Conifers comprise a wide group of mostly evergreen trees and shrubs that provide welcome color and structure all year round. Although some have a bad name, growing into ungainly monsters, many make elegant additions to small gardens, especially when combined with other woody plants and perennials.
The following plants are examples of the different types of conifer you may see in garden centers and catalogs. Check their labels carefully to make sure you buy a conifer that will suit your plot. “Slowgrowing” conifers are not necessarily small, they simply grow slowly, putting on 6–12 in (15–30 cm) of growth per year. “Dwarf” types remain compact, and grow between 1–6 in (2–15 cm) per year, while “Miniatures” are tiny and will only grow to about 10 in (25 cm) after ten years and, ultimately, no more than 3 ft (90 cm).
- The blue Colorado spruce, Picea pungens ‘Koster’, is a slow-growing conifer that reaches a height of 8 ft (2 m) and width of 4 ft (1.2 m) but may, after many years, grow even larger.
- Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Opaal’, is a dwarf conifer reaching 3 ft (1 m) high and 30 in (75 cm) wide when mature.
- The dwarf mountain pine, Pinus aristata ‘Sherwood Compact’, with its decorative candlelike cones, is tiny and reaches just 24 in (60 cm) when mature.
Conifers are excellent design tools, offering a wealth of colors and shapes. You can use them en masse for a mosaic effect, choose just one striking example for a focal point in a border or lawn, or plant tiny types in pots and containers.
For year-round color, you can’t do much better than the blue spruce, Picea pungens, which comes in all shapes and sizes and makes a great companion for purple-leaved shrubs, such as the smoke bush, Cotinus ‘Grace’. Alternatively, match them up with contrasting golden conifers, such as the spreading Juniperus x pfitzeriana Gold Sovereign or the rounded Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Golden Pot’.
To strike a pose, look for pencil-thin plants that provide accents and can be used as focal points, or to line a path. The Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens, is a classic example, but junipers are easier plants for cooler climates. Try J. communis ‘Compressa’ or ‘Sentinel’, which have a similar rocketlike form.
Options for small gardens
Conifers are quite easy-going and adapt to a range of conditions, but most thrive in a sunny site in moist soil that drains freely, although junipers will cope with drier conditions. Check labels for width as well as height, as some need space to spread.
These conifers are perfect for small areas:
- Abies balsamea ‘Nana’
- Cephalotaxus harringtonii ‘Fastigiata’
- Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’
- Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’
- Pinus heldreichii ‘Smidtii’
- Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate’