By Larry Hodgson
Gardeners are often so focused on flowers that we sometimes forget there are other plants of interest on the planet … like conifers. No, evergreens don’t offer very striking blooms (they’re usually so inconspicuous they go unnoticed!), but their foliage is beautiful all year round, creating an effect that lasts much longer than the best flowering plants.
You can grow conifers in the ground, of course, but more and more gardeners are growing them in pots. Not tree-size conifers (can you even imagine the pot size you would need for a 100 ft/30 m tall Norway spruce [Picea abies]!), but rather miniature conifers. Like dwarf conifers, only even smaller. You can grow them together in a container and thus create a miniature 4-season garden that could go on the balcony, patio, front stoop or even on a table.
Of course, in snowy regions like mine, where miniature conifers disappear under the snow in the winter, the effect might be more 3-season than 4-season, but at least your miniature conifer container garden will be attractive as soon as the snow melts in the spring and will remain so until the snow returns in late fall.
Interestingly, although most gardening techniques tend to be limited to a single season, you can prepare a miniature conifer container garden almost any time, whether in spring, summer or fall. You get to choose!
Gathering the Materials
First you need a container.
The shape is of little importance, as long as it’s big enough to hold 3 or 4 plants, but it must have at least one drainage hole and also, to be able to withstand winter conditions (terra cotta and ceramic won’t), because your little container garden will be staying outside all year round.
Trough gardens are very popular with container gardeners. You might still find a trough actually made of stone (they were originally stone watering troughs or stone sinks converted to garden use), but these days, trough gardens are almost always made of hypertufa, a kind of imitation stone.
Of course, a trough garden is just one of the possibilities. You can also use pots made of plastic, fiberglass, concrete and much more. Dig around in your attic or basement—you may have exactly what you need already on hand.
You also need potting soil. Avoid actual garden soil, which is usually too compact for container gardening, but most potting mixes—which are light, rich in humus and well aerated—work perfectly well. And have a slow-release all-purpose fertilizer on hand.
Where to Find Plants?
As for plants, pretty much every garden center offers a certain choice of conifers, but some have better collections of miniature ones than others. It’s up to you to discover, by visiting those in your region, which offer the greatest variety. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a specialist conifer nursery in your region: they’re likely to have the widest range of choice of all!
You’ll quickly discover that miniature conifers come in a huge range of shapes (globular, erect, conical, creeping, drooping, etc.) and colors (all shades of green, plus blue, gray and yellow). And their texture varies wildly, too: some evergreens are soft and mossy, others stiff and prickly, and others have fanlike foliage. Among the choices are spruces (Picea spp.), thuyas (Thuja occidentalis cvs), junipers (Juniperus spp.), false cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.), hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis cvs) and many more.
Even if a miniature conifer container garden is, by definition, designed for conifers, there’s no law that says you can’t add other small perennials or succulents (sedums, houseleeks, creeping thyme, for example) to the mix, as long as the plants you include appreciate the same conditions as conifers and usually that means full sun or partial shade and a well-drained soil that is always kept at least a bit moist by careful watering.
When choosing plants, be sure to pick varieties that are adapted to your local climate and therefore it helps to know both your hardiness zone and that of the plant. Ideally, you’d choose plants suitable for an even colder hardiness zone than yours, because in pots, the cold penetrates more deeply than it does in the ground. So, if you live in zone 6, for example, prefer plants from zones 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5; if you live in zone 6, try plants of zones 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, etc.
Finally, you can also add ornamental rocks, pebbles, moss, driftwood, twisted branches or other decorations, as long as their size is proportionate to that of the container. You’ll be trying to recreate a mini-landscape, so all the plants and parts have to “fit.”
Planting Your Container Garden
Water the plants the day before, if possible: they will be easier to remove from their pot.
On planting day, place the plants, pot and other materials on a table or work bench. Set the pot in front of you and place a sheet of paper towel or newspaper—or a coffee filter—on the bottom, over the drainage hole(s). That will let any excess water drain out without allowing the potting mix to flow out as well. There is no need to add a drainage layer of gravel or pot shards to the bottom of the pot and, in fact, that will likely give you poorer results.
Now, fill the bottom of the pot with a layer of potting soil, enough so that the plants will be at the level you need, that is, a bit lower than the lip of the container. Now set the plants, still in their original pot, on the soil and experiment with placement: moving them about until you like the effect.
Next unpot each plant and place its root ball in the designated spot. Fill in the gaps with potting soil and tamp down somewhat with your hand to solidify the planting. At this point, you can add a few spoonfuls of all-purpose fertilizer (following the instructions on the package) and mix it into the potting soil. Finish the planting process by watering thoroughly.
It’s time to add the decorative elements—stones, gravel, moss, etc.—needed to complete your miniature landscape, then place your new garden in a sunny spot (partial shade is also acceptable) on a deck, patio, balcony, table or other flat surface.
And you’re done!
Preparing a miniature conifer container garden isn’t any more complicated than that!
Maintaining a container garden couldn’t be easier! Essentially, the only care you’ll need from spring to fall, other than placing it in a sunny (ideal) to partially sunny (acceptable) spot, is a yearly application of slow-release fertilizer in spring and regularly waterings from spring through fall.
And careful watering is the key to success. Plants in containers dry out more quickly than those grown in the garden, so get into the habit of sticking a finger into the potting soil every 3 or 4 days (if it’s a shallow pot) or weekly (if it’s deep container). If it feels dry to the touch, water well, soaking the root ball until a bit of excess water drips out of the drainage hole or holes. Repeat this throughout the season until the soil freezes.
You can stop for the winter in cold climates, at least while the soil is frozen. In mild ones, where the potting mix doesn’t freeze, you’ll need to keep an eye on watering throughout the year, but frequency will likely drop considerably in cold weather.
If you’ve limited yourself to plants that will be winter hardy in your region, you can simply leave the container garden where it is during the winter: it and its inhabitants will be fine. However, if you took a risk and included a few less hardy plants, consider moving it to a protected spot, such as up against the foundations of a house or building, and then cover it abundantly with fall leaves or some other insulating material for the coldest months.
When the snow melts in the spring, simply clean up garden, pruning out dead or damaged parts, replace the container in its original spot if you moved it, add a little fertilizer and repeat the routine watering throughout the summer.
I told you a miniature conifer container garden would be easy!
Obviously, conifers will grow over the years. Even though they are said to be “miniature,” left on their own, they will double or triple in size after 10 years.
If you get into the habit of cutting the new shoots (called “candles”) back by two thirds in June each year, you can slow your conifers’ growth, but otherwise, expect a miniature conifer garden to last 5 or 6 years. Then plant the now overly large conifers elsewhere in your garden (or give them as gifts to friends) and start your container all over again with a new generation of dwarf conifers.
And there you go! A beautiful garden that requires little care and that will last for years … and without needing even the slightest bloom to look stupendous! Now it’s up to you to try it yourself!