We’ve had lots of requests for more information on dwarf conifers and it’s easy to see why. As landscapes are getting smaller and gardeners have less time to care for them, these naturally smaller plants are taking a larger role. They look great year round, come in all kinds of shapes, forms, and colors, many are water-wise once established, and most thrive in extreme climates. However, the real reason we love them is the way they provide strong structure and play well with floriferous bounty during the growing season, becoming stars in their own right during the winter. Speaking of winter, conifers provide important shelter and food for birds and many small mammals who nest within during the coldest months.
Dwarf conifers can serve as versatile plants regardless of how much space you have. Selecting and designing with these plants is all about intent. Do you want a “collection” of conifers, each one an architecturally fascinating creature—weepers, twisted growers, bonsai-like specimens—that you site in a place of honor as a statement (or curiosity!), or are you looking to add texture to mixed plantings? Keep in mind how conifers combine with their surroundings, and you’ll be off to a great start.
Five key ways to use them are as anchors of ever-changing planting vignettes, as vertical elements in a design, in large containers, as groundcovers, and in clusters with other dwarf conifers. Here are a few inspirations we found, and below, a group of our favorite dwarf conifers divided by zones. If you live in zones 4 – 8 you have the largest range of choices, but there’s something amazing for just about every zone!
Questions or need specific plant advice? Leave a message in the comments section!
While “dwarf” is usually defined by its mature size, the term often applies to rate of growth as well. True dwarf conifers range from two to six feet at maturity, putting on three to six inches annually, while others also considered “dwarf” reach six to fifteen feet but only grow six to twelve inches in a year. The first are ideal for smaller gardens, the second group better suit larger spaces.
Tough, waterwise and generally unbothered by moderate foot traffic, spreading varieties of dwarf conifers make for excellent groundcovers. The key is to holster the edge trimmers and let them have it their way. Allowed to tumble, spread, and scramble, they’ll be some of loveliest, easiest, and least fussy options for softening spaces.
While we’ve seen many fascinating examples of conifer collections where these plants are largely isolated and grouped with only other similar plants, for most of us, meshing dwarf conifers with perennials, flowering shrubs and grasses will yield the most natural looking landscape. We love this bordering-on-wild mix of spruce and pine with hydrangea, Japanese maple, and perennials such as rudbeckia and Russian sage.
In addition to the low-growing, spreading types, other dwarf conifers are more upright and add vertical punctuation to a small landscape. These are especially useful in larger borders, but also to add height and also soften the corner of a house, flank the front door, or frame a pergola, swimming pool, or water feature. This is where you must be vigilant about the eventual mature size. Don’t the ones who have to prune your conifers into submission, thereby ruining their inherent graceful shape!
One of the easiest, do it this weekend and it’ll look great, ways to use dwarf conifers is in containers. Conifers aren’t fiddly creatures, but they do like well-drained soil so be sure that whatever you pair with them is compatible. The best thing about using dwarf conifers as the anchor for a container planting is that when winter comes and all else withers, they’ll still look fabulous.
Zones 2 - 6
Prized for it’s bright-blue foliage that holds its color all winter. Globe-shaped and densely branched. Slow, eventually reaching up 5 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide. Zone: 2 – 8
Use: As a specimen or pruned into a standard for containers.
Useful form with rich blue-green needles on dense, horizontal branches. Takes well to pruning and shaping. Slow, up to 6 ft. tall and wide. Zone: 2 – 7
Use: Rock garden, courtyard, coastal, windy conditions.
Rugged, water-wise, with finely textured, deep green foliage; seldom needs pruning. Slow, reaches up to 2 ft. tall and wide in 10 year; to 3 ft. at maturity. Zone: 2 – 8
Use: Specimen, urban, alpine or rock garden.
Short, glossy green needles are tinged bluish white on the underside; forms a dense, globe-shaped mound. Slow, reaches up to 8 ft. tall and wide in 10 years. Zone: 4 – 7
Use: Accent specimen, hedge or tall border, patio tree.
Striking blue, soft needles; grows into a dense, pyramidal form. Slow, up to 4 ft. tall in 10 years; eventually up to 8 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide. Zone: 3 – 7
Use: Containers, rock gardens or flowering borders.
Pyramidal form, perfect for smaller gardens. Foliage matures to an attractive gray-green. Slow, reaches up to 6 ft. tall, 2 ft. wide. Zone: 3 – 8
Use: Accent, small specimen, topiary, container planting.
Dwarf evergreen with wonderful globe, cushion shaped form and bright-green foliage. Slow reaches up to 30 in. tall and wide. Zone: 4 – 8
Use: beds, clipped topiary, rock garden.
Zones 7 - 10
An exclusive new introduction with bright, golden-yellow foliage. Spreading habit may be trained into upright or patio tree forms.Reaches 5 to 12 ft. tall in normal form, spreading 6-8 ft. wide in 10 years. Zone: 7 – 9
Use: Accent, massed, groundcover, large container specimen.
Uniform and densely-branched upright form with brighter, silvery blue-green needles. Slow, uniform shrub or small tree 7 to 8 ft. tall, 3 to 4 ft. wide. Zone: 4 – 9
Use: Handsome specimen, windbreak, container.
Versatile, dwarf, globe-shaped with bright emerald green foliage that turns bluish- green in winter. Moderate reaches up to 2 ft. tall and wide. Zone: 4 – 8
Use: Borders, foundation plantings, specimen, hedge.
Gold-standard for dense, water-wise groundcover. Winter color has a purple tint. Reaches up to 1 ft. tall, 6 ft. wide. Zone: 4 – 9
Use: Rocky slope, water features, city gardens.
Unusual, sculptural, compact, upright form with short bluish green/ gray needles. Slow, up to 10 ft. tall, 5 ft. wide in 10 years. Zone: 4 – 9
Use: Bonsai, container, landscape specimen.
Globe-shaped with golden, spring foliage and deep-red fall color. Slow, reaches up to 2 ft. tall and wide in 10 years; 4 ft. at maturity. Zone: 5 – 8
Use: Massing, rock, native garden.
Dramatic, weeping habit with a sprawling horizontal form; often trained into upright, serpentine form. Slow, spreading up to 20 ft. wide. Zone: 6 – 9
Use: Specimen, groundcover, container.
Caring for Conifers
Dwarf conifers come in an amazing array of exciting colors, snazzy shapes and diverse textures. And,they’re pretty easy-going too.
- Prefer slightly acidic soil. Pays to do a simple soil test, adding amendments such as peat or acid- planting mix as needed.
- Most are not fussy about soil but generally they do not like wet soils; provide good drainage.
- Conifers have varying degrees of tolerance for salt and wind; if you need advice, please consult your local garden center for guidance.
- Fall is the best time to plant; be sure to WATER WELL after planting even in fall, especially where drought in an issue.
- Not heavy feeders, conifers prefer an annual meal of peat, compose, or well-aged manure.
- Prune only as needed. Here is a good article for guidance.