We’ve had lots of requests for more information on dwarf conifers and it’s easy to see why. 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, and then become 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.
What is a dwarf conifer?
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 is ideal for smaller gardens, the second group better suits larger spaces.
Dwarf conifers offer a long list of design or placement options in the landscape — use them as anchors of ever-changing planting vignettes, vertical elements in a design, large container specimens, groundcovers, and in clusters with other conifers. Here are a few design inspirations we found, and below those, we offer our favorite dwarf conifers divided by Hardiness Zones. If you live in Zones 4–8 you have the largest range of choices, but there’s something amazing for just about everyone.
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4 Ways to Use Dwarf Conifers in the Landscape
Tough, waterwise, and generally unbothered by moderate foot traffic, spreading varieties of dwarf conifers make for excellent groundcovers. The key is to holster the hedge trimmers and let them have it their way. Allowed to tumble, spread, and scramble, they’ll be some of the loveliest, easiest, and least fussy options for softening spaces.
While we’ve seen many fascinating examples of conifer collections where they are isolated and grouped with only other similar plants, for most of us, meshing dwarf conifers with perennials, flowering shrubs, small trees, and grasses will yield the most natural-looking landscape.
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, where they can add height, soften the corner of a house, flank the front door, or frame a pergola, swimming pool, or water feature. Here, you must be vigilant about the eventual mature size. Choose a dwarf conifer that will fit your space.
One of the easiest 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.
A Monrovia exclusive and 2022 Distinctive Selection, this gem of a mugo pine is prized for its ability to stay green throughout the winter. A compact, easy-care, and low-maintenance dwarf conifer. Up to 5' tall and wide. Zones 4-9.
Use: Asian or Zen garden, woodland garden, wildlife garden, mass planting, and perennial borders.
This Colorado Blue Spruce is a Monrovia exclusive and perfect for smaller landscapes. Dense growth habit, pyramidal form, and bright-blue needles make it a beautiful specimen. Slow growing, up to 15' tall and 8' wide. Zones 2-8.
Use: Single specimen, wildlife garden, urban garden, privacy screen.
A true dwarf conifer with a wonderful globe form and bright-green foliage. The billowy, cushion-like shape makes a great accent in a variety of garden types. Slow growing, up to 30" tall and wide. Zones 4–8.
Use: Accent plant, perennial beds, clipped topiary, rock garden.
A Monrovia exclusive with bright, golden-yellow foliage. This unique dwarf cedar offers a bright contrast to darker trees and shrubs. The spreading habit can be trained upright or into a patio tree form. Up to 12' tall and 8' wide. Zones 7–9.
Use: Accent, massed, groundcover, large container specimen.