The call for small is growing ever louder, and that means plants that can fit tiny gardens as well as containers. Perennials are obvious candidates, but there are miniature and dwarf conifers that offer character and year-round interest, as well as a sense of structure. Growing up or growing out, these fascinating plants can lend support or take center stage, and we’ve selected a few to help fill in your inventory and designs.
Abies pinsapo ‘Glauca Prostrata’ (‘Glauca Prostrata’ dwarf blue Spanish fir)
Abies pinsapo ‘Glauca Prostrata’ (‘Glauca Prostrata’ dwarf blue Spanish fir) sports short, tightly packed needles—ranging from medium green to steel-blue—along horizontal branches to create a low-growing, somewhat spreading, very dense shrub. It’s slow growing, reaching about 3 feet tall and up to 6 to 10 feet wide in about 10 years, making it an excellent choice for groundcover use. It’s stunning when planted as a specimen in a rock or border garden, too.
‘Glauca Prostrata’ requires full sun and prefers a regular watering, but will tolerate dry locations once it’s established.
Hardy in zones 6 to 8.
Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’ (‘Gold Cone’ juniper)
Juniperus communis ‘Gold Cone’ (‘Gold Cone’ common juniper) stands proud at 3 to 5 feet tall and spreading to about 3 feet at maturity, making it an excellent choice for smaller gardens or container plantings. But it’s the beautiful, yellow-tipped, newgrowth foliage that makes this selection really shine. It emerges in spring but remains with good color retention into early fall, turning bluish-green in colder months. Easily grown with a wide range of soil tolerance (including challenging soils), it’s best in full sun.
Hardy in zones 5 to 7.
Small sizes, ACS style
The American Conifer Society long ago established four plant size categories, which are based on the average growth characteristics of a plant over a 10-year period. Although individual sizes will vary according to cultural and climatic conditions, as well as hardiness zone and geographic location, the general specifications apply.
Conifers are categorized as miniature, dwarf, intermediate and large, and the specifications are indicated both in average growth per year and approximate size at 10 years. In addition, the 10-year size refers to “growth in any direction.”
Miniature conifers grow less than 1 inch per year, reaching an approximate 10-year size of 1 foot.
Dwarf conifers grow more than 1 inch and less than 2.5 inches per year; 10-year size is approximately 1 foot to 6 feet.
Intermediate conifers grow 6 to 12 inches per year; 10-year size is approximately 6 to 15 feet.
Large conifers grow more than 12 inches per year; 10-year size is more than 15 feet.
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ (‘Blue Chip’ juniper)
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Chip’ (‘Blue Chip’ creeping juniper’) can be used as the “spiller” in a combo container, lending its prostrate habit and outstanding blue color to highlight other plants or to command attention itself. But growing only as high as 10 inches and spreading as much as 10 feet, it’s ideal for use as a hardy, low-maintenance groundcover in full-sun locations. It needs little water, and although it adapts to broad range of soils, it prefers sandy, rather dry soil. It’s a tough plant that’s a good choice for urban sites.
Hardy in zones 3 to 9.
Larix (larch), unlike other conifers, drops its needles in the colder months, and these selections offer a different year-round interest that includes often colorful and highly textured, exposed bark. There are a number of dwarf varieties that fit into smaller, urban—or merely limited—sites, including the shrubby, low-growing Larix kaempferi ‘Wolterdingen’ (‘Wolterdingen’ Japanese larch), with its light green to blue-green needles that turn rich gold in fall, as well as L. laricina ‘Deborah Waxman’, which forms a petite pyramid shape up to about 3 to 4 feet tall in 10 years.
Most little larches perform well in full sun and are robustly hardy in zones ranging from 2 to 8.
Picea abies ‘Little Gem’ (‘Little Gem’ Norway spruce; seen here in tree form)
Picea abies ‘Little Gem’ (‘Little Gem’ Norway spruce), a dwarf form of the larger Norway spruce, is at home in rock gardens and containers or used as a focal point in a mixed garden. It’s among the smallest of the dwarf Norway spruce selections and is a sport of its cousin, P. abies ‘Nidiformis’ (bird’s nest spruce; see right). Growing only about 3 inches per year, it generally tops out at about 12 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches wide, but may grow a bit larger in exceptionally friendly conditions. ‘Little Gem’ naturally maintains a neat, globose, somewhat flat-topped habit and does not require much maintenance to keep its shape; it’s often grown and sold as a standard.
Hardy in zones 2 to 8.
Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’ (bird’s nest spruce)
Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’ (bird’s nest spruce) offers reliable, light-to-medium-green foliage on sturdy, spreading branches that often nod slightly at the tips. It forms a mounding shrub to about 3 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet wide, and is well-suited to containers as well as rock gardens. A fullsun site is best.
Hardy in zones 3 to 7.
Pinus mugo ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ (‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ mugo pine)
Pinus mugo ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ (‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ mugo pine) displays its needles in a beautiful, clear green throughout spring and summer before turning deep gold with colder temperatures, and both colors are prized in the landscape. Full sun brings out both dramatic hues, and the plant needs only occasional watering once it’s had a chance to establish its root system. Slow growing to 12 to 24 inches tall and just a bit wider, this selection stands out as a focal point in a border or rock garden, and can stop traffic when planted in mass.
Hardy in zones 2 to 7.
Pinus nigra ‘Pierrick Bregeon’ (Brepo® Austrian pine)
Pinus nigra ‘Pierrick Bregeon’ (Brepo® Austrian pine) is a compact, easy-care shrub that’s a great choice for containers, but performs well in a variety of situations, including challenging sites where it will resist such insults as coastal onslaughts or drying winds. This short, dense mound grows only to about 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide, and rarely needs trimming to maintain its neat, spherical shape. P. nigra ‘Pierrick Bregeon’ maintains its rich, medium-green tone yearround— best in full sun—and needs only occasional watering once it has established.
Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
Tsuga canadensis ‘Monjers’ (Golden Duke eastern hemlock)
Tsuga canadensis ‘Monjers’ (Golden Duke™ eastern hemlock), a new selection from Monrovia, promises improved sun tolerance as compared to other gold hemlock varieties and provides rich, glowing golden yellow foliage that stands out in nearly any garden. Wispy, gently arching branches form an upright and pyramidal shape that reaches 6 to 10 feet tall by 2 to 3 feet tall and wide in 10 years. It’s a sport of T. canadensis ‘MonKinn’ (Golden Duchess eastern hemlock), a fellow dwarf conifer that features brilliant gold color throughout the season. Both plants are well-suited to containers and in urban gardens, as well as in woodland settings.
Hardy in zones 4 to 8.