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Evergreen conifers are invaluable to gardens throughout the year, thanks to their ever-present color, texture and form. In winter, they’re the sparks of light in a bleak landscape.
Conifers belong to a number of different genera from varied environments around the world, and so they have differing requirements and capabilities. However, most garden conifers share a need for good drainage and air circulation. Many also prefer cool summers over the heat and humidity of the South (but there are exceptions to every rule!).
Here are a dozen options among garden conifers, each with distinctive characteristics that suit them to various roles and sites in the garden.
CUTE AND COMPACT: DWARF CONIFERS
Dwarf conifers grow slowly, and it may take 10 years for one to attain the size listed in the following descriptions. A sloth-like growth rate offers an advantage to us gardeners, however. These plants won’t quickly overtake and shade out their companions, and when paired with shorter-lived perennials, dwarf conifers can adapt through several iterations of an evolving garden design.
1. ‘Blue Star’ singleseed juniper
Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’. Introduced in 1964, this cultivar is easy to find. It owes its continued and widespread popularity to its good looks and undemanding nature. This juniper has tiny, silvery blue overlapping needles that cover its dense branches. It forms a low, undulating, irregular mound that can be two to three feet tall and nearly twice as wide. Its shape makes it useful as a low filler and its color pairs well with any companion. For quicker coverage, plant several ‘Blue Star’ close together. It needs full sun and grows best with regular water, but it can withstand some drought. It is also reportedly deer resistant. USDA Zones 4–8.
'Blue Star' juniper image by Drew Avery/CC BY 2.0
2. Dwarf balsam fir
Abies balsamea ‘Nana’. Like ‘Blue Star’ juniper, this petite balsam fir is a popular and fairly easily sourced plant. A selection of a species native across northern North America, ‘Nana’ was first described in the mid-1800s. Some references claim it and ‘Hudsonia’, a dwarf fir collected in New Hampshire’s White Mountains in the early 1800s, are one and the same plant. However, the American Conifer Society notes a difference in the needle arrangement. ‘Nana’ possesses a distinctively bristle-brush appearance because the needles sprout all around each stem, while other balsam firs hold their needles on just two sides of the stem.
‘Nana’ slowly grows to two or three feet tall and wide, with a rounded shape formed by dense branching. Fresh growth shows a lighter green color that stands out against older stems. Provide full sun and even moisture. Zones 3–6.
Dwarf balsam fir image by balakc/CC BY-SA 2.0
3. ‘Jeddeloh’ Canadian hemlock
Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’. Several features combine to give this dwarf hemlock an overall delicate look. Chief among them are the fine-textured, small and short, light green needles. These cover slim branches that travel horizontally then gently cascade. Overall, the shrub makes an elegant low hassock about two to three feet tall and three to four feet wide, often with a slight depression at the center.
A selection of a North American species, ‘Jeddeloh’ was found at a German nursery in 1950. It prefers a spot in part sun to shade, protected from drying winter winds. This plant cannot cope well with hot sun or humidity; this fact and the prevalence of the insect hemlock wooly adelgid rules it out for most Southern gardens. Northern gardeners should keep vigilant for this pest as mild winters may be increasing its range. Zones 4–7.
'Jeddeloh' hemlock image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
4. ‘Linesville’ arborvitae
Thuja occidentalis ‘Linesville’. Here’s an adaptable alternative to dwarf Canadian hemlock, although it needs full sun. ‘Linesville’ is a unique arborvitae with thready foliage that gives a shaggy texture to its perfectly round, 30-inch form. First found in the 1980s by nurseryman Joe Stupka in a Linesville, Pa., cemetery, it’s also sold as Mr. Bowling Ball or ‘Bobozam’ today. Plant it in full sun, out of winter winds, and provide regular moisture. Zones 3–8.
'Linesville' arborvitae image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
5. Weeping Colorado blue spruce
Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’. The Colorado spruce is an upright tree native to the mountains of the Interior West. Its cultivar ‘Procumbens’ boasts a vastly different size and shape. This groundhugging plant grows just a foot or two tall and it can cover an area up to eight feet wide. It has stiff, dusky blue needles on rigid branches that poke in every direction to clamber—slowly—across a bed. This colorful evergreen looks particularly effective tumbling (again, slowly) over a retaining wall or draping over accent stones. Plant it in full to partial sun. Once established, it can tolerate drought. Zones 2–8.
Weeping blue spruce image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
6. ‘Sherwood Compact’ mugo pine
Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’. Mugo pines tend to look compact in their nursery pots, only to reveal their true burly selves after several years in the garden, when they’ve shaded and elbowed out their neighbors. ‘Sherwood Compact’ is a true dwarf mugo that slowly makes a mound three feet tall and four feet wide, with no need for pruning. Its branches possess the stiff, upright posture of the larger cultivars and its needles provide the expected glossy, deep green color. However everything is scaled down on this reliable, uniform selection, which dates to the 1950s. Provide full to part sun and moderate watering. Zones 2–7.
'Sherwood Compact' mugo image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
BIG AND TALL: FULL-SIZE CONIFERS
As adorable as dwarf conifers may be, some garden spaces call for a hulking evergreen to provide a mass of vibrancy—and wildlife shelter—through the winter. Upright, triangular trees can anchor a garden bed in winter and beyond; when cloaked in eye-catching color they’re even more effective.
7. ‘Bush’s Lace’ Engelmann spruce
Picea engelmannii ‘Bush’s Lace’. This is a cultivar of a spruce species native to the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges of western North America. ‘Bush’s Lace’ stands out with its pale blue needles that line its elegantly drooping branches. It grows fairly quickly and can reach 25 feet tall and just 6 feet wide, making it a contender for use as a vertical element in a narrow garden space. Provide full sun to part shade and even moisture. Like most spruces, this tree performs best in the cooler reaches of its range. Zones 3–8.
'Bush's Lace' spruce image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
8. ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ Korean fir
Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’. This plant can often be found for sale under the name ‘Silberlocke’ despite the full name registered in 1979 by German conifer specialist Gunther Horstmann. The word silberlocke means “silver locks of hair,” a reference to the color and position of this fir’s needles. While many conifers possess stiff, straight foliage, the needles of ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ curl upward. In so doing they reveal brilliant silver undersides. The branches of this tree stand upright to further show off this coloration.
A slow grower, this Korean fir will eventually become a small, broad pyramidal tree to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It grows in full sun or part shade and needs moderate moisture. Zones 5–8.
'Horstmann's Silberlocke' fir image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
9. Soft Serve falsecypress
Chamaecyparis pisifera Soft Serve (‘Dow Whiting’). Falsecypress are much admired for their highly textural foliage, which this cultivar provides in a rich medium-green color that contrasts well with its rusty brown bark. It’s an upright, narrow tree that creates a cone shape to about 12 feet tall with a similar width at the bast. The branches are strongly horizontal for a tiered effect, and the plume-like foliage makes them lush and soft looking. This tree is a good choice for an accent where a dwarf Alberta spruce or tightly clipped yew would look too formal and fussy. A row of Soft Serve falsecypress can make a rustic year-round screen. Plant this tree in full to part sun and moist soil. It has some resistance to deer, but harsh winter winds can dry out its foliage. Zones 4–8.
Soft Serve falsecypress image courtesy of Proven Winners
10. Weeping Norway spruce
Picea abies ‘Pendula’. Many conifers would look at home in a Dr. Seuss story, and weeping Norway spruce is a familiar representative. Usually it’s trained to grow with one central leader, a stem staked to the desired height, with the branches then weeping down. This is a plant that evokes strong opinions. The right setting helps its case as a worthy specimen. The versions growing in the parking lot of the local pharmacy can look tortured and bizarre, but they would make magic in a naturalistic garden with Japanese maples and some of the aforementioned dwarf conifers as companions.
‘Pendula’ Norway spruce can also be left untrained, in which case it will behave as a lumpy sort-of groundcover reaching three feet tall at points and spreading to ten feet wide. In addition to an imaginative gardener, this plant needs full to part sun and moderate to low water. Zones 2–8.
Weeping Norway spruce image by F. D. Richards/CC BY-SA 2.0
11. ‘Louie’ golden white pine
Pinus strobus ‘Louie’. Found as a seedling growing in Vermont in the early 1990s, this tree is considered by many to be the best of the yellow-leaved versions of the native eastern white pine. Its soft-textured needles shine a brilliant gold color in the winter. In summer, they are paler but still yellow. The needles toward the interior of this conical tree tend to look more green, which provides good contrast for the bright color at the branch tips. They also makes the case for providing ‘Louie’ with full sun—those interior needles are green because they are shaded by the tree’s own branches. Maintain the gold at the branch tips by ensuring they remain in the sun.
This tree is a fairly fast grower and it has the potential to become large, like the species. To keep it more compact, tip prune it annually once growth begins in spring: Pinch back the candles (new growth at the tips of the branches) as they expand, snipping each candle back by a third or a half of its length. This plant can take some drought once established, but in its prime position of full sun it may need supplemental water. Zones 4–8.
'Louie' pine image by Mark Bolin/CC BY-SA 2.0
For more advice on choosing, siting, combining and caring for conifers, I recommend the classic book Gardening With Conifers by Adrian Bloom.