There’s reasons why every garden should have a potted tree
In the 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 yearround.
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 8 inches deep – and angled outward to produce a traylike profile redolent of a bonsai display. Eastwood makes the planters in his workshop.
If you want more heft in your planter tree, consider the work of professional gardener Nick McCullough, of New Albany, Ohio, who installed fullsize Japanese maples for a client 11 years ago, and they are still going strong.
He selected two upright maples – purple-leafed Bloodgood and greenleafed Seiryu – and the classic mounded green Viridis, and placed them in large, extravagant oaken containers. The planters are 42 inches across and stand four feet tall.
They are used to mark key points of entry to the terraces around the house and the tallest, the Bloodgoods, are 12 feet above the pot to create a real presence.
Planters, such as this one with an upright Japanese maple Seiryu, can define key edges of the garden.