When most plants have gone bare or underground for the cooler months, dwarf conifers offer winter interest to the garden through their multitude of shapes & sizes, amazing textures and terrific colors. This is a great time of year to take note of your garden and find areas that need more "bones" or year round substance. Dwarf conifers are a great solution to creating this structure. Conifers can be used as accents or focal points as well as incorporated into mass plantings. Most conifers prefer well-drained soil and sunny locations, with the exceptions Taxus and Chamaecyparis, which are two genera that tolerate some shade. Don't bank on dwarf conifers only for winter interest because this unusual group of plants bolster many attributes all year long. Colors and textures abound in the world of conifers, so let me share some of my favorites with you and I will categorize them by color.
One conifer I continually use over and over in part shade to full shade conditions is the Dwarf Garden Plum Yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonii 'Prostrata'). This is a sprawling plant with glossy needles that makes a handsome groundcover in dry areas. It grows to about 2’ tall x 4’ wide in size. Cryptomerias have become a favorite evergreen screening plant of the south, but let's look at some of the dwarf Cryptomerias available. Cryptomeria japonica 'Globosa Nana' forms a soft, meatball shape of bright green that requires no pruning. This is a wonderful plant to use flanking steps, walks or entry ways, growing to 4' tall x 4' wide in ten years. 'Black Dragon' is a narrower, upright form with dark green foliage that makes a more sculptural statement. This slow growing Cryptomeria grows 10' tall x 3-4' wide. 'Gyokuryu' is a more vigorous cultivar of Cryptomeria that forms a dense, broad pyramidal shape with bright green foliage. It grows to 8-10’ tall and 4-6’ wide. Dwarf Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’) is a compact, slow-growing, loosely pyramidal form that acts as a superb specimen at a front entry or next to a patio or seating area. Maturing to a size of only 6' tall x 3-4' wide in fifteen years. Thuja occidentalis 'Mr. Bowling Ball' is a low growing arborvitae with soft, blue-green foliage and has a very compact, oval form. It grows 3-4' tall x 3-4' wide making it a great accent plant or container plant. Dwarf Garden Juniper (Juniperus conferta 'Procumbens Nana') is a wonderful low-growing juniper forming a dense mound of branches that radiate from the center. It is bright green in summer and turns more bluish green as it matures, making a nice addition to a rocky slope or rock garden.
COOL BLUES & SILVERS
The blue and silver colors offered by conifers is not found among any other woody plants. Grey Owl Juniper (Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl') and Angelica Blue (Juniperus chinensis 'Angelica Blue') are two of my favorite medium shrubs offering shimmering blue foliage and graceful, arching branches. Both are wonderful when paired with red berries and burgundy foliage. For low-growing groundcover try Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii' (Blue Rug) or J. horizontalis 'Blue Chip (Blue Chip). These are tough, drought tolerant spreaders with steel blue foliage and an added bonus of having a purplish tint through winter months. One of my favorite conifers is Cedrus deodara 'Feeling Blue'. This is a compact, weeping form of Deodar Cedar that has a soft, fine texture and makes for a most spectacular specimen growing to just 2' tall x 6' wide. Feeling Blue looks great when planted to creep over a large boulder. We can't forget the Dwarf Blue Spruce (Picea pungens f. glauca) such as 'Fat Albert' & 'Baby Blue Eyes,' both noted for their dense, upright pyramidal shape that reaches 10-12' tall x 7-8' wide and having steel blue needles. If you are looking for a very dramatic focal point, then try the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’). This special conifer naturally grows with a sprawling horizontal habit and has icy blue needles. Often it is trained into an upright weeping form that creates a dramatic yet graceful, waterfall-like effect.
Plants with yellow foliage may be a bit harder to incorporate into the landscape, but these golden beauties definitely offer bold color and contrast. Probably one the most used dwarf conifers is the Golden Threadleaf Cypress (Chamaecyparis psifera 'Filifera Aurea'). This drooping shrub with fine, vibrant yellow foliage has an interesting weeping habit much like a shaggy haircut. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni' is also a nice compact pyramidal plant that sports yellow foliage and grows 5-6' tall x 3-4' wide. Gold Coast Juniper (Juniperus pfitzeriana ‘Aurea Improved’) has been around a long time and for good reason. This evergreen shrub that grows 3' tall x 4' wide is noted for its arching branches of intense yellow foliage especially pronounced during the winter months. Thuja occidentalis 'Franky Boy' is another dwarf conifer having an upright form that I love for its thread-like golden foliage that turns bronze-orange in winter and lemon-yellow in spring. It matures to 4' tall x 3' wide. A note to remember is that most yellow foliage conifers will turn green in shade so be sure to provide enough sun to keep the foliage bright.
My list could go on and on of wonderful dwarf conifers to add to your garden. Whether incorporating dwarf conifers as focal points, flanking walkways or steps, or mixed into borders & foundation plantings, you will be pleased with the intense color, interesting textures and unique shapes they offer to your garden.