An aralia palm.

Blank spaces and easy care are great reasons to consider getting some potted trees, or plants pruned into tree forms. Once potted, the proper trees need only consistent water, fertilizer and occasional pruning to thrive in your desert garden.

Potted trees bring a vertical element to a patio corner or wall, creating a focal point at a spot in your landscape—or perhaps providing a screen to unsightly elements. They can also offer a background to pots with flowers—and possible shade. Finally, potted trees offer a sense of permanence in your garden, especially during our long summer months.

You will want to choose trees that stay small or are slow-growing. Many tree varieties do not grow to full size when their roots are constricted in a container. Most trees will do best in larger containers, of course.

Look for trees that are evergreen so they maintain their contribution to your landscape or patio all year long. Some trees bring additional benefits—seasonal blooms, berries or even fruit! In the low desert areas where winter temperatures rarely hit freezing, many trees that show frost damage in other warm climates will excel year-round.

If you live in an area that does experience colder winter temperatures, you can cover the plants or move containers to a protected area during freezes and near-freezes. Of course, you’ll want to use pots that fit on rollers or dollies.

Citrus trees best suited for pots

  • Improved Meyer lemon
  • Mexican lime
  • Bearss lime
  • Kumquats (my personal favorite is Meiwa)
  • Tangelos
  • Clementines


  • Dwarf Alberta spruce
  • Fern pine
  • Juniper
  • Yew pine


  • Canary Island date palm
  • Mediterranean fan palm
  • Phoenix roebelenii (below)
  • Pygmy date palm
  • Pindo palm
  • Sago palm (actually a cycad; poisonous to some pets)
  • Windmill palm

Landscape plants that will do well in pots

  • Acacia (many varieties)
  • Bamboo
  • Bottlebrush
  • Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Crepe myrtle
  • Oleander (poisonous to many pets—and therefore critter-resistant)
  • Pineapple guava
  • Texas mountain laurel


  • Aloe in tree form
  • Elephant’s food
  • Madagascar palm
  • Pencil cactus (sap is toxic)
  • Ponytail palms
  • Spanish dagger (green and variegated)
  • Yucca


I put this in quotes, because houseplants are really tropical plants that people grow inside when living in climates with a true winter. However, in low desert communities where winter temps rarely get below freezing, most plants can live-year round on a protected patio. If an unusually cold spell arises, the plants can be covered or brought inside.

  • Aralia palm
  • Arborea
  • Dracaena
  • Ficus
  • Fig


Shrubs that have been formed to look and act like trees are called standards. Their lower branches are removed to form a trunk. If you want to try forming one on your own, look for a shrub with a single strong center stem.

  • Boxwood
  • Gardenia
  • Hibiscus
  • Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia Mexicana)
  • Myrtles
  • Roses
  • Purple potato bush
  • Yellow bells
  • Duranta family plants (like Tecoma stans; skyflower)
  • Pyracantha

Marylee Pangman is the founder and former owner of The Contained Gardener in Tucson, Ariz. She has become known as the desert’s potted garden expert. Marylee is available for digital consultations, and you can email her with comments and questions at Follow the Potted Desert at

2 replies on “The Potted Desert Garden: Your Patio and Landscape May Be Crying for Trees—Yes, in Pots!”

  1. Great list! Trying to help my niece decufrvupon a few potted plants for her Mesa patio. Do you suggest pots w no drainage or does that become problematic with monsoon season?
    Looking at 3 to 5 pots to fit her budget and ease of care:
    Bottlebrush for height;
    Gardenia for scent and shape
    Perhaps an hibiscus,
    Bird of paradise
    And wondering about bromeliads? Thank you!

  2. Hi! Thanks for finding this post!! The answer is quite extensive and we can engage more if you want to connect with me on Facebook. But in a nutshell:
    Pots always should have drainage holes.
    Plant selection depends on sun exposure.
    Bottlebrush trees don’t do well in pots. Citrus might be a better option.
    Gardenias are shade
    Hibiscus in long morning sun is a good bet in Mesa.
    Which bird of paradise?
    Hope this begins to help!
    Find me on Facebook at Potted Desert.
    Thank you.

Comments are closed.