General gardening topics

10 of our favourite small trees for containers and pots

Last updated on March 20th, 2022

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If you are looking to plant small trees in your garden but you can only do so in containers or pots, rest assured there are many trees that are perfectly suited to your needs.

When picking small trees for pots you need to start by choosing the trees. After you have selected the trees you want, you need to choose containers that are suitable and complement the style you have in your garden but also large enough to hold the root ball of the tree you want to grow.

Never put a small tree in a very large container. If you purchase a small tree when it’s a couple of years old, pot it on in stages, and put it in containers that are slightly larger as it gets bigger until you reach the final container size you want, in general, the larger the pot the better. With each of these trees and their subsequent containers you need to make sure there are plenty of drainage holes. If you buy plastic or wooden containers, for example, you can always drill extra drainage holes in the bottom to make sure your tree does not suffer from root rot.

Lightweight plastic materials are one of the better choices if you plan on moving your trees around and these materials are better at moisture retention, however, they can become brittle so look for plastic pots that are made using quality materials. Metal pots, stone pots, and wooden pots are equally viable but beware of the terracotta pots. Terracotta seems great in terms of providing extra stability, especially if you live in an area with a lot of windy weather, but the downside is that they are porous so the compost inside will dry out more quickly and they can be very heavy, so moving them could be out of the question if you choose a very large pot. Remember to choose a wide pot for extra stability.

1. Acer palmatum – Japanese Maple

This Japanese maple tree is best known for the stunning foliage that takes on reddish-purple to green colours depending on the variety. It's quite tolerant of rabbits so if that is a pest you contend with currently, you won't have to worry once you plant your Japanese maple.

This Japanese Maple Tree is best known for its stunning foliage that takes on reddish-purple to green colours depending on the variety. It’s quite tolerant of rabbits so if that is a pest you contend with currently, you won’t have to worry once you plant your Acer.

This tree is best grown in slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil and prefers full sun or partial shade. If you choose one of the red varieties then ericaceous compost is thought to improve the red colour. It prefers dappled afternoon shade and should be planted out of cold winds because this can burn the foliage. With too much direct sunlight in the afternoon, the new foliage can get also scorched.

This small tree will typically reach between 3 and 5 metres in height and spread, with some varieties growing upright while others are more arching. It takes on a rounded form with low branches. The palmates have two lobes and in the middle of spring you will see small, reddish-purple flowers. Up close they are visually appealing but you can’t really see them from a distance so most of the appeal this plant has to offer is from the foliage. This tree is not susceptible to many insects or diseases so maintenance is incredibly simple, however, aphids can sometimes take a liking to young shoots. 

Acer palmatum
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2. Laurus nobilis – Bay Trees

Bay trees are small trees native to Mediterranean areas and you can keep them growing in containers effectively by pruning them, so your home can embody a Mediterranean feel as well. Bay trees are slow to grow so they’re suitable for pot growing and make perfect trees for either side of a door as pictured. They have very attractive foliage that you can prune into the shape of a topiary so there are a lot of options for you to grow them in pots all around your garden, around windows, next to door frames and more. In the spring, you can enjoy small yellow flowers that eventually produce purple berries in the autumn, but these are often clipped off before flowering if they are trimmed to shape.

A very versatile tree that prefers well-draining soil but isn’t very particular beyond that. Place the container somewhere the plant will receive full sun or partial shade. The leaves are included regularly in stews, sauces, and soups so it makes an excellent kitchen plant. You can collect some of the dark green leaves and dry them out, using them either whole or crumbled for your cooking requirements. Size-wise they can be pruned to any size but will grow very tall if needed. 

Laurus nobilis
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3. Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’ – Pussy Willow

Taking on an umbrella shape, this tree is one with an exquisite, graceful form. The weeping shape as wonderful texture to any garden. Every Spring you can watch as the pussy willow buds start out in a rich yellow shade and then eventually fade to grey. If you want to enjoy texture and winter flower arrangements you can even cut those stems with their buds and integrate them in your home.

Taking on an umbrella shape, this tree is one with an exquisite, graceful form. The weeping shape adds a wonderful texture to any garden. Every spring you can watch as the pussy willow buds start out in a rich yellow shade and then eventually fade to grey. If you want to enjoy texture and winter flower arrangements you can even cut those stems with their buds and integrate them in your home.

This tree grows at a moderate pace and as it reaches full maturity it can span upwards of 2.5 metres in height and 2 metres in spread. It requires regular watering in full sunlight. It grows in a weeping pattern that makes it great for all manner of landscape uses, whether it’s an exceptional focal point, grown next to a water garden, or used as an accent piece for a romantic cottage garden. What we will say is most are sold as standards, meaning the main plant has been grafted into another stem, and this means they can be kept at the size you buy them, they will just bush out more while retaining the current height, which is great if you don’t want a tree that grows too tall.

Salix caprea 'Kilmarnock'
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4. Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’ – Mimosa Tree

The mimosa tree is a very fast-growing, deciduous option for your garden but what a stunning tree. As it grows it will produce an umbrella-shaped canopy that is dazzling and the fern-like leaves take on a bronze and green appearance.

The Mimosa tree is a very fast-growing, deciduous option for your garden, and what a stunning tree. As it grows it will produce an umbrella-shaped canopy that is dazzling and the fern-like leaves take on a bronze and green appearance. This foliage starts out at the end of spring with a bronze-green shade and by summer turns to a rich chocolatey colour, hence the name. At the end of summer you will see the leaves adorned with small, pink blooms.

Requiring full sun and regular watering, this specimen tree is very heat tolerant so it’s ideal for hotter climates further down in the UK and gives the Mediterranean feel, and does well with coastal exposure. At its full maturity, it will spread roughly 7 metres tall and 5 metres wide but in pots, it grows much smaller. 


5. Prunus ‘Kiku-shidare-zakura’ – Cheals Weeping Cherry Tree

This deciduous tree is also known as a flowering cherry has arching branches that are graceful enough on their own but end up smothered with double, richly pink flowers which makes it all the more impressive.

This deciduous tree is also known as a flowering cherry and has arching branches that are graceful enough on their own but end up smothered with double, rich pink flowers that make it all the more impressive. These blossoms span approximately 3.5cm across and inside of each one you will find up to 125 small, elliptical petals. This is what creates the stunning, powder puff look. Along each branch, you will see clusters of blossoms that create a magnificent display.

The leaves begin in a bronze tone and as they reach maturity they take on a bright green shade in the summer, creating a dense canopy dappling everything underneath. When the leaves fall off the peeling, copper bark of the tree trunk is revealed throughout the winter guaranteeing that you have something aesthetically pleasing to enjoy no matter the season. A perfect tree for containers and pots.

Prunus 'Kiku-shidare-zakura'
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6. Arbutus unedo – Strawberry Tree

The strawberry tree is a graceful evergreen shrub that has a cinnamon bark shade juxtaposed with dark green foliage. During the springtime, you get a collection of white flowers which eventually yield right strawberry shaped fruits that are completely edible although it can take nearly a year to ripen

The strawberry tree is a slow grower that does well in full sun or partial shade. It requires acidic soil so needs to be planted in a soil-based ericaceous compost such as John Innes. If you live in an area that is very windy, this is a wonderful plant to consider because the tree is very tolerant of wind and once it gets established it will tolerate drought to some degree, however, as with all trees grown in pots, watering regularly is still a necessity. This ornamental tree is also considered evergreen because it gives foliage all year round. At its full maturity, it will reach a height between 3 and 6 metres and a spread of the same size. However, it is a very slow grower which makes it perfect for pots.

The tree blooms between October and December offering panicles of urn-shaped flowers when nothing much else is flowering and most trees have even dropped their leaves. These flowers can range from white to pink. Eventually, it produces red and orange fruits that start to ripen come autumn and you can eat these, but they are most commonly used in liquours, wines and preserves.

Arbutus unedo
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7. Salix integra ‘Hakuro-Nishiki’ – Flamingo Tree

When picking small trees for pots you have to start by choosing the trees. After you have selected the trees you want you have to choose containers that are suitable for whatever style you have in your garden but also large enough to hold the root ball of the tree you want to grow.

You won’t know where to look when you plant this tree thanks to its bright, showy colours. It has a very compact growing habit and has variegated foliage that grows upwards. In the spring lanced shaped leaves start out pink and then take on shades of creamy white which put on a real show, and eventually turn green. In the autumn they turn yellow and then fall to the ground revealing the bright, coral red stems below. The length of the branches remains that rich, coral red all year round. At its full maturity, it will reach approximately 4 to 6ft in height making it perfect for planting in pots.

Salix integra 'Hakuro-Nishiki'
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8. Magnolia ‘Susan’

For the smaller garden, this slow-growing tree offers fragrant purple flowers that take on a goblet shape and are quite large. It blooms in the springtime but can sporadically bloom thereafter. The foliage remains rich green in colour and come Autumn turns a golden yellow. This is a magnificent specimen tree to add to your garden.

For the smaller garden, this slow-growing tree offers fragrant purple flowers that take on a goblet shape and are quite large. It blooms in the spring but can sporadically bloom thereafter. The foliage remains rich green in colour and come autumn turns a golden yellow. This is a magnificent specimen tree to add to your garden.

It will grow in the form of a compact, upright shape and at full maturity span approximately 3 metres tall and anywhere between 2 and 4 metres wide. It prefers slightly acidic soil and loves full sun or partial shade. Magnolias are very adaptable to all manner of soil types as long as it is well-drained. 

Magnolia 'Susan'
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9. Laburnum alpinum ‘Pendulum’

Goldenrain is a tree given its name because of the stunning yellow blooms that are produced in the springtime. Not only are they beautiful in colour but they flowers along a very long, length of stem which hangs straight down giving the appearance of a golden shaded rain falling through the tree, some might even hear them be called banana tree.

This deciduous tree will lose its leaves come autumn, however, every spring you can sit back and enjoy new foliage and the flowers are simply to die for. It loves full sun and well-drained soil. This particular tree, unlike some of the others on this list, is very fast growing and eventually will span upwards of 2 metres in height and spread, if not taller. The good news is it can be controlled if grown in pots.

It is a spreading tree that produces weeping branches and each of these branches cascade away from the main, upright stem. This makes it great for larger patios or small pots in gardens. Famous for its golden-yellow flowers that seemingly drip off of the branches creating a very luminous effect in the spring. This plant works best as a specimen tree because it doesn’t like to get overcrowded. It doesn’t require a lot of pruning but it well worth the extra work.


10. Laurus nobilis – Bay Trees

This is a slender, conical tree that takes on a small shape and we have already looked at the topiary version. Again it has dark green foliage that is highly aromatic and can be used in culinary seasonings. It thrives in containers and once it gets established it's very tolerant of drought. More importantly, you can cut and shape it into a topiary form or use it as a formal Hedge in troughs as pictured above.

This is a slender, conical tree that takes on a small shape and we have already looked at the topiary version. Again it has dark green foliage that is highly aromatic and can be used in culinary seasonings. It thrives in containers and once it gets established it’s very tolerant of drought. More importantly, you can cut and shape it into a topiary form or use it as a formal hedge in troughs. 

Laurus nobilis
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Planting and Care

Once you have selected your small tree using our list, make sure you know what type of compost is best. Most of these trees thrive in loam-based compost that gives them stability, this means using a John Innes soil-based compost is probably the best option. Acid-loving trees should use ericaceous compost which is very important.

Once you plant your small trees they will dry out a lot faster in comparison to the trees you have growing in the ground, so you need to accommodate that with regular watering. It may require several waterings in order to ensure that all of the compost is properly moistened from top to bottom when you first plant them.

With small trees, the overhanging foliage sometimes blocks the compost from access to natural rainfall, so even if it’s a very wet season the compost could dry out if you don’t tend to it properly so always keep an eye on the watering. Every spring you should tend to your trees by adding a fresh layer of compost on top after you scrape away the top few inches of the old compost. When you add the new compost to your trees mix in some slow-release fertiliser on an annual basis.

If you have a very exposed garden you will need to protect your small trees during the winter and you can wrap them with materials like hessian or frost fleece, this is especially true for bay trees. It’s also worth considering growing them in a sheltered position to avoid them getting blown over which can break the pots.

Last update on 2022-03-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Welcome to my site, my name is John and I have been lucky enough to work in horticultural nurseries for over 15 years in the UK. As the founder and editor as well as researcher, I have a City & Guilds Horticultural Qualifications which I proudly display on our About us page. I now work full time on this website where I review the very best gardening products and tools and write reliable gardening guides. Behind this site is an actual real person who has worked and has experience with the types of products we review as well as years of knowledge on the topics we cover from actual experience. You can reach out to me at john@pyracantha.co.uk

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