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.
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.