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How to Successfully Grow Container Trees

Megan WildDo you have a yen for a garden but don’t feel you have time for planting, weeding or fertilizing? Your job or family life could be time-consuming — so much so that spending even two hours in the yard on weekends sounds like too much. If you have a long or stressful commute in addition, looking forward to picking insects off your rose bushes may be too much.

But you don’t have to go garden-less. Growing container trees is a low-maintenance way to have the greenery, blooms and fragrance of a garden without being a weekend warrior on behalf of your begonias. You don’t need a lot of space. Container trees can be grown on a patio, placed on a small plot of land or even stuck in a corner of your living room.

The Planning Stage

Even a one- or two-tree garden needs a plan! Here are four questions to ask before heading down to the local garden center.

What’s Your Climate? You might be picturing lemon or orange trees on your patio. The first step is to check out your climate and determine if they’ll do well there. Perhaps a dwarf orange tree will thrive, but you need to know that before picking some up at the local plant store.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a handy map that details plant zones in the United States by temperature. Enter your zip code or click on your state.

How Much Time Do You Want to Spend Gardening? Container trees are lower maintenance than large gardens. That said, all living things need water, food and care. Do you want to simply buy a tree already in a container, set it on your patio and water it occasionally? Or do you want to do more gardening: pruning, repotting and maybe even getting fruit from your tree?

The type of tree you choose will also determine how much time you have to spend working on it. If you buy a deciduous container tree, or one that flowers and has fruit, it will take more work than an evergreen. Deciduous trees shed leaves, which have to be picked up along with any dropped blossoms and fruit.

What Do You Want the Tree For? Are you thinking about the pleasure of looking at a nice tree? Do you want a tree that will mark off your space from the neighboring patio? Do you want to breathe in evergreen? Do you want it to create a restful space so you can decompress from a job or commute that’s probably already raised your blood pressure? Do you want a plant to provide a focal point for a room or patio? The answers will help you choose a specific tree.

container plant bamboo

What Kind of Tree Do You Want? The answers to the first three questions will let you know the characteristics of the tree you need. Take that information and mash it together with what kinds of trees you like. Many container trees are available, so spend some time thinking and checking out a good garden store.

Dwarf conifers (evergreen) will give you the classic evergreen look in a small form. Bamboo grows rapidly and can make a good screen or divider. Pussy willows and bonsai make a focal point. Palms look exotic. Crabapples will give fruit.

Here are some good container trees for beginners:

• Bamboo
• Bonsai
• Chinese Dogwood
• Crabapple
• Crepe Myrtle
• Figs
• Japanese Maple
• Juniper
• Palms
• River Birch
• Sourwood
• Star Magnolia
• White Fringe Tree
• Yew Pine

container tree nursery

The Purchasing Stage

When you are ready to buy a tree, be sure to look at it carefully. There are five tips to getting a healthy tree.

Make Sure It’s Not Root-Bound. A tree in too small a container can become rootbound — a term referring to when roots have started to circle back on themselves as they grow. Healthy roots are white or off-white. A rootbound tree’s roots will be dark, slimy or both.

Check for Adequate Drainage. Turn the container over to make sure that it has holes in the bottom for drainage. Water needs to flow out the bottom or your tree could get root rot.

Ensure That It’s Been Watered Correctly. A healthy container tree in a garden store will have soil that’s slightly damp to the touch. If the soil is dry, the tree hasn’t had adequate water and nutrients, which could affect its long-term health.

Check the Potting Soil. Potting soil, both in the garden store and your home, should come up to at least one inch of the top of the container.

Look for a Healthy Tree. If a tree has yellowed leaves, is drooping or has damaged bark, pass it by. If it looks unhealthy, it probably is.

The Growing Stage

At last, you have a tree at home! You have three main gardening tasks for your container tree.

Water It Enough. Container trees are at a risk of drying out, especially if they are on pavement (like the driveway leading to your house) or a patio. The heat reflects and, as a result, the tree needs more water.

Be sure to check the soil before you water. If it’s still damp, it’s OK. If it’s dry, it needs water. Check every other day at the least.

Use the Right Soil. Don’t use soil from an existing garden, if you have one. It might hold insects or weeds. Use potting soil from the garden center: It has the right mixture of ingredients and won’t compact.

Know When to Repot. Although some dwarf trees won’t need to be re-potted, many container trees will grow hardily and need to be repotted when they do. The roots get bigger as the trees do. Gardeners use this equation: For every four feet of tree, the container’s diameter must have one foot.

Container trees can be beautiful, restful and add beauty and ornamentation to your home or yard. In addition, they’re low maintenance! Follow this guide to ensure hours of pleasure when you get back from your job at the end of the day.