To enjoy container-grown shrubs for as long as possible, select a pot that holds a minimum of 3 gallons of soil or potting mix; for trees, 5-gallon pots (or larger) are best. Before buying, research the tree’s mature size, especially if you want to cultivate it indoors or bring it inside over the winter. Plants that spend the winter outdoors should be hardy (perennial) in your location. Check the USDA Plant Hardiness Map to determine whether the tree you want is well-suited to your region. Slower growing trees and shrubs will provide years of shade, foliage, and blooms, making them a better investment than varieties that quickly outgrow a planter or pot. The varieties we’ve selected will thrive for many years, becoming more beautiful and valuable as they grow.
Ficus trees (Ficus benjamina) can grow quite tall when planted in the yard—up to 55 feet or higher—but when they’re planted in a container, they maintain a much smaller form, usually around 5-6 feet in height. Also called a “weeping fig,” the ficus tree can be grown as a single specimen or as a tight grouping of three trees with their narrow trunks braided for a decorative look. The ficus tree features a leafy crown of glossy dark leaves that will complement any decor. While the ficus is hardy only in zone 10, it can be grown as an indoor potted plant in other zones. Feel free to move it to a protected spot on your patio during the summer when nighttime temps won’t drop below freezing.
With a dwarf peach tree (Prunus persica) on the patio, you’ll be picking delicious, ripe peaches while enjoying the look of a specimen container tree. This small, attractive fruit tree can produce a couple of bushels of peaches. It thrives in zones 4-8 but doesn’t do well indoors over the winter because the tree needs below-freezing temps to encourage next year’s peach development. Opt for dwarf varieties, such as Golden Glory or El Dorado that won’t get taller than 5-6 feet. Plant in a container that holds at least 5 gallons of soil mix. Dwarf peach trees love a sunny spot on the patio or terrace.
If you’re looking for an aromatic tree, look no further than Sweet Bay (Laurus nobilis) with dark green leaves that double as a culinary seasoning for savory fare. Hardy in zones 8-10, sweet bay can spend the summer on the patio but in colder zones, it should be moved indoors for the winter, preferably to a sunny window and somewhere its aromatic scent can be enjoyed by passersby. This slow-growing evergreen tree will reach up to 8 feet when planted in a container and it can be pruned into a conical or globe shape for a geometric design element or topiary look.
While crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia x Natchez) can be pruned to a single trunk and made to look like a small tree, it’s really a shrub that bursts into showy blossoms that range in color from soft pink to deep purple and stunning red, depending on the species. In zones 6-9, crepe myrtle can be left outdoors to overwinter, which is preferable to moving it indoors where it may drop most of its leaves. Crepe myrtles are some of the showiest shrubs around and they will add a welcome splash of color to a patio or deck, blooming from summer until mid-fall.
For lush deep green to yellow-green foliage it’s tough to beat boxwood shrubs, (Buxus) which come in a variety of species, all well-suited to containers. Some boxwoods, such as Petite Pillar Dwarf, grow in a tight, uniform oval shape with a more formal look, while others, such as Golden Dream, send out branches that casually drape over the edge of the planter or container. Choose from dozens of species that range in size from 2- to 6-feet tall at maturity and are suited for zones 4-9 (check zones for individual species). One of the easiest shrubs to grow in a container, boxwoods will provide your patio with years of beautiful foliage to your patio, and will maintain their leaves even over winter.
Dwarf Meyer Lemon Tree
Grow your own Meyer lemons right on your patio with a dwarf Meyer lemon tree (Meyer lemon Citrus x meyeri) and enjoy fresh-squeezed lemonade on a hot summer’s day. This diminutive lemon tree reaches an average of 6 feet in height and will produce a bushel of bright lemon fruits preceded by heavenly scented white blossoms. While a dwarf lemon tree can be left outdoors in zones 8-10, it should be overwintered indoors near a sunny window in colder regions.
For a bevy of bountiful blossoms in colors ranging from white to purple (or even green), the Hydrangea shrub (Hortensia) is the way to go. Hardy in zones 3-9 (check individual species), this showy shrub thrives in large containers—that will hold 6-8 gallons of growing mix—and the shrub requires well-drained, slightly acidic soil in order to maintain its bloom color. A fertilizer made specifically for hydrangeas is suggested. Hydrangea can be left to grow as a shrub with wide-arching branches or trained to a single trunk for a tree-like appearance. In late spring, large clusters of blooms appear and will continue appearing until late summer.
Related: 9 of the Best Shrubs for Any Garden
A kumquat tree (citrus japonica) will brighten a southern patio or terrace in zones 9-10, and can bear edible citrus fruit 2-4 years after planting. In colder zones, plan on bringing the tree indoors before the first frost and locating it in front of a sunny window to overwinter. In a container, the slow-growing kumquat tree typically reaches around 5-7 feet in height, although it can reach 13 feet when planted in a yard. It prefers well-drained soil and should be transplanted to a slightly larger pot every 2 or 3 years to give its roots a bit of growing room.
Available in dozens of species, the Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) adds a graceful element to a patio container in zones 5-8. Prized for its delicate, feathery leaves that come in a range of colors, including bright red, variegated pink, and deep maroon, this slow-growing tree will become a focal point in the backyard. Opt for dwarf varieties such as Velvet Viking or Red Dragon which will reach a mature height of just 5 feet, making them the perfect accent in a courtyard. In zones colder than 5, this small tree should be overwintered indoors.
With striking (and sharp!) muted yellow, sword-like leaves, the Golden Sword (Yucca filamentosa) shrub sends up tall floral spikes in late spring and early summer topped with dramatic clusters of white blooms. This low-maintenance container shrub tolerates hot temps and moderate droughts. It will add texture and interest to any patio, but it’s especially prized in southwestern-themed yards. It needs a sunny spot and well-drained soil and is well-suited to zones 4-9. The shrub reaches up to 3 feet in height at maturity and the flower spikes can extend as high as 6 feet tall.
These are the best plants to grow in containers, whether inside our outdoors.
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