Trees in containers can liven up a patio, so long as you know the basics

Inside Westminster Abbey, eight 20-foot-tall live trees lined the center aisle during the wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William. The trees transformed the space, doing what even the most elaborate floral arrangement could not — providing a natural, living sense of permanence and an air of drama. The move was unexpected, unpretentious and bold.

A potted tree on your patio or deck can have the same effect.

While not every tree is well-suited for a container, there are a surprising number of options, ranging from crape myrtles to hollies. It's important to learn which trees work well in containers and how to care for them, so I turned to some local experts for advice.

John Perdue, nursery department associate with Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, generally recommends cold-hardy trees that would grow equally well in the landscape.

"Trees that grow slowly work particularly well in containers because they can stay in a container for a long time," he says.

One benefit of planting cold-hardy varieties on containers is that they can always be transplanted to the landscape if you tire of the potted look or run out of room on your deck.

Tropical trees are a favorite of nursery associate Robin Swartz of Sun Nurseries in Woodbine. Many of her recommendations include varieties that need to be kept indoors during Maryland's cold winters.

"For a sunny patio or deck, flowering trees and shrubs are nice — something with an extended bloom period so you can enjoy flowers all summer long," says Swartz.

In addition to a selection of cold hardy and tropical trees, there are also some woody shrubs that can be trained to grow on a standard (single trunk) and thrive in containers.

Here are some more tips for growing trees in containers:

Selecting the right tree

This is probably the most important step. Below is a list of varieties the experts recommend:

Crape myrtles There are some beautiful dwarf crape myrtles that bloom later in the season and stay flowering for up to three months. Varieties that would work well include Pocomoke, Chickasaw and Victor, which has red flowers.

Dwarf Alberta spruces These grow slowly and can tolerate dry soil. The even, conical growth habit of the dwarf Alberta spruce lends to formal situations like flanking an entryway.

Ficus These can get large enough to provide a fair amount of shade, but need to be brought back inside before nighttime temperatures fall below 40 degrees.

Flowering shrubs Tree-form hydrangeas and Knock Out roses can be trained on a standard and make nice flowering options for containers.

Fuchsia A mature fuchsia trained on a standard can achieve the effect of a small tree and provides vibrant blooms for a shaded patio or deck.

Hibiscus Tropical hibiscus have large, showy trumpet-shaped flowers ranging from white to pink, red, orange, purple or yellow.

Japanese maples There are many varieties of Japanese maples. They grow slowly, and feature interesting leaf shapes and growth habits.

Meyer lemons Citrus trees are popular for containers, but they need to be inside for the winter. There's nothing like a glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon from your own tree.

Oleander This subtropical tree is poisonous and therefore deer-resistant. It grows well in containers, can handle drier soils and will bloom all summer long.

Steeds hollies In a large enough container, these do well and provide a nice pyramid form. If you keep them outside for the winter, be sure to treat the leaves with an anti-desiccant spray.

Tibouchina A tropical tree native to Mexico, the Caribbean and Brazil with really beautiful purple flowers.

Topiaries Conifers like arborvitae, spruce and juniper can be shaped into spirals and pom-poms that look great in containers and can effect a variety of stylistic looks, from traditional and formal to whimsical, modern and fun.

Tropical vines They aren't trees, but tropical flowering vines are often vigorous growers. Vines like mandevilla climbing on a trellis can achieve the same verticality as a tree.

Choosing a container

The right container is as important as the right plant. Most synthetic, glazed and nonporous containers like iron hold moisture, while the soil in unglazed clay containers can dry out quickly.

Perdue says container size is the biggest concern when planting trees.

"You need to have a big enough container and be able to transfer the tree to a larger container when it gets too big," says Perdue. Remember, a healthy root system is about the same size as what you can see above the soil level.

For decades plastic has been the go-to material for easy maintenance and four-season durability — and up until a few years ago, the decorative options were limited. More recently, manufacturers have been producing lightweight, durable all-weather containers made from materials like fiberglass, fiber-clay and poly-resin, with designs that realistically simulate the look of stone, cast iron, glazed clay and terra cotta.

"They look like traditional materials but won't crack and will help protect the root system in the winter," says Swartz.

Care and feeding

Plants draw nutrients from the soil in order to survive, and plants in containers are removed from an environment where soil nutrients are replenished naturally. Therefore, regular fertilization is mandatory —consult a nursery professional to develop a feeding program for your potted tree.

To make sure your potted tree lives a full life, bring it indoors for the winter. Such tropical trees as the Meyer lemon and the ficus must be brought inside during the colder months, while cold hardy evergreens and deciduous trees may be able to spend the winter outside. But containers don't insulate the root system as well as the ground and the typical container will put your tree at risk.

"If you want to try to keep potted trees outside for the winter, try to insulate the containers in some way," says Perdue. "Wrap the container with two or three layers of bubble wrap, to slow down the cooling of the root system. Root shock, which can kill a tree, is caused not by extreme temperatures but by fast changes in the temperature around the root system."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living. He can be reached at

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