Anyone’s garden can benefit from addition of potted trees
Plantings offer sturdy year-round presence in yard
The houseplants are back inside, the pots of annuals have been emptied and the containers won’t be replanted until the spring.
But in this rush to lay bare the winter garden, we may be missing an enormous opportunity. Any garden, big or small, can be transformed by the presence of a hardy tree grown in a planter outdoors year-round.
The most obvious value of such a feature is that you get a plant of architectural stature where you don’t have soil. A tree in a planter can act as a focal point to the patio or any garden space viewed from a room in the home. Two or three of them can announce your entrance, separate the driveway or provide instant screening on an exposed terrace.
In greater numbers, they can turn a hot and unwelcoming area into a leafy grove.
But there is a simpler reason for wanting to do this.
“A winterberry right out your back door you could look at every morning, that’s pretty spectacular,” said Wendy Gentry, a senior horticulturist at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
It probably needs to be a small tree, or a sculptural shrub or conifer. The container should be large and frost-tolerant – no fragile terra cotta. And let’s say right away that growing trees in containers can be pricey, though it doesn’t need to be, and is more demanding than a tree put in the ground. But the results can be fabulous, with an added bonus: Unlike other investments in the garden, you can take it with you when you move.
It is useful to think of a tree in a container as a yin-yang pairing: The plant and its home should be matched in size (allowing room for a few inches of root spread), in proportion and in character. The plant is the dominant partner, so the container should not jar in color or form. This isn’t to say it can’t be stylish.
One of the most convincing pairings I have seen is at Eastwoods Nurseries in Washington, Virginia, where owner Henry Eastwood plants varieties of Japanese maples into handmade planters of white oak. They are square and shallow – just eight inches deep – and angled outward to produce a traylike profile redolent of a bonsai display. Eastwood makes the planters in his workshop.
I wondered whether the shallowness of the planters would be a problem for future root growth, but Eastwood, who sells 100 varieties of Japanese maples, said the maple’s root patterns are much broader than deep.
“The 45-degree angle is compatible with what the roots do naturally,” he said. However, the effect of putting the trees in such a planter bestows desirable bonsai-like qualities on them: They are stunted and take on an aged character early. And if you want to take the bonsai comparison an extra step, you can also remove the tree from the planter every other year and trim the roots a couple of inches to prevent the tree from becoming pot-bound and to promote new root growth, Eastwood said.
Given its own pedestal, a nurtured maple would, after 10 years, become “an incredible specimen,” he said.
Horticulturist Nick McCullough used 42-inch-wide oak planters for a client’s Japanese maples: a pair of the upright purple-leaf variety Bloodgood.