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Patio Trees for Small Gardens

By Sowanddipity @Sowanddipity
Patio Trees for Small Gardens

The number one question I get asked at the nursery is:

What tree can I put into a container that won't get big?

Or a variant of the above...

'can you suggest a small tree for a planter'

'I need a small evergreen tree for a shady patio'

'what tree only gets to be 7-8 feet tall'

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

I get it, gardens are getting smaller but we still want it to feel like our own private oasis. Unfortunately, my parents generation was the last to enjoy huge back yards as properties values have sky rocketed and the only available homes these days (that don't require a 2 hour commute to work) don't have a back 40.

So, I'm here to give you some advice on what to plant in your little Edens that will make your small space gardens... feel like big private oasis's.

The trees and tree-like shrubs I chose as patio trees are based on a maximum of 15 ft tall. I found that most people want it to stay under that height and that limits your choices. In landscape circles, we consider a tree that reaches 25-30 ft to be quite small.

Understand that when horticulturists talk about trees and their eventual heights, we are usually talking in terms of 10 years. Some trees take time to reach their mature height while others grow much faster.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

"Can't I just prune it to stay small?"

Ahh... yes. This question... it's the number TWO most asked after the number one question. This is how I answer it:

Would you try to make your child wear a size three pants forever?

They always smile at this... but I'm not trying to be a smart ass, just trying to make a point.

Like plants, we have a set growth point. That's why your son stops growing when he hits 6'2 and you stopped when you reached 5'4. Plants do the same and trying to prevent that from happening results in poor growth, misshaped branches and most likely... a busted through pot!

Respect the plants set growth point and choose the right ones to suit your needs. Happy plants, happy people.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens Patio Tree's For Sun

If you have an exposure that gets lots of sun, then you are the lucky 50%. You have a few more options than the rest. However, you also have the issue of watering more frequently due to drying out.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Japanese Maples

These perfect patio trees can be low and weeping or upright and range from 5 ft to 15 ft for the smaller growing varieties. Most of these do great in full sun but the finer thread leafed trees can scorch under harsh rays, so if you have a part shade aspect these would work for that location too. Great choices include:

Acer Palmatum 'Butterfly' 7-9 ft H x 5 - 6 ft W

Acer Palmatum 'Burgundy Lace' 10 ft x 10 ft

Acer Shirasawanum 'Fullmoon Maple' 8-12 ft H x 6 - 8 ft W

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Arbutus Unedo (Strawberry Tree)

This is more of a tree like shrub as it doesn't get big but has the form of a tree. It has lot's of interest in that it fruits and flowers at the same time and it is an evergreen. Size is 6-8 ft H x 5-6 ft W. I will say that the fruit can be messy for a deck... but it's a trade off for this cool looking plant.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Robinia Pseudoacacia 'Twisted Baby Black Locust'

This one is a character! Twisting, zigging and zagging branches with an upright habit. Fresh light green leaves turn to a dark green as it ages. Great specimen tree that grows 6-12ft H by W, can be pruned to desired size. Full sun, deciduous.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Ornamental Standards

OK... you probably would recognize these as 'lolly-pop' trees. These patio trees are commonly grafted and some can actually produce edible fruit or just be ornamental. Since they are little round balls on top of tall stems, I would recommend planting them in a large planter and surround the base with some grasses or perennials that will fill out the pot.

Some great choices are:

Malus Lancelot Crab Apple

Salix Integra "Hakura Nishiki" (Variegated Japanese Willow)

Hydrangea Paniculata 'Grandiflora' standard

Syringa Standard 'Miss Kim' Lilac

Evergreen Patio Trees for Sun Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Chamaecyparis Obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'

Of course the most obvious evergreen upright choice is a cedar, simple and easy to care for. There is a wide range of coniferous plants that will fit the bill and have a little more interest than just a good old cedar. The Hinoki Cypress has a funky shape and grows in a staggered fashion, very cool looking option when it comes to this genre of plants.

Ligustrum Japonicum (Wax Leaf Privet)

The glossy evergreen leaves and fragrant white flowers are two great reasons for this low maintenance plant. These can be a grown and shaped to suit your needs and are perfect for privacy screens. Often you'll find these as standards as well.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Topiaries (Boxwood and Juniperus)

These are those sculpted plants that have several balls or 'pom poms'. If you're creating a contemporary or Japanese themed garden, topiaries are a great choice for a container. There will be maintenance involved with pruning to keep it's shape, but once they are formed they are usually easy to care for.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Magnolia grandiflora 'Teddy Bear'

OK, this one is just a little over the 15 ft range growing from 16-20 ft, but I have to include it because it is awesome! Glossy evergreen leaves with a fuzzy brown underside is where this one got it's name. If that isn't enough, you get fragrant white flowers during spring making this an excellent choice for a small space patio tree.

Oye Vey, this one is a challenge and it's tough to find some good candidates. It's better to consider shrubs or tree-like shrubs for this application to widen your options.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Mountain Laurels

Evergreen and smothered with flowers in spring, these understory trees do well in a part shade or bright shade aspect. Most get to be around 6 ft high and are easy to care for.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens


These have amazing flowers in many different colors on evergreen glossy plants. Most grow 7-10 ft and tolerate bright shade. These too can be formed into standards or espaliers for privacy screens.

Taxus Baccata ( Yews )

This is similar in upright habit as that of cedars but it can tolerate shade. Soft evergreen needles with red berries is easy to shape and maintain. If you're looking for something that is very columnar, than this is the plant for you.

Patio Trees for Small Gardens

Aucuba Japonica

Evergreen variegated shrub adds color to shady areas. Several varieties available with different degree's of variegation. Low maintenance and grows 6- 8 ft.

Just remember when choosing a container, get the biggest you can afford. This will ensure many years of happy healthy growth. They will require new soil from time to time as it will become depleted over the years.

When I was the gardener for the Vancouver Art Gallery, we used to tip the large potted maples over every few years and ' root' prune them by slicing off the bottom layer and sides like a cake, then pop them back into the pots with a rich organic compost.

This kept them alive and as far as I know, they are still in those pots today, 7 years later.

Now that the plants are in, it's time for some...

Outdoor DIY Projects

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Patio Trees for Small Gardens

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