My Selection of Dwarf Conifers for Low-Maintenance Gardens

I have lived for 20 years in a home with a sandy loam soil garden. In my horticultural vocabulary, I call this cream! A beautiful soil without stones in which I can dig, dig, dig without ever getting tired! Paradise, you say?

Conifer gardens are so lovely! Image: Pixlr.

However, my soil is sandier than loamy, which means that I have to give up on certain plants that are looking for very rich and more consistent soils. Quickly, I discovered what I call “my palette” (like a color palette). This is a list of plants that are perfectly happy in my home and that I plant in abundance. In this list, there are rhododendrons, blueberries and, of course, conifers! Then, bungalow obliges, my interest fell on the dwarf conifers.

Why Are These Perfect Plants?

On the beautiful site of the American Conifer Society , there is a precise definition of what a dwarf conifer is. A dwarf conifer is said to have an annual growth of 1 to 6 inches (2.5-15 cm) in length, and after 10 years of cultivation will reach a maximum of 6 feet (1.5 meters) in height. A miniature conifer is even smaller, with a growth of less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) per year and a maximum size of 1 foot (30 cm) high after 10 years.

This very slow growth makes them the most docile plants there are. No danger of being invaded by dwarf conifers! Also, they require no pruning. Their natural shape is an important factor of their charm. That little twisted side or flattened top is what best defines the dwarf evergreens in my garden. I couldn’t see myself pruning perfect balls and party hats out of them.

You could tend to believe that dwarf conifers are all the same which is boring, but it’s quite the opposite. There’s a plethora of shapes, foliage colors, densities that allow you to create very interesting layouts with only dwarf conifers.

In the laidback gardener department, it doesn’t get any better! No bugs, no diseases, no pruning, no fertilizer! This really is bliss!

My First Dwarf Conifers

It must be said that I was introduced to dwarf conifers by a precious friend and mentor. Passionate about these little beasts, he produced them and left on my doorstep half a dozen magnificent specimens that are almost all around today. In front is a dwarf form of the Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’). After 20 years of growth, it is now a beautiful ball of 5 ft (1.5 m) in height. A little bald on one side, because it’s leaning on a large Colorado spruce, it remains splendid all the same.

My Japanese red pine… when it will be 150 years old! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Also, in the front of the house was what I believe used to be a miniature Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca Brevifolia’). I was anticipating its beautiful narrow pyramid shape. But this beautiful baby with bluish foliage has succumbed to family life: it was not a good idea to play leapfrog with my pretty dwarf pine…

Then, in my backyard, my greatest pride: a bristlecone pine, probably ‘Hortsmann’ (Pinus aristata ‘Hortsmann’). This one resonates in my heart because I was fortunate enough to see its ancestors in real life in the depths of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. These are conifers that are often thousands of years old and resist the worst weather conditions. Mine looks like a small bonsai with two trunks. A little crooked, it was 28 inches (72 cm) tall when I planted it 20 years ago. It now measures 30 inches (78 cm)! Each year, it loses some of his needles. It’s the tips of the branches that are leafy! And every time I see it, I think of the Bristlecone Pines of Windy Ridge.

In this beautiful collection, there’s also a weeping larch (Larix decidua ’Pendula’) which hasn’t yet revealed its full potential to me. I must admit that I planted it in total shade. And larches, in general, are full-sun conifers. Still, it’s no more than 6 feet (1.8 m) tall and even if it’s a bit unfurnished, it’s still a favorite.

My Current Selection

I think eastern hemlocks are my favorite evergreen. No wonder I was interested in these dwarfed variants. Even though my ’Gent’s White’ hemlock now reaches 13 ft (4 m) in height, I still consider it a dwarf version of the conifer we find in our forests. My new baby is the weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’) which will reach about 18 inches (50 cm) in height and 36 inches (80 cm) in width when mature. In truth, I’ve been coveting the ‘Cole’s Prostrata’ hemlock for years, which has a more miniature shape, and the same drooping habit. After a few years of fruitless search, I had to resign myself to this slightly larger version.

I’m also in love with my dwarf white pine with bluish foliage (Pinus strobus ‘Glauca Nana’) which is a natural dense ball that has yet to reach 6 feet (1.8 m) yet. The foliage is light. The needles are a little shorter than the species and they have a slight bluish sheen. It’s more of a bluish green than a steel blue! I particularly appreciate the beautiful carpet of needles that covers the ground at its feet, as do all the white pines of this world!

My dwarf white pine, when I planted it, in 2006. It’s now 4 feet high! Image: Julie Boudreau

I’ve also set my sights on a few beauties that will soon be appearing in my garden, including the dwarf fir (Abies balsamea ’Nana’), with its tiny needles that gives the plant a clownish look (don’t ask me why, it’s really what comes to mind when I see this plant!) Possibly a small spruce ‘Little Gem’ (Picea abies ‘Little Gem’). Then, I’ve been thinking for a long time about replacing my deceased Japanese white pine with a dwarf mountain pine (Pinus cembra), but from the top of its 25 feet (10 meters), it can no longer be called a dwarf conifer!

In this adventure in the universe of the dwarf conifer, you should be well aware that some of these small shrubs end up exceeding the measurements promised on the labels, as this article specifies . Unsurprisingly, Larry was also in love with dwarf conifers ! Laidback gardeners unite… again!

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

1 comment on “My Selection of Dwarf Conifers for Low-Maintenance Gardens

  1. Thank you for this info. Alosohbet is best for you.

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