

Magnolia Trees in Pots

Compact magnolia trees grow up to 2.5 metres but are often much smaller if kept in pots.

Magnolias are slow-growing trees and I recommend the star magnolia, which takes between 10-20 years to reach full height and width.

Key points:

  • Magnolias can be deciduous, evergreen or semi-evergreen.
  • Star magnolia is a deciduous variety, commonly grown in containers.
  • Grow in full sun or partial shade in a south, east or west-facing garden.
  • Expect green foliage from spring through to autumn and white star-shaped blooms in the spring.

Look out for:

Star magnolias with a pink tinge (Magnolia stellata rosea) add a splash of colour to your garden.

My experience:

I’ve grown a magnolia tree in a pot before and it grew very slowly but picked up when I moved into the border. I found it easy to maintain and experienced no issues with pests or diseases. The star-shaped blooms were a highlight of the garden in the spring.

Star shaped blooms of this popular potted magnolias

A closeup of a magnolia flower.

Pink and white magnolia flowers

Pink and white magnolia flowers

Flamingo Tree (Salix integra)

The Flamingo tree is a most exciting specimen reaching 2m in height after about 15 years.

Despite being deciduous, this tree delights with year-round interest as the branches turn orange and red in the winter.

Key points:

  • Small yellow catkin flowers are on show in spring.
  • Young foliage appears pink in spring and early summer before fading to gold, white and finally green by the autumn.
  • From autumn to winter, the branches turn dark orange into red.
  • Grow in full sun in a south, east or west-facing garden.
  • The pink foliage droops at the tips, hence the name Flamingo.

My experience:

I’ve only grown Flamingo in a border, but I have seen them thrive in containers before. I’ve always found this to be one of the most eye-catching plants I’ve grown in my garden and it produces a real explosion of colour.

Foliage and blooms on a Flamingo tree

Pink leaves in spring and early summer.

White Flamingo tree

White foliage in late summer.

Eucalyptus Gunni Tree (Cider Gum)

Eucalyptus gunnii trees can reach upward of 20m, but they also respond very well to pruning and can be grown in pots.

As with many other fast-growing plants, this tree can put on up to 1m of growth each year, although somewhat less if grown restrictively in a container.

Key points:

  • A popular and versatile evergreen tree.
  • Young foliage is rounded and dusty-blue in colour.
  • Mature foliage is elongated and is greyish green.
  • I had to prune it frequently to maintain the sought-after rounded foliage.
  • Small clusters of whitish flowers appear in summer.
  • Grow in full sun.

My experience:

I’ve had issues with these trees growing out of control, but in a pot, they can be controlled by pruning and coppicing.

Resource:

The Hardy Eucalyptus site has an in-depth guide to growing eucalyptus trees in containers.

Eucalyptus Gunnii tree leaves

Silver green leaves on a eucalyptus gunnii tree

Eucalyptus gunnii in a pot

A potted eucalyptus gunni tree

Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria)

I feel that the smoke tree would make an excellent addition to any garden with its showy rounded purple leaves in the spring and summer which turn red or orange in the autumn. You can expect plumes of fluffy red panicles appearing in the autumn, and some varieties will also bear small fruits too.

Grow this deciduous tree in full or partial sun in a sheltered or exposed location.

Key points:

  • It reaches full height of 4-8 metres after 20 years, but growth will be limited if grown in a pot.
  • Will survive in partial shade, but full sun brings out the colour of the foliage.
  • I grew it for its purple foliage as much as its showy flowers.

I Recommend:

Try “golden spirit” – I had this at my previous property and it’s an unusual smoke tree with yellow leaves which turn fiery red and orange. At a maximum height of 2.4m, this smoke tree is perfect for growing pots as it’s smaller than other varieties.

Also, consider “grace” – an RHS award winner and classic choice. Expect purple leaves that turn orange-red which compliment the purple and pink plumes of panicles.

Pink blooms in a smoke tree

Pink filaments with tiny blooms on the tips.

Reddish blooms and green foliage on a smoke tree

Reddish-pink blooms on a smoke tree.

Advice for Growing Trees in Pots

Almost any tree can be growing in a container, but as trees are hungry, thirsty and have the potential to put on significant growth, there are a few things you may need to do differently:

Water Frequently: Trees grown in containers will require far more frequent watering than those grown in the garden. The smaller the pot, the more frequent the tree will need water. Also, I’ve found that pots located on hot patios and driveways or those in full sun will dry out quickly and may need watering several times a week.

More Fertiliser: Pots and containers can only hold so much nutritional content, and as trees are hungry, they will quickly deplete the food source, which should be topped up frequently. The type and amount of fertiliser required will depend on the tree, but a twice-a-month feed during the growing season is quite normal.

Compost/Soil Mulch: Each spring, I always scraped off as much soil from the top of the pot as possible and replaced it with fresh compost.

Pot Size and Potting Up: Pot size is essential, and to prevent the tree from growing too big too quickly, one should never move a potted tree from a small pot to a huge one. It’s far better to increase the pot size incrementally over several years, I usually relocate the trees to a slightly larger pot every 3-5 years or so, but the exact timing depends on the type of tree and how well it’s performing.

Pot Shape: Some trees are top-heavy and will topple tall narrow pots, so consider the shape of the pot; shallow, wide pots or those that are wider at the bottom are less likely to topple in the wind.

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Meet The Author: Hannah Miller

Hannah is a former NHS administrator, mother of two and keen qualified gardener who loves growing new plants and experimenting in the garden.

She enjoys gardening as much as she cares about the environment and likes to share her knowledge with others.

This year is all about pollinators, and Hannah has set herself the goal of only buying new plants that attract pollinators; she aims to make the garden as bee and butterfly friendly as possible.

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