An oak has self seeded in our garden. Has got to about a metre tall and seems happy. We don't have anywhere near enough space for an oak but seems a shame to kill it. Can we move it to a pot to keep it dwarf?

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    have you considered giving away (for free) such a fine (naturally big) tree, so that it can be planted in the ground with the space it needs, thus giving it the opportunity to reach its full potential?
    – Mike Perry
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 20:30
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    We have considered giving it away and some friends near a field that they think we could plant in. Since the tree could live 500 years I don't want to kill it just because it was unlucky enough to land in our tiny garden! Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 9:05
  • +1 for what it's worth, I think that would be a much better option to take.
    – Mike Perry
    Commented Jul 25, 2011 at 16:56
  • If it were me, I would take the tree out of the ground and soak the roots in water for some days, and then repot it. That may help to remove or reduce transplant shock. However, I've never tried it with an oak tree; so, it's just an idea, and not a real answer. Commented Jul 18, 2015 at 10:08

4 Answers 4


Oak trees are well suited to bonsai, but that is not your biggest problem here.

You have two main problems: getting that thing out of the ground with its root system in tact and secondly getting it to survive once it comes out of the ground.

Getting the tree out of the ground, even though it appears small isn't an easy task. I can't find a reliable source right now, but you will need to dig a circle with a diameter the same size as the height of the tree and you will likely need to dig at least the same length deep. Young trees usually have one long main root and if you damage that your chances of the tree surviving are slim.

Professional bonsai growers who grow their own trees in the ground usually wait for a rainy day to dig out the plant so the ground is soft and the clinging soil doesn't pull so hard at the roots.

If you are not purchasing nursery stock to "bonsai" then you need to acclimatize the plant to living outside of the ground for 1 - 2 years before putting it in a small pot where it will be restricted in terms of moisture and the size of its root system. So initially you will need to put it in quite a large pot with plenty of soil.

Make sure you keep the soil well watered at least for the first 3 - 6 months. As the soil in the ground is kept moist and protected from the sun, but inside your pot it can dry out easily and the plant doesn't have the breadth and depth of a root system of trees in the ground.

Lastly I'd like to say that this is not an easy task, it actually requires practice and has a low success rate as small trees are not hardy. Our neighbours have a sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) that provides us with around 30 small trees a year, but only about one a year ever survives past 6 months and that's keeping it in the ground.

I've tried this several times myself, but in the end, I can with much less effort buy a year old, acclimatized bonsai starter for $3 from my local bonsai nursery. It's not worth the sweat and strain just to see your treasure drop its leaves after 2 weeks and die. The same thing is likely to happen in the ground anyway.

  • I don't agree with most of this post. Spring is the best time to dig up a tree and pot it. If anything now would be a good time to do as this post suggests and dig a circle around the tree. This cuts long roots and encourage thin fine roots near the tree. You can and should cut the tap root of the tree when putting into a pot. It's true it may take a few years to reduce the root ball size to a bonsai sized pot. Pots can dry out, but a bigger problem will be too much water and root rot. That's why bonsai trees have special fast draining soil, not potting soil.
    – nportelli
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 13:58

I dug an oak up 5 years ago and placed it in a gallon size container and have had much success keeping it at its original height (2 feet tall for 5 years). This spring I took it out of the one gallon container, trimmed 1/3 of the root ball off, and placed it in a larger 5 gallon container. One month later and we have leaves! Relieved that it took to the new container I will not trim any new shoots until fall. My goal is to keep it under 4 feet tall with a huge trunk. So far, so good! It has gone from a small sapling to a large trunk tree that is still 2 feet tall.

  • Welcome to G&L.SO . Thanks for your answer showing your experience. If you have a question however, it is much more likely you getting an answer using the "ask question"-item from the top menu.
    – Patrick B.
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 6:10
  • As a deciduous tree you can also just chop the trunk at a desired height and it will shoot forth tons of new shoots. You then can select a new leader and train it upright.
    – nportelli
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 14:00

Oaks do take to bonsai. Two sources I've found are here and here.

Of course I also checked with a local bonsai expert to make sure that I would be able to do it "right" without hurting the 6 inch high self-started seedling. If I had been told I couldn't do it without killing it, I would have planted it at the edge of a neighbor's field - with permission, of course. So far, so good.


I'm no bonsai expert, as basically that is what you are talking about, when artificially keeping a tree small (via various pruning methods).

As far as I'm aware, nearly all tress can be used in the practice of bonsai. That's not to say, it's a good idea. Certain types, even particular variates within the same family of trees, adapt, respond much better than others, and quite simply look a lot better when subjected to the art/craft of bonsai.

I might be stating the obvious here, but simply putting such a tree (oak in your case) into a pot and watering it, doesn't mean you've finished and therefore get to sit back and enjoy your potted tree.

Yes you can put an oak tree in a pot, when doing so it would probably be best to remove it's tap root. Will it survive? That will greatly depend on how well you look after it, once its been potted up.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Is it the right thing to do? Only you can answer that.

  • Is it (really) the right type of tree to put into a pot? Personally, I don't think it is.

  • It will need a lot of careful and skillful attention, especially as you train the tree to remain artificially small eg

    • Roots trimmed regularly.

    • Branches trimmed regularly.

    • Branches trimmed, shaped, so you end up with a perfectly scaled down version of a full size tree, or as near as you can possibly get.

Please note, I am not trying to put you off doing it, giving it a go, like they say, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained".

What I am trying to do, is make you aware of some of the work you would have ahead of you if you did decide to give it a go.


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