The top ten shrubs for pots


Andy McIndoe
12th November 2012

As ever the summer bedding has hung on a little longer than intended. Or maybe you just didn’t get around to emptying those pots and replanting with winter bedding or spring flowering bulbs? This twice a year ritual can be rather tedious, and for those of us that have suffered a long, cool, wet summer and autumn the motivation to make outdoor pots beautiful can be sadly lacking!

Fullscreen capture 12112012 100138All is not lost. How about planting with shrubs that, with a little care, will look good year after year? The initial outlay may be greater, but in the long run shrubs in pots offer far better value because they last! Of course the ideal scenario is to have the best of both worlds: some pots planted with shrubs, and some that you replant with seasonal subjects such as summer and autumn bedding, and spring and summer flowering bulbs. That way you create a changing picture, but with the benefit of permanent structure. But what works? If you read the labels many shrubs seem to grow too large for pots on the patio? What happens when you need to re-pot them? What soil do you use?

These concerns put many gardeners off planting shrubs in pots, and they stick to safe bets like fuchsias and geraniums for summer, and pansies and primroses for autumn, winter and spring. In reality you can grow just about anything in a pot providing you use a generously sized container and a good quality specially formulated growing medium. If in doubt just remember the art of bonsai; potentially huge forest trees are tamed and restricted in pots and grow in small volumes of soil for many years. That isn’t to say you will be restricting the development of your plants by growing them in pots. If you choose plants and pots wisely you can grow smaller shrubs to their true potential in pots.

So here are my Top Ten Shrubs for pots that will look good throughout the year; even in winter.

Pieris 'Katsura'1. Pieris ‘Katsura’ A fabulous variety with long lily-of-the-valley-like sprays of pink flowers in early spring, followed by mahogany red new growth on the tips of all the shoots. In a pot it will make a bushy plant up to 80cm (2.5ft) in height in a few seasons. Grown in lime-free compost Pieris do very well in containers in shade or semi-shade.

Rhododendron 'Nancy Evans'2. Rhododendron ‘Nancy Evans’ A compact hybrid rhododendron with neat, dark green foliage, orange-red buds and creamy, waxy waved flowers. Dwarf and compact rhododendrons and evergreen azaleas are excellent in pots in semi-shade, again if you grow them in lime-free ericaceous compost.

Leucothoe 'Lovita' 23. Leucothoe ‘Lovita’ A low-growing evergreen with shining, pointed, emerald-green leaves that colour deep scarlet in winter. Again it needs lime-free compost and will tolerate shade, although the colour is more intense where it gets some direct sunlight

Euonymus japonicus 'microphyllus pulchellus' 4. Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus Pulchellus’ This shrub couldn’t be easier to grow. It is a compact evergreen with upright stems carrying deep green small leaves suffused with gold. It is a drought tolerant plant; good in sun or shade and a great choice for coastal gardens as it doesn’t mind salt-laden air.

Camellia 'Jury's Yellow' 2

5. Camellia japonica ‘Jury’s Yellow’ A good choice for those craving flowers from a shrub in a pot. The gorgeous blooms of this variety are the colour of clotted cream, and are filled with delicately waved petals. ‘Jury’s Yellow’ is a compact, upright variety with dark green glossy foliage that is suitable for a small garden or courtyard. Pot in lime free compost.

Buxus sempervirens 'Elegantissima' in pot6. Buxus sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’ Box is a good subject for pots, and is tolerant of shade and dry soil. The plain green-leaved varieties do have a tendency to go bronze in containers, especially when starved. ‘Elegantissima’ is a slow growing shrub with delightful cream and green variegated leaves. It is less susceptible to discolouration and is an excellent long-term subject for a pot in sun or shade.

7.Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ I’m sneaking this one in; yes I know it’s a conifer but that counts as a dwarf shrub. This one has steely blue-grey, curly foliage and a gently waved waved habit. It offers a contrasting foliage form, and can look really stunning in a grey-green glazed pot. Few shrubs look more striking in the winter.

8. Photinia ‘Little Red Robin’ This is not the large growing evergreen shrub with bright red new growth that we are all so familiar with. This is the dwarf form that grows to 90cm (3ft). It has smaller, darker green leaves than its big brother, and deep scarlet new growth. The more it is snipped, the more new growth it produces, so the more colourful it is! It retains the red new growth right through winter.

9. Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ Another dwarf form of a large growing shrub; this one has deep purple-black foliage that is particularly striking in winter. As the days get shorter and colder the colour intensifies. It is a broad, stocky plant in stature, so choose a nice big container.

10. Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ This is the best of the skimmias in my opinion. A domed shaped shrub with emerald green foliage and pale yellow-green buds that open to creamy yellow flowers in spring. The fragrance is simply delicious: pure lily-of-the-valley. Lovely for cutting too which can keep the shrub in shape.

For general planting I always recommend using a loam-based compost for permanent planting in pots. Remember to use a lime-free formula for ericaceous, lime-hating subjects such as rhododendrons and camellias. Always choose a nice large, good-quality pot at the outset; that way repotting should not be necessary for a few years. All you need to remember each spring is to scrape off the top two or three centimetres of compost, add a handful of controlled release fertiliser and top up with fresh compost.

When choosing your container, a traditional flowerpot shape, in other words wider at the top than the bottom and without an incurved rim is the best bet. A pot which narrows at the neck makes it difficult to extract an established plant when you do have to repot.

So what are your top recommendations for shrubs for pots? I would love to know what’s done well for you, and so would other readers.


I have to re pot my two pittisporums! could you give me some advice on pots! plastic or terracotta , soil etc.

Mrs G. Baynes on 18th April 2014

    Hi There – I would use a loam based compost (John Innes No. 3 if you are in the UK.) I always prefer good sized terracotta or glazed ceramic pots – they look so much better. Choose traditional flowerpot shapes to make repotting easier and use a controlled release fertiliser.
    Best wishes

    Andrew McIndoe on 20th April 2014

So, these are plants that I can leave outside during the winter? I have 4 large (like 2′ in diameter) cedar pots that are in direct afternoon sunlight and exposed to elements in the winter. I’d like to plant some perennials in them, but am afraid of the exposure in the winter. I live in south central Wisconsin. Which, if any, of these would do well? Any other suggestions? I thought of maybe just some grasses in the middle then planting annual bulbs before I came across this site. Thank you!

Ann on 28th May 2014

    Hi Ann I think you are Zone 5 which is pretty cold in the winter – not great for broad-leaved evergreens. The conifer and the berberis would be fine. The latter is deciduous. Of the others I think the Buxus will be OK and the dwarf Rhododendron ‘Scarlet Wonder’ is very hardy – you could protest with somehorticultual fleece in the winter. Obviously this is just a selection – there are plenty more The short Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’ would be good – very hardy and looks good all year. Best wishes Andy

    Andy McIndoe on 28th May 2014

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Larhonda on 10th February 2015

We are currently shopping for a good sized desk for the office.
Just not sure if I should buy a standard one or
to find one which is more bespoke with the rest of our drop leaf table.

drop leaf table on 25th February 2015

I have 2 large terracotta pots at the front of my house
I have over the last 4-5 years had 2 camellias – 1 died the other successfully planted in the garden and now very healthy followed by 2 rhododendrons also where 1 flourished and 1 poorly – now also both planted in the garden

I am therefore looking for 2 replacements – all colour year around / evergreen and bushy so they look substantial. I have seen your top 10 suggestions but can you point me in a particular direction please

thank you

simon Jackson on 06th April 2015

    Hi Simon
    Apologies for delay in answering your question. For this sort of situation I always favour pittosporum: small shining leaves, dark stems and a nice bushy habit. Good looks all year round. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’ or Pittosprum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’ would both be good choices. Avoid ‘Garnetii’ it is too open in habit. Use a growing medium with plenty of loam – this holds water and nutrients more efficiently (I suspect one of your camellias and rhodos got dry at the roots – maybe one side gets more sun?). You can trim the pittosporums or allow them to grow naturally. Hope this helps Andy

    Andy McIndoe on 09th April 2015