Growing Trees in Pots: Everything You Need to Know

Lemon tree in a pot.

A potted tree defines an entryway, brings nature to an urban space and provides a focal point in any garden. Growing trees in pots restricts their growth, making them perfect for small spaces or indoor gardens. Although some trees grow better in the ground, many thrive in containers. And as they're portable, you can take them with you when you move.

Since you can overwinter frost-tender species indoors, growing trees in pots also enables you to cultivate trees that wouldn't normally survive in colder climates.

Trees That Grow Well in Pots

Consider slow-growing trees that offer something across the seasons — those with spring blooms, fruit-bearing varieties and trees with vibrant fall foliage.

When growing trees in pots, the roots respond to air temperatures as if they were in colder climates, so consider what trees grow well in one to two hardiness zones colder than your current zone.

Citrus Trees

A citrus tree can seduce you with its scent. The 'Improved Meyer' lemon blooms with fragrant white flowers and produces large, aromatic yellow fruit year-round. During the winter, place it indoors in a bright sunny spot to enjoy as a fragrant houseplant.

If you're wondering how to grow a lemon tree in a pot, plant it in a large pot at least 20 inches in diameter to allow room for root growth. Use potting soil with some added grit or sand for drainage, leaving 1 to 2 inches at the top. To increase humidity in the winter, place the pot on a tray of damp pebbles. Regular pruning, especially in the tree's first two years, is key for encouraging growth and creating structure for a plentiful yield.

Figs

One of the easiest fruit trees to grow in pots, figs don't typically require routine pruning, and those like the diminutive 'Lattarula Italian Honey' fig only grow to about 8 feet, making them ideal for small spaces. In areas where temperatures don't fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, most fig trees can overwinter outdoors in a protected spot sheltered from the wind.

Columnar Apples

Space-saving columnar apple trees grow upward in a single column. In cold climates, overwinter them in an unheated indoor space. In zones with freeze-thaw cycles, place them in a protected outdoor area. In warm climates without freezing winters, they can stay outdoors year-round. Pair them with a different variety of columnar apple tree for cross-pollination.

Fiddle Leaf Fig

A popular houseplant with violin-shaped leaves, the fiddle leaf fig hits a high note growing 6 to 10 feet tall. This tropical plant loves bright, indirect light and an occasional misting. It's territorial, so once you find the perfect spot, don't move it — although you can bring it outdoors during the summer.

Crape Myrtle

A small to medium-size shrub or small tree, the compact crape myrtle reblooms all season long. Crape myrtles are hardy to zone 5 and can be left outside throughout the winter protected from the wind. They can also overwinter in a cool, dark spot and should be watered every three to four weeks.

Bay Laurel

Bay laurel, its dried leaves used to make an aromatic French bouquet garni, is an ornamental shrub that's happy as a houseplant and can summer outdoors. Hardy to zone 8, it can overwinter outside in a sheltered sunny area.

How to Plant Trees in Pots

Small trees thrive when planted in pots at least 20 to 24 inches across. When planting trees in pots for enjoyment outside, choose frost-proof and UV-resistant pots at least twice the width and depth of the root ball. Pots should also be sturdy enough to keep them from toppling over in a gust of wind.

Trees in containers dry out faster than those in the ground, so they'll need more frequent watering. But be careful not to overwater. Water only when the soil is dry to the touch a couple of inches below the surface. Having good drainage is essential. Tall containers drain better than shallow ones, and elevating them an inch or so off the ground helps.

Always use a fresh enriched potting medium. For trees that like dryer soils, amend with some sharp sand or vermiculite. For moister soils, add a little extra organic material like coconut coir.

Plant with enriched potting soil, then apply a slow-release fertilizer about every two weeks. Fertilize trees at the beginning of the growing season and then again at the end to replace any lost nutrients and organic matter.

Overwintering and Transitioning

It's important to protect tree roots from freezing winter weather. Before the first frost, move pots into an unheated area indoors, like a basement or garage. Bring tropicals and citrus trees to a sunny spot indoors away from heating vents and drafty areas where they can dry out.

Overwintering Outdoors

If you can't bring your tree indoors, you can bury the pot in the ground and cover it with soil or mulch for insulation. You can also find a secure outdoor spot and cover your pots with straw or a blanket to keep temperatures constant and protect them from the harshest temperatures.

In spring, slowly transition your potted trees outdoors to allow them to reacclimate. Remove any covering, place them in a shady spot and then gradually move them to a sunny location.

For more gardening tips, check out Burpee's gardening 101.

Written by Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens

Robin Horton is a home and garden writer and publisher of the award-winning and Webby-nominated design, lifestyle and travel blog, Urban Gardens.

January 20, 2022
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