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Several years ago I noticed a neighborhood garden that looked pristine, vibrant and interesting even in January. It crucial ingredients were a diverse range of small conifers that contributed winter interest, structure and contrast. They were also low maintenance and elegant. Soon I noticed other nearby gardens using dwarf evergreen shrubs to the same effect—new options seemed to be everywhere.
With the guidance of these gardens’ owners, I began planting well-behaved dwarf evergreen shrubs that stay less than three feet tall. Here are some favorites that easily melded into my established garden:
Dwarf balsam fir (Abies balsamea ‘Nana’; USDA Zones 3–9; shown): It gets to three feet tall and at least as wide (after 20 years—like a number of the small and dwarf conifers, this fir grows slowly). It requires only reasonably watered soil and sunshine.
Cascading Siberian cypress (Micobiota decussata; Zones 3–8): Its soft, feathery foliage looks a perky green much of the year and evolves to a stunning purple-bronze for the winter. Reaching just 12 to 18 inches high, this cypress softens the rigidity of a wall while tying together the plantings above and below it. It tolerates shade, too—a trait uncommon for conifers and needed for many front gardens.
Low-growing eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate’; Zones 4–9): It is as at ease weaving its way through a rockery as it is cascading over a wall.
Dwarf eastern white pine (Pinus strobus Nana Group; Zones 3–9): These boast an abundance of exquisite blue-gray needles. Happy in full sun or a bit of shade, this pine makes a highly amenable neighbor that can perform a range of roles.
Dwarf singleseed juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’; Zones 4–9): If you love soft gray foliage, plant this. Its silvery needles also tolerate extreme drought.
Dwarf Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’; Zones 5–9): This cheery pine, so blue that it glistens, produces cones surprisingly early, and these look great in contrast with adjacent ornamental grasses. The only caveat here is to ensure this pine avoids clay and standing water.
Dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’; Zones 4–9): It is shaped like a miniature Christmas tree, but it offers wonderful branchlets that look like twisted fans, arranged in tiers so they create tiny cups. It prefers good sun or light shade, and it grows very slowly.
Noah’s Ark juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’; Zones 2–9): Dense, greenish-blue foliage. Growing very slowly to three feet tall and six inches wide, it stands quiet and steady, perfect in full sun and seemingly resistant to juniper problems.
Dwarf deciduous Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi ‘Dwarf Blue’; Zones 4–9): It sprouts soft, pale green needles in the spring that turn blue in the summer and then become a golden hue before they drop. (Yes, it is a deciduous conifer.) It reaches two feet tall and three feet wide in ten years and it prefers good sun and good moisture.
Dwarf Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Gentsch White’; Zones 3–8): This looks ghostly with its silvery white needle tips. It grows to 3 feet high and 4 feet wide in 15 to 20 years, and reputedly bigger at 30 years.
Recommended reading: Learn to choose, care for and design with conifers in Adrian Bloom’s superb classic, Gardening With Conifers.