Mix up your container garden with a showy tree, trimmed into a delicate topiary, or loose, lush, and full of color.

patio tree container garden
Thomas J. Story
A potted tree adds a little height and visual interest to a container garden.

Planting a tree in a container on your patio works like punctuation. The wrong shape and size is like a question mark, inspiring some head scratching bewilderment. But the right combination of color, structure, and foliage acts like an exclamation point. It adds a pop of visual interest, whether it’s long and lean, lacy and light, or fluffy and full. Shrubs and trees in pots can stand like sentries on either side of a door, create a privacy screen, or be substantive enough to anchor the corners of an outdoor living room. Container trees are also a labor of love for a plant nursery to create. (Fun fact: A topiary is typically 8 years old before it’s ready to sell at retail.)

Some quick tips from Georgia Clay, new plants manager at Monrovia (an Azusa, California-based plant nursery founded in 1926 with retail locations nationwide) before planting your own. Use the right potting mix: “It is important to use a planting mixture designed for containers as soil taken from your garden is much too dense in containers.” Choose a deep container with drainage holes:  “Drainage holes are crucial in any container you choose. Without drainage your soil will likely become waterlogged and your plants will suffer.” Select dwarf varieties, or trees with a proven pot track record: “If longevity is your goal, pick dwarf varieties and assume that trees and most shrubs have a deeper root system and will need a deeper pot than annuals and perennials.”

And for a little extra oomph, don’t forget the “thrill, fill, and spill” formula that professional gardeners love.

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“I have always been told the key to a great container is a ‘thriller, filler, and spiller,'” says Clay, describing a well-known method for selecting companion plants for a single pot. “The tree in this case is your thriller,” she says, noting its “look-at-me” height. “Now it is up to you to find your ‘fillers’ and ‘spillers.’ Filler plants generally add mass, texture, and color to the container and spillers soften it by gently trailing out of the pot.” Choose varieties of plants that have similar water and light needs for best results.