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8 Trees You Can Grow In Buckets

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It’s not common to think of growing a tree in a bucket, but many people do it all the time. Typically they’re dwarf varieties planted in large planters, containers, and even… buckets.

But why grow trees in buckets? There a number of reasons for considering trees in a bucket. For one, they’re easily portable, or at least easier than transplanting a tree in the ground. And while they can become very heavy, they’re still movable objects.

The ability to relocate a tree makes a lot of sense when you consider the weather extremes that many of us endure. From blazing hot summers to frigid winters, many plants, including trees, either suffer with stunted growth or simply die in the ground due to weather extremes.

The option to move a tree indoors, into or out of the sun or wind, or to give full or less exposure to rain or snow is a huge benefit of growing a tree in a bucket.

Another benefit is the ability to grow trees that typically wouldn’t survive in your hardiness zone. If and when the weather becomes too cold, you have the option to move them inside or at least under cover to protect them from the weather extremes unique to your location.

The same is true for trees that prefer more northern zones. If you live in a hot, tropical latitude, you can move them into the shade in the peak of summer or even indoors where it’s cooler.

An Urban Solution

Many people who live in the city don’t have the benefit of a large yard, and in the case of some apartment buildings and condos, no yard at all. Trees in a bucket can allow someone with little or no room to grow anything to enjoy their trees, and the fruits that many of them bear.

Trees in buckets can also be used to create a sense of space on a deck, patio, or even in a yard. And because they’re easy to move around, you can vary the space you create as needed.

How many trees you can grow depends on the size of your patio, but even an indoor space with good southern exposure has the potential to maintain and sustain something as ambitious as a tree.

Your portable trees can also create a privacy screen, particularly in urban environments where many people live in close proximity. Select the right tree and even an apartment patio can have some level of privacy thanks to trees in buckets.

You Can Take it With You…

Few of us live in the same house or apartment our entire lives. We move. Things change, and for any number of reasons, we pack it up and move to a new location. In the process, the trees always get left behind.

It may seem insignificant, but there are times when a tree has a special significance or memory connected to it. Portable trees are packable and you actually can take them with you.

Does it Have to Be a Bucket?

No, but buckets are inexpensive and easy to alter to adjust size and location of drainage holes and are lighter, so they’re more portable. But that lightness has a downside. A tree in 5-gallon plastic bucket can tip on a windy day. This is especially true if the soil is dry and the total weight of the bucket is lighter.

There are ways to compensate, either by drilling through the bottom of the plastic bucket to a wood deck, or even a wooden platform that expands the size of the base. When all else fails, you can load some rocks in the bottom of the bucket before you fill it with your soil mix.

Bucket Alternatives

Growing a tree in a bucket doesn’t mean the tree has to literally be in a bucket. There are a range of planters that have both the weight and the size to accommodate a tree. Most measure 20-inches or more in diameter. Some are made out of plastic, others clay or terra cotta, while others are made from concrete or steel.

All of them solve the wind problem and most look better than a bucket. The downside is the cost, and the added weight makes them a chore to move around.

A platform on coaster wheels could help, but make sure you either lock the wheels or brace them somehow so you don’t have a 400-pound concrete pot with a tree sticking out blowing across the patio in the wind.

As the tree grows, you will eventually need to transplant it to a larger pot or it will become root bound. That could actually help keep the tree from growing too tall but may also affect the health of the tree.

Pruning is the best way to keep a tree’s height and width in check, and you could even prune the roots when transplanting if you want to limit its growth. With proper care and occasional transplanting, a tree in a bucket or container can live for 20 years.

The Best Soil Mix

This can vary a bit depending on the tree species, but generally you want a rich blend of materials for a soil mix. You also need to think about the general structural integrity of the soil.

Trees are top heavy and the roots need firm support. A light and loamy soil mix may work great for flowers and smaller plants but will simply not have the density to support a growing tree.

On the other hand, a bucket or planter is a very confined environment that a tree will be totally dependent on for nutrients and water. The right mix of soils can help. Here’s the basic, recommended mix for most trees and then we’ll note when a certain type of tree may prefer something in addition:

Basic Tree Soil for Buckets and Planters

The compost will help sustain the tree with nutrients while the sand will provide good drainage and some weight to the base of the bucket or container. The Perlite keeps the soil somewhat loose and airy and will also help with water retention.

A standard recommendation is to also remove the very top of the dry soil from time to time and replace it with fresh compost.

Standard feeding recommendations are for feeding every 2 weeks with a fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorous. The simplest way to think of it is that the nitrogen feeds the leaves and the phosphorous feeds the roots. All of these recommendations are for a range of trees. Some trees prefer variations that we’ll highlight as we look at the trees.

Some other advice related to soils for container trees are as follows:

  • Peat is a good addition for the short term, but if you intend to grow a tree long-term in the same bucket or container, you should minimize the use of peat. It decomposes and compacts fairly quickly, and you’ll have to regularly add soil to compensate.
  • Pine bark is often recommended as an addition to container soils but is best used with conifers and other evergreens. It’s sometimes not a good addition for fruit trees or deciduous trees.
  • There are packaged soil mixes specifically for container trees you can buy. Many are formulated specifically for a type of tree. It’s an easy way to get the right soil mix but it costs more than mixing up your own.

Basic Watering for Container Trees

Watering is critical for any plant grown in a pot or container. A lot depends on the local conditions. After first planting a tree in a container, water it thoroughly as you add the soil and the tree and water it daily for a few days.

Once the tree is established, it’s best to water it at least once a week, but here again, keep an eye on local conditions, the appearance of the soil, and the tree.

Some buckets and containers do not have drainage holes in the bottom. That’s a bad idea for any plant or tree in a container that is kept outdoors. You can’t control the rain, and a flooded bucket or container can quickly lead to root rot.

Make sure you have drainage in your buckets or containers and accept that regular watering will need to be done. If moving your trees indoors at times, make sure you have a drip tray underneath the pot. Trees in a bucket or pot are like pets and require some regular attention.

About Chemical Fertilizers

There are chemical fertilizers you can add to your bucket, but be sure you add the right amount. The decision to use a chemical fertilizer is up to you, but they’re generally safe to use, although if you’re eating fruit from your trees, you might want to stick to an organic fertilizer like compost.

If using compost to top your soil, you don’t want to use any mulch on top of the soil. Mulch helps retain moisture, but it doesn’t decompose as quickly as you might think, so if feeding with continual compost on top –skip the mulch. If you’re using a chemical fertilizer in solution, a mulch on top is fine.

And remember to be careful when fertilizing a newly planted tree. It’s better to fertilize lightly until the roots are established or you may kill the tree. The safest way to feed a newly planted tree in a bucket is to use compost rather than a chemical fertilizer.

Hardiness Zones

North America is separated by hardiness zones defined by the average temperatures across latitudes on the continent. The lower the number, the colder the temperatures. Many of the trees we’ll cover prefer warmer temperatures, but the good news is that buckets can be moved to a location less affected by temperatures, including indoors.

Regardless, keep an eye on the hardiness of any tree you plant in a bucket or container in case it needs to be moved during temperature extremes.

The 8 Trees

The tree varieties we’ll cover range from functional trees that bear fruit to trees that simply have aesthetic appeal like flowering trees and evergreens. We’ll also look at Bonsai as an option.

The only thing to consider with fruiting trees is that you may need two of them to ensure pollination of blossoms to result in fruits. That’s not always necessary, and most of the trees we’ll cover are self-pollinating, but it helps.

1. Meyer Lemon Tree

The Meyer Lemon tree is probably the most popular lemon tree grown in a bucket or planter. It’s actually a hybrid tree that’s a cross between lemons and mandarin oranges. It originated in China and is a low maintenance tree for a bucket or container.

Whenever you see a picture of a Meyer Lemon tree, it’s always loaded with lemons. Be patient. It can take 2 to 6 years to see the first blossoms, but once the tree has matured, it will actually bear fruit with some consistency.

You can buy Meyer Lemon trees online, although they tend to be smaller immature trees or even rooted cuttings. If you want to start with a more mature Meyer Lemon tree, check out local home and garden centers or a local nursery.

They prefer 6 to 8 hours of full sun and a slightly acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.5 pH. They also prefer a nitrogen rich fertilizer, love humidity, and only require pruning to maintain a desirable shape.

Sun is the key for fruiting, and the more sun it receives, the more blossoms and fruit will result. The Meyer Lemon tree is self-pollinating, so one tree will bear fruit.

Meyer Lemon trees grow 5 to 10 feet tall depending on the variety. Dwarf varieties top out at 5 feet. They are not tolerant of cold temperatures and like other citrus fruits, they’ll need to be moved indoors in winter.

They prefer hardiness zones 8 to 11. In fact at temperatures below 50 degrees they won’t blossom and they do not tolerate freezing temps. If you can’t move your Meyer Lemon tree indoors in winter, skip it.

2. Japanese Maple

The Japanese Maple is another classic container tree. It features deep red leaves throughout the growing season and is a hardy variety that grows across Hardiness Zones 5 through 8. In zones colder than 5, they should be moved indoors.

Dwarf varieties of Japanese Maple are best for buckets or containers and include Velvet Viking, Red Dragon, or Rhode Island Red. They all reach a mature height of about 7 feet, but can be pruned back for a smaller space.

The Japanese Maple is shade tolerant and will grow in partial shade or even on an apartment patio with a northern exposure. They are hardy trees and only require feeding about once a month with a nitrogen rich fertilizer.

3. Dwarf Cherry Tree

The Dwarf Cherry grows in Hardiness Zones 3 to 10. They prefer full sun, moderate watering, and a loamy and well-drained soil. They also prefer compost.

Dwarf cherry trees are not self-pollinating, so you need 2 trees to bear fruit. They grow from 6 to 10 feet tall so prune to fit your space.

4. Bay Laurel

The Bay Laurel is actually an evergreen plant and the leaves can be used as an herb for cooking. If you’ve ever heard of bay leaves, this is the source.

Bay Laurels prefer Hardiness Zones 3 to 9, but keep an eye on the variety you buy. They’re a Mediterranean tree and some varieties can only tolerate temperate zones.

They reach a height up to 6 feet and prefer compost in the potting mix and full sun. The Bay Laurel produces flowers and berries, but you need 2 trees to bear fruit. Most people are fine with one tree and only care about the bay leaves for soups and stews.

They’re resilient trees and can grow larger if not pruned. It all depends on your available space. They tolerate all soil types and soils, ranging from acidic to alkaline. Water as needed.

5. Eastern Redbud

Eastern Redbud trees produce a dramatic bloom of light purple blossoms across their top branches in the spring. They can grow up to 20 feet tall, so regular pruning is important. Prune after blooming in the spring.

They prefer compost mixed with sand and Perlite and a well drained but moist soil, although they are tolerant of any soil mix. Water as needed, usually at least once a week.

Eastern redbuds grow across Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. They prefer full sun to partial shade

6. Emerald Green Arborvitae

Emerald Green Arborvitae is a classic evergreen often used for privacy screens. Dwarf varieties grow well in buckets or containers and can be used to create privacy for an apartment patio, deck or backyard.

They grow in Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 and are hardy trees. They grow up to 20 feet tall, so prune as needed. They also can expand to 5 feet wide, so prune the width as needed. Better yet, they are tolerant of sculpting so you can prune curves and straight sides and edges as needed.

They are low maintenance and prefer full sun to partial shade. They are tolerant of a range of soil types, but a good mix of compost, sand, and Perlite will encourage strong and healthy growth. Water weekly and feed either with a 10-10-10 chemical fertilizer or compost.

7. Dwarf Apple Trees

There are a variety of dwarf apple trees you can grow in a bucket. All bear full-sized fruit. Some are self-pollinating and others require a second tree for fruiting. Read the label before you buy your dwarf apple tree at a home center or online.

Most dwarf apple trees are hardy trees and grow across a range of Hardiness Zones that vary by variety, so choose your zone when you select your tree. They prefer frequent watering when fruiting and favor full sun to partial shade.

A standard soil mix of compost, sand, and Perlite will keep them healthy, and an organic compost for feeding is best, especially if you’re eating the apples.

8. Bonsai

Bonsai originated in Japan and involves choosing dwarf varieties of certain trees and aggressively pruning them to create miniature trees with the shape and configuration of full-grown trees.

There are a variety of trees that can be converted to Bonsai, but it takes time. How large your Bonsai tree ends up depends a lot on how you prune and raise it, but with time it can be a dramatic addition to a small space as an ornamental tree.

There are Bonsai kits you can buy to practice Bonsai, and the tree varieties are sold at some garden centers and online. Care and feeding varies depending on tree type, but some books cover the art of Bonsai pretty well.

It’s Worth a Try

A surprising number of trees can survive in a bucket or container. A lot has to do with how you prune the branches and the roots.

If you don’t have the space for a fully grown tree or simply want to create a sense of space or privacy using trees, give it a try. You may be pleasantly surprised at how well it works, and someday if you move, you can still take it with you.

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