By Robin Volker
Master Gardener volunteer
Sometimes an evergreen is the perfect plant for the yard or garden bed, but it can be so big and overwhelming. Not to worry: varieties of slower growing versions of your favorite conifers are now readily available for most all planting zones.
Conifers are plants that bear their seeds in cones, but exactly what makes a dwarf conifer? Natural climate conditions of harsh weather or poor soil can cause a conifer to be stunted. Seedling mutations or bud mutations can change the genetics of the plant, causing the limbs to be tangled, dense, and slow growing. With today’s horticultural technology, these changes are propagated through grafting of the mutated plant onto hardy rootstock. This is the primary means of reproduction because the mutations are difficult, if not impossible, to root or come from seed.
Dwarf conifers are great choices regardless of how much space you have. Many of our houses are on compact, city lots; our windows sit low to the ground; the overall scale of our landscapes is smaller; and the amount of time we have to spend pruning and maintaining plants is less. All these reasons, plus the beauty, variety, texture, and colors of dwarf conifers make them ideal specimens for today’s homeowner. Also, conifers are friendly to wildlife, providing protection and food to birds, squirrels, and other animals.
Perhaps you have not experimented with dwarf conifers, using primarily woody scrubs and perennials in your garden. Because a dwarf conifer is small in size and slow to grow, it is easier to transplant if you realize you have it in the wrong place. Actually, if you have one that seems to be out growing a particular spot, root pruning will slow down its growth so you can maintain it in the smaller space.
Dwarf conifers can be the main support plant in a section of your garden as most hold their shape and color through all seasons. When a dwarf conifer is used as an anchor plant, other mixed plantings provide variety and impact. The dwarf variety of blue Colorado spruce (Picea pungens “Glauca Pendula”) with its blue needles, tipped in silver, and the Gentsch’s White (Tsuga canadensis ‘Gentsch White’) short hemlock, also blue in color with creamy white new growth in the fall, mix well with hosta, roses, daylilies, geraniums, and other perennials. The interesting foliage from the conifers and seasonal blooms from the perennials delight the eye.
Dwarf conifers can go vertical as with the Juniperus chinensis “Robusta Green,” which only grows three inches per year or the Pinus sylvestris “Fastigiata,” commonly known as the Scotch pine with its obelisk shape, red-brown bark and blue-green foliage. Some dwarf conifers are horizontal spreaders, such as Juniperus conferta “All Gold,” with its bright yellow foliage that develops slight bronze overtones in winter. It will form a flat carpet and even cascade down walls with a spread of at least six feet. Some dwarf plants also make great ground covers. The Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens “Nana”) grows only 8 to 12 inches tall and spreads to six feet wide over time. Its foliage may turn purplish in winter.
Dwarf conifers can be used as a single specimen or in a cluster of two or three together for impact. The “Fat Albert” blue spruce (Picea pungens) and the “Golden Mop” sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) can perform beautifully as foundation plants, corner anchors, or centerpiece plantings.
The designs and possibilities are endless. To add conifers to your garden, study the site to determine if you want a vertical anchor, backdrop, a cluster of texture, a compliment to perennials, or a rug or ground cover. Determine if the site is primarily dry or more often moist. This will affect your choice of plant. Then visit your local nursery, check online for available varieties, or wait for the Master Gardener Plant Sale, where I do a lot of my shopping. Two years ago, I found two Bird’s Nest Spruce (Picea abies “Nidiformis”), and this year I landed a lovely Globe Norway Spruce (Picea abies “Pumila”). I can hardly wait to see what I find next year.
If your home landscape doesn’t lend itself to dwarf conifer plantings, remember you can also use them in Japanese gardens, rock gardens, and container plantings. If this article peaks your interest in conifers, or maybe you were already a conifer lover, visit www.ConiferSociety.org for endless information on how you can enrich the beauty in your garden with dwarf conifers.