If you’ve ever have the chance to peek through a garden gate in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, you’ll likely observe a slew of specimen trees in pots (along with the equally requisite star jasmine and boxwood and acres of antique brick hardscape). The practice, in fact, has long been popular in landscape design across the South and beyond (envision, if you will, the orangeries at Versailles). Planting a flowering or fruiting or evergreen tree in a giant pot both offers texture in a garden and gives the eye a beautiful place to land.
It can be, however, a tricky endeavor for even the most seasoned of green thumbs. “I frequently plant trees in containers, but I don’t care what you choose to grow, they are a huge maintenance issue,” warns the North Carolina landscape designer Chip Callaway. Among his list of quirks to watch out for: “They are difficult to irrigate; even cold-hardy trees will not survive extreme cold; and they all have to be repotted every two to three years.” Wind is also an issue in some scenarios, “lest they topple in a storm.” Calloway soldiers on anyway. He often turns to Japanese black pines for a contemporary look; the Owari Satsuma mandarin orange offers literal fruit for your efforts; and Ligustrum is Callaway’s evergreen of choice. “The cursed Ligustrum is hard to beat in a container, though they need a lot of pruning,” Calloway says of what’s otherwise known as privet. “I never plant them in gardens because of the invasive issue, but they are tough, evergreen, and long-lived.”
Another North Carolina landscape designer, Laurie Durden, echoes Callaway’s sentiments. “Pretty much anything can grow in pots,” she says, “but most trees will outgrow them, and irrigation is a must. I also try to keep only seasonal plantings in them. I just installed some fabulous palms in a project, and they will not make it through winter, so we plan to remove them after the first cold snap.” Durden’s evergreen hack for a large pot that will bounce back? Podocarpus, or yew, pruned into a topiary, because its foliage is resilient even after a below-freezing episode.
As for me, I’ve had my sights set on potting a bay laurel—if you give them time to grow and mature, you can walk out to the garden and grab a few leaves for cooking. “Bay laurels are a great choice for container planting in the South,” says Tamara Hogan, of Fort Mill, South Carolina’s Fast Growing Trees. “They are hardy and incredibly fragrant, with glossy green foliage. If there is a desired shape that you’re going for, a rule of thumb for pruning is to trim only a third of the growth per year, so you don’t shock the tree. It’s better to go slow and keep a healthy plant versus forcing shape too soon.”