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Conifers | A Complete Guide

Conifer General

Conifers are more than Christmas trees. There are 600+ species of conifers, and thousands of rare, incredibly unique cultivars and varieties.

Conifers can be green, blue, grey, silver, red, orange, purple, yellow, cream, or white. The branches can be upright, drooping, weeping, or completely unpredictable. Cones can be pink, red, blue, green, or brown, and be upright, drooping, compact, or even have tails.

The best part about adding conifers to your landscape is that most species are evergreen, so they add a layer of seasonal interest that outlives perennial flowers and deciduous shrubs.

Local greenhouses and nurseries will have standard conifer cultivars, but if you want a truly outstanding specimen plant, order from a certified rare plant nursery.

What is a Conifer?

A conifer is a plant that produces cones. Technically, a conifer is a gymnosperm, which is the scientific term for naked seed.

Although Christmas trees are the most common image of a conifer, cone-bearing plants come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes. Some conifers are deciduous, like the bald cypress, and others have leaves that resemble other broadleaf trees.

Conifer Growth Rates & Classifications

Conifers are classified according to annual growth rates, not the overall size. For example, a dwarf conifer will grow 1”-6” each year, but dwarf conifers can become quite large over time. They will just become larger at a slower rate than intermediate conifers.

Miniature conifers grow 1” or less per year. These conifers are popular choices for specialty gardens, like fairy gardens or railroad displays (link to specialty gardens), and bonsai containers.

Dwarf conifers grow 1”-6” per year. These conifers are popular choices for containers and specimen plantings. Dwarf conifers are easier to prune into artistic shapes than conifers with a faster growth rate.

Intermediate conifers grow 6”-10” per year. These conifers are popular choices for large hedges, windbreaks, and as specimen trees in the lawn.

Large conifers grow 10” inches per year. These conifers are popular choices for windbreaks and large, open areas where trees can grow 100’+ over a few decades.

The mature size of a conifer is based on the average size of the variety or cultivar at 10 years. This information helps landscape designers plan for a manageable mature size, but most conifers will outgrow those dimensions without annual candling or pruning.

Conifer Shapes/Growth Habits

Conifers are also classified according to their overall shape or growth habit. Some conifers fit perfectly within the guidelines of a specific shape, while others might have characteristics of two or three different growth habits.

Pruning can also affect the shape of a conifer. Some plants may form a tighter, more formal shape with annual candling and basic maintenance. Other plants can be completely manipulated into artistic globes or clouds of foliage on bare trunks and branches.

Broad upright/oval conifers have a general, round shape that has a vague conical or pyramidal shape.

Narrow upright conifers are an extremely tight, upright shape.

Columnar conifers have a sharp, upright growth habit that is slightly wider at the base than at the top.

Conical/pyramidal conifers look like a Christmas tree.

Globose conifers are a round, globe shape that are bigger in the middle than on the top and bottom.

Mounding conifers are a more flat version of a globose conifer. Their overall shape resembles a mushroom cap.

Spreading/prostrate conifers have a flat, creeping growth habit, but the branches may be slightly upright at the tips.

Besides shape, conifers can have unique characteristics that add to the overall shape and appearance.

Weeping conifers have flexible branches and can range from a slightly weeping, layered look all the way to trees that are almost completely folded over.

Needle shapes also add to the overall appearance of a conifer. Recurved needles will accentuate the branch structure and may reveal variegation on the underside of the needle. Long, soft needles give the plant a shaggy, fluffy appearance. Twisted needles are less common, but they add a unique, structural element to a conifer that can be especially striking when the needles are variegated.

Cone Shapes/Colors

All conifers produce cones. Cones can vary in shape and size, but most cones have a specific structure unique to the species.

Some species and cultivars have brown, inconspicuous cones that add little to the overall appearance to the plant. However, some cultivars are specifically bred to accentuate the shape and color of the cone to be a showy, attractive feature that adds seasonal interest.

Abies koreana Horstmann's Silberlocke Korean Fir evergreen conifer green white needles cones
Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ Korean Fir
Abies koreana Kobalt Korean Fir gold needles evergreen conifer cones
Abies koreana ‘Kobalt’
Picea pungens Early Cones Spruce evergreen conifer green needles cones
Picea pungens ‘Early Cones’
Pinus pumila Blue Lamp Pine evergreen conifer  green needles red pollen cones
Pinus pumila ‘Blue Lamp’

Conifers in the Landscape

Conifers are more than hedges or windbreaks; they are excellent as a four-season backbone for a landscape and as a specimen plant in themed gardens.

Evergreen conifers provide year-round interest. During the spring, bright new growth and cones appear. As the needles and cones mature, the foliage will transition to a more even summer color as annuals and perennials become the focal point.

When the weather begins to cool and the rest of the landscape goes dormant, the conifers will keep their color, and some may even change color. The conifers will become the focal point of the landscape through the winter and into the spring.

Not all conifers are background elements in a four-season garden. Many cultivars are striking specimens that add a unique character to a landscape or container garden.

Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’

This dwarf conifer is an excellent option for rock gardens and rocky, sandy soil. The needles have a deep, blue/green color with yellow tips, and the overall shape is a short, mounding pyramid.

Picea omorika Peve Tijn evergreen conifer blue/green
Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’

Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’

This weeping conifer has an upright leader, so it does not need staking. However, the branches are extremely flexible, and this may be the most pendulous Serbian spruce cultivar.

Picea omorika Pendula Bruns evergreen conifer
Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’

Picea abies ‘Lemon Joy’

This weeping Norway spruce has a lime green/golden color and slightly pendulous branches. The tree is hardy to zone 3, and it performs well in part shade.

Picea abies Lemon Joy evergreen conifer golden
Picea abies ‘Lemon Joy’

Picea abies ‘Rubra Spicata’

This conifer has deep green needles, but in the spring, new growth emerges in bright red tufts. The mature tree is a medium-sized, open pyramid.

Picea abies Rubra spicata evergreen conifer green red tufts
Picea abies ‘Rubra Spicata’

Picea orientalis ‘Silver Seedling’

This dwarf conifer has a year-round white color that excels in part shade. The tree has an open, pyramidal shape, but it will burn in full sun.

Picea orientalis Silver Seedling evergreen conifer green white
Picea orientalis ‘Silver Seedling’

Conifers for Fairy Gardens, Trough Gardens, and Railroad Displays

Miniature conifers are well-suited to these specialty gardens because they grow very slowly, and they have a long lifespan.

Miniature conifers also tend to have a mature, aged look which adds to the authenticity of these tiny displays.

Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’

This shaggy miniature conifer has a mounding shape and long, slate blue needles. This cultivar does not tolerate cold temperatures.

Cedrus libani, Hedgehog, Cedar of Lebanon, evergreen, conifer, blue, mounding
Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Chirimen’

The branches on this miniature conifer look like dark green pipe cleaners. The overall shape is an upright pyramid with an open, structural branching pattern.

Chamaecyparis obtusa Chirimen evergreen conifer green structural
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Chirimen’

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tsukumo’

This miniature conifer is an adorable addition to fairy gardens and railroad displays. When the bottom branches are pruned away, the plant takes on the shape of an extremely small, mature tree.

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tsukumo’

Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

This conifer has a low, mounding shape and bright green foliage that turns a beautiful golden yellow in the spring. Plant Tom Thumb in shady locations, or else the needles may burn in direct sun.

Picea orientalis Tom Thumb Gold evergreen conifer golden mounding
Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’

This dwarf conifer tolerates a wide range of soils and adds a unique color and structural element to a display garden. The needles are blue and silver, and the cones are a beautiful red color in the spring.

Pinus parviflora Aoi evergreen conifer structural blue silver
Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’

Deciduous Conifers

Deciduous conifers are less common than their evergreen counterparts, but they add a unique, structural component to the landscape.

Deciduous conifers lose their needles in the fall, revealing unique bark textures and branching patterns, which draws special attention to new growth in the spring.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Miss Grace’

The Miss Grace dawn redwood is a beautiful, elegant, weeping deciduous conifer that captures the silhouette of an art nouveau woman. The needles are green, but they fade to a bright orange in the fall. As the needles drop, they reveal textured, peeling bark.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides Miss Grace deciduous conifer weeping green orange
Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Miss Grace’

Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘North Light’

The North Light dawn redwood is a small, globose conifer with reddish brown bark. The needles are a beautiful butter yellow with pink undertones.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides Schirrmann's Nordlicht deciduous conifer globose yellow
Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘North Light’

Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’

The Peve Minaret bald cypress has a broad, upright, conical shape with green leaves that turn a burnt orange color in the fall. The tree can be pruned to have a more formal, columnar shape. This species is excellent for wet sites.

Taxodium distichum Peve Minaret Bald Cypress deciduous conifer green orange upright conical
Taxodium distichum ‘Peve Minaret’

Larix decidua ‘Krejci’

This dwarf European larch has an odd, sporadic growth structure that seems to defy nature at times. Branches twist and curl, sometimes even making a 90o turn with random tufts of needles at the junctures. This cultivar truly shines during the winter, when the needles fall and reveal the eccentric branching structure.

Larix decidua Krejči deciduous conifer branching structure twist
Larix decidua ‘Krejci’

Larix decidua ‘Puli’

The Puli European larch has thin, heavily weeping branches that form lime green needles in the spring, which eventually fade to dark green and then a rich, golden yellow in the fall. This tree has an elegant, waterfall appearance when the trunk is staked, but it can also be left to creep along the ground and form a soft, mounding shape.

Larix decidua Puli deciduous conifer weeping green yellow mounding
Larix decidua ‘Puli’

Ginkgo

The ginkgo is a truly unique and majestic species. Ginkgos are broadleaf, deciduous trees with fan-shaped leaves that range from lime green to a creamy yellow. In the fall, leaves will turn a brilliant gold color before falling and revealing the strong branching structure.

Ginkgos are not conifers. Conifers and ginkgos are both gymnosperms, but they belong to different scientific classes.

Ginkgo biloba tree green fan-shaped broadleaves
Ginkgo

How to Grow Conifers

Conifers are a low-maintenance addition to landscapes and container gardens. Before you purchase conifers for your lawn or landscape, examine the surrounding area for conifers that are already thriving in your climate and soil.

Research unique and rare cultivars of the common species in your area. Certified rare conifer nurseries provide hundreds of cultivars and varieties with variegated foliage, unique branching habits, and distinct cone colors.

Site Requirements

Most conifers prefer full sun and rich, acidic, well-drained soil. However, many species that can tolerate poor soils, high pH, salt, drought, and wind. The only condition conifers cannot tolerate is wet, soggy soil (except for the bald cypress).

Planting

Plant conifers the same way you plant other landscape plants. Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball, and gently pull the plant out of the container. If the plant is balled & burlapped, cut away the wire at the top and pull back the top of the fabric (to remove or not remove the burlap? We answer that question on our planting page). Fill in the hole and gently tamp down the soil.

For best results, plant the conifers in early spring or in the last few weeks of fall.

Pruning

Pruning can be as relaxed or involved as you want. Most conifers perform just fine with no pruning, except to remove dead or diseased wood.

The most common and helpful type of pruning is candling, or removing the first few inches of new growth in the spring. This will encourage dense foliage and keep the mature size in check.

Some conifers, like yews and junipers, respond well to shaping. These plants can be pruned into globes, spirals, or formal hedges, but before you pull out your hedge trimmers, read our pruning page for the best way to create artistic conifer shapes.

Conifers add seasonal interest and a unique structural element to landscapes, container gardens, and even specialty plantings like fairy gardens and railroad displays.

Browse our pages on unique cultivars to add specimen plants to your landscape, and visit our planting, pruning, and site requirement pages to learn more about how to care for conifers.

What Kind of Soil is Best for Dwarf Conifers?

Conifers are the Goldilocks of the landscape. Of all the different types of soil, conifers prefer the middle ground.

So, what does that look like?

Dwarf conifers thrive in well-drained, crumbly, slightly-acidic, loamy soils. If they are planted outside their comfort zone, they tolerate sandy soils that are high in organic matter over thick, compacted clay.

If you are planting dwarf conifers in your landscape, do a soil test to determine the pH and nutrient content of your native soil. Then, compare that to the ideal soil for conifers. In most cases, compost will improve any limiting factors in your landscape bed.

If you are planting dwarf conifers in a container, buy or make a soil mix that has the same qualities as loam, but with increased drainage. Don’t worry- we’re going to give you a few recipes for creating the perfect container mix.

Of course, some conifers may have different soil requirements. Purchase your dwarf conifers from a specialty grower who can provide specific information about the variety you want to plant.

The Ideal Soil for Dwarf Conifers

Conifers prefer a slightly-acidic version of the perfect soil: dark, crumbly, well-drained loam.

Why?

This has less to do with the fertility of loamy soils and more to do with how they hold and drain water.

Dark, loamy soils are generally fertile, but conifers are not heavy feeders. Conifers don’t have to replace leaves each spring like deciduous trees, and they tend to grow slowly, which limits how much nutrition they pull from the soil. In fact, they prefer a pH of about 5.5, which naturally limits the availability of macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, calcium, and magnesium).

However, the same properties that increase fertility- namely, organic matter and biological activity- also promote water and air movement through the soil.

Organic matter, which is decomposed plant material, creates a spongy soil structure with a variety of pore sizes. Small pores hold water, while large pores promote drainage. An even mixture of small and large pore spaces creates an ideal porosity, which is what determines how well a soil holds and drains water.

Soils high in organic matter will be dark and crumbly, so when plant guides say a plant thrives in dark, crumbly soil, they really mean the plant thrives in soils high in organic matter.

Particle size also affects porosity. Small clay particles create small pore spaces, and large sand particles create large pore spaces. Silt is a medium-sized particle that acts as a buffer between clay and sand.

Loam is the term used for a mixture of clay, silt, and sand. A loamy soil will have good porosity, and a loamy soil with organic matter will have even better porosity.

Loamy soils will absorb water easily, and retain moisture without becoming waterlogged. These soils are referred to as well-drained soils, because they drain easily without becoming too dry too quickly.

Why do plants need well-drained soils?

Because well-drained soils breathe. Soil is an ecosystem that supports insects, bacteria, plants, and other living organisms. Roots use water to pull up nutrients, but if they are constantly saturated, anaerobic bacteria begin to eat away at the roots, causing root rot.

So, when we say conifers prefer acidic, well-drained, dark, crumbly, loamy soil, what do we really mean?

Conifers are not heavy feeders, but they need a soil high in organic matter with a balanced amount of clay, silt, and sand particles so roots are able to absorb plenty of water without rotting from a lack of oxygen.

Of course, there’s always going to be an exception.

How to Identify Soil Quality via Site Assessments

Soil tests give a detailed report about nutrients, organic matter, pH, and overall soil quality. They can help diagnose deficiencies, toxicities, and imbalances.

Although annual soil tests are the most accurate way to determine exact soil properties, there’s a much more practical way to identify potential problems in your soil and also identify which conifers will thrive in your area: observe the established landscapes in your neighborhood.

There are 3 steps in a soil site assessment:

  • Identify thriving/suffering plants
  • Identify indicator plants
  • Identify common signs of soil deficiencies/toxicities

A site assessment is as simple as a stroll through the neighborhood. Study other landscapes and established trees and shrubs. Use the following information to make decisions about what plants to use in your landscape, or diagnose current problems in your established plants.

1. Identify Thriving/Suffering Plants

Take pictures or notes of which plants are full and healthy. Look for:

  • Plants with deep green, healthy foliage
  • Plants with new, active growth
  • Plants that are common in multiple landscapes

Take special note of conifers that are common and healthy in the surrounding area.

This information can tell you what types of plants thrive in your local soil, and which specific conifers should do well in your landscape.

  • If you notice lots of asters, pears, marigolds, lilies, daffodils, daylilies, foxglove, hibiscus, hyacinth, and impatiens, you probably have rich, loamy soil.
  • If you notice lots of ornamental grasses, hostas, russian sage, black-eyed susans, purple coneflower, and yarrow, you might have clay soil.
  • If you notice lots of lavender, succulents, phlox, and butterfly weed, you may have sandy soil.

If you notice landscapes with a lot of variety, the soil has a healthy structure and should support a variety of conifers.

If you notice landscapes with multiples of the same few varieties, the soil may have an underlying deficiency, pH imbalance, or poor structure. (That, or your neighbors are terrible landscape designers)

Use this information in conjunction with identifying plants that are suffering or stunted to find potential problems in the soil.

Look for:

  • Plants with yellow veins and green leaf tissue, or plants with green veins and yellow leaf tissue (chlorosis)
  • Plants with obvious pest problems or diseases
  • Plants that are obviously stunted or scraggly

This information can tell you if there are underlying nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, and it can tell you if there are regional pests and diseases that affect certain types of plants.

The most common sign of nutrient deficiencies is chlorosis, which is an overall yellowing of the needles. This is most common with nitrogen deficiencies, but it can change depending on the pH of the soil.

Conifers aren’t heavy feeders, and they prefer a pH of 5.5, which is lower than most landscape plants. In acidic soils, macronutrients are restricted, so standard landscape plants may show signs of nitrogen and potassium deficiencies even if the soil is perfect for conifers.

Common causes of chlorosis in acidic soils are:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Zinc deficiency
  • Manganese deficiency
  • Copper deficiency
  • Potassium toxicity
  • Magnesium toxicity
  • Phosphorus toxicity

Common causes of chlorosis in alkaline soils are:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Manganese deficiency

Find indicator plants in the area to help determine if there truly is a lack of macronutrients, or if the pH is too low for standard landscape plants to thrive.

Take special note of conifers with pest and disease problems.

Common problems may include:

  • Discolored, brittle, or drooping needles
  • Spots on needles or stems
  • One side of a conifer with patches of needle death
  • Symptoms of regional pests and diseases

Although this generally doesn’t reflect a soil issue, you should avoid planting specific conifers if established plants in the area are suffering.

2. Identifying Indicator Plants

Indicator plants give specific insight into pest life cycles, temperature changes, common diseases, and soil conditions. These plants have exaggerated or obvious signs that tell gardeners when to spray, when to plant, and when to water.

Conifers like acidic soils, so you should look for plants that thrive in acidic soils or have a specific color in acidic soils:

  • Other conifers. If your surrounding area is full of thriving conifers, chances are, you have the perfect soil for conifers.
  • Azaleas, gardenias, and hydrangeas. These plants either change color or fade depending on the acidity of the soil.
    • Azaleas will have bright, colorful flowers when the pH is close to 5, but the color will gradually fade as the pH increases.
    • Hydrangeas and some gardenias will be bright blue in acidic soils, and the blooms will gradually change to purple and then pink as the pH increases.
  • Magnolias, hollies, and blueberries thrive in acidic soils. If these plants look happy and healthy, the pH is close to 5.5.

There are also plants that indicate alkaline, or “sweet” soils:

  • Barberry
  • Lavender
  • Forsythia
  • Lilac
  • Viburnum
  • Columbine
  • Mums
  • Daisies
  • Boston ivy
  • Vinca

Although most conifers prefer acidic soils, there are conifers that can tolerate more alkaline conditions, like arborvitae and false cypress. If you have alkaline soil, ask a specialty grower (link to Conifer Kingdom) if they can recommend specific varieties for your landscape.

3. Identify Signs of Common Soil Deficiencies/Toxicities

When you are doing a site assessment for dwarf conifers, focus on symptoms of nutrient deficiencies in other conifers. This will give you the most accurate idea of how well your conifers will perform in your landscape.

Look for the following symptoms of nutrient imbalances:

  • Short, yellow, sparse needles: nitrogen deficiency.
  • Deep green, lush, thin needles and minimal blooms: nitrogen toxicity
  • Purple, blue, or grey needles with needle drop moving from bottom to top: phosphorus deficiency.
  • Dark blue/green needles that turn deep red and die; frequent frost damage: potassium deficiency

These symptoms may not be a direct result of a deficiency; they might also indicate extremely low or high pH, or a chain reaction resulting from other nutrient deficiencies/toxicities.

If you notice consistent signs of nutrient imbalances, do a soil test before you plant to pinpoint the underlying problem. If the soil is truly deficient, annual compost amendments and mulch, along with a slow-release fertilizer, should be sufficient to sustain healthy conifer growth.

Amending native soils – How to Create the Ideal Soil for Dwarf Conifers

Conifers place a tall order, but if your soil isn’t perfectly-suited to their needs (and most soils aren’t), you can implement a few annual maintenance tasks to create a healthier soil environment.

Focus on improving porosity. There are 3 things that can prevent adequate porosity in a soil:

  • Too much clay (very small pore spaces)
  • Too much sand (very large pore spaces)
  • Not enough organic matter (not enough water retention)

Although disproportionate amounts of clay and sand may cause the majority of soil issues, adding clay or sand to soil is never the answer.

Clay + sand = concrete.

Stick to increasing the organic matter and creating an irrigation schedule (link to How to Water…page) that promotes a dense, fibrous root system.

Add Compost

Whether your soil is too sandy or has too much clay, compost is the answer.

Conifers aren’t heavy feeders, so don’t use potent, nutrient-dense compost products like chicken manure or worm castings. Save those for the vegetable garden.

Instead, use all-purpose compost that can increase the amount of bulky organic matter in the soil.

There are 2 ways you can incorporate compost into the soil:

  • When you plant your conifer, mix compost into the soil when you fill in around the root ball
  • Each spring, add a thin layer (1/2”) of compost over the entire landscape bed

As you continue to add compost each year, the soil structure will gradually become more loamy.

Use Mulch

Mulch adds organic matter and conserves moisture.

A 3” – 4” layer of mulch will insulate the soil from heat and wind, which prevents evaporation. However, mulch still allows soil to breathe, which prevents root rot.

As mulch breaks down, it will add small amounts of organic matter into the topsoil. This will provide the same benefit as compost, and over time, both compost and mulch will improve porosity.

Use more acidic mulches to help maintain a low pH:

  • Pine needles
  • Pine bark
  • Oak leaves

However, if you don’t have access to these mulch products, you can use wood chips, leaf litter, and even grass clippings.

Recipe for Container Mix for Dwarf Conifers

Most dwarf conifers are excellent container plants (link to future guide for conifer selection), which is part of what makes them such a versatile landscape plant.

Standard potting soil is adequate for dwarf conifers, but it is not ideal.

Here are two recipes for a homemade container mix for dwarf conifers:

Simple conifer container mix

This is an easy mix you can customize to fit your climate, container, or plant. Increase the amount of sand if you live in a wet climate, increase the amount of compost if you live in a dry climate, and add extra perlite or vermiculite if your container doesn’t drain well.

Recipe:

  • 3 parts high-quality potting soil
  • 2 parts coarse sand
  • 1 part compost (not composted manure)

Mix ingredients well or else the sand will fall to the bottom. For extremely large containers, mix smaller batches of soil and add them in layers to ensure the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

Bark-based conifer potting mix

This mix holds more water than the simple container mix, but it doesn’t use potting soil, so it doesn’t settle as easily.

Adjust the proportions of sand or soil to improve drainage or water retention. Do not adjust the amount of pine bark, or else you may cause nitrogen burn.

Recipe:

  • 2 parts weed-free bagged garden soil (not topsoil)
  • 2 parts coarse sand
  • 1 part coarse pine bark

This mixture can be difficult to combine, so you may have to make small batches and fill the container in layers.

Although conifers can be picky about soil structure, they’re usually pretty happy once they have an established root system.

Combine annual mulch and compost applications with a customized irrigation schedule (link to other page) to create a healthy, thriving soil environment for your dwarf conifers.

There are many conifers that are perfectly happy growing in less-than-ideal conditions:

Conifers that tolerate poor drainage/clay soils:

If you have clay soil, do not plant firs, yews, or 5-needle pines.

The main risk with clay soils is poor drainage, although some conifers can tolerate wet, shaded areas. Clay can become compacted and is more prone to toxicities than other soil structures. The upside to clay soil is that it is usually acidic, so if the soil is improved over time, the plant should thrive under most circumstances.

Japanese maple, downy Japanese maple, and sweetgum are good complementary trees for clay soils.

Conifers that tolerate sandy soils:

Use compost and mulch in loose, sandy soils to gradually build up a more substantial foundation.

Most conifers will tolerate sandy soils because they drain well. If you live in a dry climate and you have sandy soil, look for conifers that are drought tolerant. Needle structure is key to identifying drought-tolerant conifers: look for 2-needle and 3-needle pines, scaled juniper needles, and blue waxy needles (like the Colorado blue spruce).

Conifers that tolerate alkaline soils:

Although these conifers may tolerate alkaline soils, you should still use an acidifying mulch, like pine bark, to help lower pH near the root zone.

As pH values rise, manganese and iron become less available to conifer roots. These plants are sensitive to mineral deficiencies, so many conifers will become chlorotic in alkaline soils. Conifers that tolerate high pH, or sweet soils, are able to handle iron and manganese deficiencies.

Conifers that tolerate coastal conditions and salty soils:

This is common near roadways and near the coast.

Ginkgo is another salt-tolerant tree that complements conifers.

Conifers can be exposed to salts either by salt spray from road treatments. Salt can either be splashed directly onto the foliage, or it can settle into the soil and cause similar symptoms to fertilizer burn.

The most common conifers to use in high-salt areas are deciduous conifers. Plants that lose their foliage in the fall are not exposed to as much salt spray as evergreen conifers. Hard pines, junipers, and other tough conifers are more salt tolerant than softer, more sensitive plants.

Conifers that tolerate windy, exposed sites:

Windy, exposed sites are prone to drought and desiccation (dehydrated needles). So, rugged, drought-tolerant trees can not only tolerate these conditions, but also provide a windbreak for more sensitive plants in the landscape.

However, don’t assume drought-tolerant means these plants don’t need irrigation. Encourage a deep, dense root system by watering new plants consistently and thoroughly (link to irrigation page). Pay close attention to plants in these locations and give them extra water during the first few years to get them off on the right foot.

 

55 Conifers for Unique Sites & Specialty Gardens

There are over 600 conifer species in the world, and many species have multiple, unique varieties and cultivars. For most sunny, well-drained, loamy locations, there are hundreds of potential candidates to fill an empty spot in the landscape.

But, what if your needs are more… unique?

There are many different conifer varieties and cultivars that have been created to fulfill specific landscape needs. This includes conifers for:

  • Rock gardens
  • Trough gardens
  • Railroad gardens
  • Fairy gardens
  • Japanese gardens
  • Shady locations
  • Containers

Most of these conifers have incredible color patterns and whimsical, architectural growth habits, making them not only a functional part of a unique garden site, but a truly eccentric focal point.

Most of the conifers that fit the requirements of these unique locations are rare, and they can only be purchased from certified conifer nurseries.

 

Conifers for Rock Gardens

Rock gardens are intended to look like natural rock formations interspersed with greenery. In general, plants that are used in a rock garden must be drought tolerant, and capable of thriving in poor, rocky soil.

Because the plants are spaced farther apart than most traditional landscapes, gardeners put an emphasis on specimen plants with unique characteristics, like structural interest or rare color variations.

Most rock gardens strive for a natural, aged look, which means little to no pruning unless it is to remove dead or damaged wood. However, you can remove branches to create a more open form and practice basic candling or light pruning in the spring to improve needle density.


Prickly Pete Subalpine Fir

Abies lasiocarpa ‘Prickly Pete’

Needle Color: Silver/Blue

Cone Color: Brown

This beautiful frosted blue evergreen adds a miniature pop of color to a rock garden. The deep blue foliage stands in stark contrast to the light bluish white needles that burst forth in the spring.

Prickly Pete does not need pruning except to remove dead or diseased wood. This conifer has an informal, natural look, and does best in cottage-style landscapes, rock gardens, and containers.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies lasiocarpa Prickly Pete conifers blue evergreen
Abies lasiocarpa ‘Prickly Pete’

Cis Korean Fir

Abies koreana ‘Cis’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature evergreen matures into a small, flat globe. The dark green needles are whorled, and the branches burst out from the center to form a small, dense ball.

This conifer responds well to light pruning, but it has a natural, mounding shape that adds character to a natural rock garden or landscape.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies koreana Cis conifers green mounding
Abies koreana ‘Cis’

Hedgehog Cedar of Lebanon

Needle Color: Blue/Grey

Cone Color: Brown

This unique mini conifer has a slate grey/blue color and long, droopy needles. The overall form is a short, flat, shaggy mound.

This specimen plant does not tolerate extreme cold weather, so it is not a good choice for rock gardens in northern climates. Once the plant is established, it is quite drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 8”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 12”
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Tip blight
  • Container Plant: Yes
Cedrus libani Hedgehog conifers grey blue mound
Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’

Dwarf Yellow Hinoki Cypress

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’

Needle Color: Yellow/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf conifer adds a bright pop of color to a landscape. The intensity of the yellow undertones will change depending on how much light the plant receives. The more shade, the more lime green or yellow the needles will appear. However, this plant can only tolerate part shade; it will suffer in low light.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Chamaecyparis obtusa Nana Lutea conifers dwarf color yellow
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’

Peve Tjin Serbian Spruce

Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’

Needle Color: Gold/Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This tri-color conifer adds a unique touch to a rock garden. The deep blue and green striped needles have light yellow tips that add dimension to the overall globulose form.

As the plant matures, a pyramidal shape may appear, although you can maintain the mounding globe look with light pruning. This is a great option for rock gardens with clay, alkaline soil.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea omorika Peve Tijn conifers tricolor needles globose mounding pyramidal
Picea omorika ‘Peve Tijn’

Schoodic Jack Pine

Pinus banksiana ‘Schoodic’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf specimen has a slight weeping form. It will either grow prostrate along the ground, or droop over retaining or container walls to form a green, mounding carpet.

This dwarf Jack Pine is a tough, cold-hardy conifer that can tolerate a wide variety of soil and weather conditions.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus banksiana Schoodic conifers weeping prostrate green mounding
Pinus banksiana ‘Schoodic’

Comanche Limber Pine

Pinus flexilis ‘Comanche’

Needle Color: Grey/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf limber pine has the familiar flexible branches and dull green needles of the full-sized limber pine. Over time, the plant will morph from a small globe to somewhat of a cone, but with consistent pruning, you can maintain the globe form.

The Comanche limber pine is drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus flexilis Comanche conifers green needles globe
Pinus flexilis ‘Comanche’

Beal’s Starry Night Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Beal’s Starry Night’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This rare cultivar was first discovered as a witch’s broom on a full-sized Eastern white pine. The tufts at the ends of the branches look like starbursts surrounding the brown terminal buds, which is how the cultivar earned its name.

Prune this cultivar to maintain a small, compact shape.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Beal's Starry Night conifer stufts green small compact
Pinus strobus ‘Beal’s Starry Night’

Conifers for Trough Gardens, Fairy Gardens & Railroad Gardens

Although these three gardening styles have different purposes, the growing conditions are virtually the same. In order to succeed in these miniature gardens, plants must tolerate small root spaces.

Most of the cultivars in this list are considered miniature conifers, meaning they grow less than 1” per year. A majority of miniature conifers will be less than 2’ tall, and many can be pruned to smaller sizes.

Trough gardens are an easy way to showcase miniature specimen plants that would otherwise be lost in a large landscape. These gardens are similar to rock gardens, and most plants are interchangeable, except specimens in a trough garden are generally smaller.

Fairy gardens are extremely small gardens- some only a few inches in diameter- that are decorated with miniature tables, chairs, etc. The plants that thrive in fairy gardens are extremely small, and they can be pruned down to mere inches.

Railroad gardens are living landscapes for model train displays. These plants generally have the ability to look like mature trees or small shrubs, which requires consistent pruning and diligent maintenance. The plants that thrive in railroad gardens respond well to pruning and have small needles.


Cis Korean Fir

Abies koreana ‘Cis’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature evergreen matures into a small, flat globe. The dark green needles are whorled, and the branches burst out from the center to form a small, dense ball.

This conifer responds well to light pruning, but it has a natural, mounding shape that adds character to a natural rock garden or fairy garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies koreana Cis conifers small globe green needles whorled
Abies koreana ‘Cis’

Kohout’s Ice Breaker Korean Fir
Abies koreana ‘Kohout’s Ice Breaker’

Needle Color: White/Silver

Cone Color: Brown

This unique conifer began life as a witch’s broom, a common plant deformity, and is now a miniature specimen for landscapes and containers. The mature plant is less than 2’ tall, and is a dense, compact globe. New growth is tightly recurved, showing the white underside of the needles.

This cultivar is more tolerant of hot, dry conditions than most other firs.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies koreana Kohout's Ice Breaker conifers compact recurved silver white
Abies koreana ‘Kohout’s Ice Breaker’

Hedgehog Cedar of Lebanon

Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’

Needle Color: Blue/Grey

Cone Color: Brown

This unique mini conifer has a slate grey/blue color and long, droopy needles. The overall form is a short, flat, shaggy mound.

This specimen plant does not tolerate extreme cold weather, so it is not a good choice for exposed planters or containers in cooler climates. Once the plant is established, it is quite drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 8”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 12”
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Tip blight
  • Container Plant: Yes
Cedrus libani Hedgehog conifer blue grey mound needles
Cedrus libani ‘Hedgehog’

Katere Cedar of Lebanon

Cedrus libani ‘Katere’

Needle Color: Light Green

Cone Color: Brown

This shaggy cultivar is the slowest-growing Cedar of Lebanon available. The needles are much brighter than the Hedgehog cultivar, but the overall size and shape is similar.

This miniature cultivar makes an excellent addition to miniature gardens, and once it is established, it is reliably drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Tip blight
  • Container Plant: Yes
Cedrus libani Katere conifer needles green shaggy miniature
Cedrus libani ‘Katere’

Chirimen Hinoki Cypress

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Chirimen’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Brown

This unique cultivar has an open, upright form with short, dense needles. The branches look like pipe cleaners that extend up and out from the main trunk.

This cultivar responds well to pruning. Prune old wood out of the center of the plant to accentuate the unique branch and needle structure and add a whimsical touch to a small fairy or railroad garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis obtusa Chirimen conifer green needles structural
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Chirimen’

Pygmy Sawara False Cypress

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tsukumo’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Brown

This fun miniature cultivar tolerates heavy shaping pruning, which can result in a tiny plant with a real awwwww factor. Left to its own devices, this false cypress will form a small, dense, mounding lump that looks more like a moss-covered rock than a plant.

This plant is a unique addition to a small fairy garden or trough garden, and it lends a challenge to gardeners who want to perfect precision pruning.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis pisifera Tsukumo conifer mounding green dense miniature
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tsukumo’

Daisy’s White Alberta Spruce

Picea glauca ‘Daisy White’

Needle Color: White/Silver Green

Cone Color: Brown

This cultivar grows in a near-perfect cone and produces bursts of new, white growth in the spring. This flash of spring color fades to a dense, dark silver/green in the summer.

This plant will grow in a natural cone shape, but it handles pruning well, and takes on a formal look when the outer growth is shaped into a smooth cone form.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 18”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 18”
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea glauca Daisy White conifer cone white green
Picea glauca ‘Daisy White’

Pixie Dust White Spruce

Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’

Needle Color: Light Green

Cone Color: Brown

Pixie Dust has small, light green tufts of new growth in the spring that look as though the entire plant was sprinkled in fairy dust. This rather fitting image is one reason this is a popular choice for fairy gardens.

Careful pruning will increase the new growth each spring, which will enhance the showy springtime color. This conifer has a tight, conical shape with upright branches.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 15”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 8”
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea glauca Pixie Dust conifer green tufts conical upright
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’

Dwarf Black Spruce

Picea mariana ‘Nana’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This is one of the most common miniature conifers for fairy gardens and rock gardens. The compact, blue/green needles and mounding form provide a cool backdrop for more colorful, structural plants.

This cultivar is one of the most cold-hardy miniature conifers available. This conifer will grow a little larger than the other plants in this category, so you have the option to prune it down into a dense little mound, or allow it to grow to its mature size and create a soft backdrop for smaller plants.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea mariana Nana conifers compact blue needles mounding miniature
Picea mariana ‘Nana’

Mt. Vernon Oriental Spruce

Picea orientalis ‘Mt. Vernon’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Pink

Mt. Vernon is a miniature conifer with extremely small, compact needles. The branches are dense and upright, and produce bright pink cones in the spring.

This small, mounding conifer is perfect for railroad specimens or fairy gardens.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 8”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 18”
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea orientalis Mt. Vernon conifer compact green dense mounding small
Picea orientalis ‘Mt. Vernon’

Tom Thumb Gold Oriental Spruce

Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature conifer is a perfect specimen plant for shady locations. The light green foliage turns a brilliant gold in the spring, and the foliage may burn if it is in direct sun.

This conifer has small needles, slightly upright branches, and a low, mounding growth habit.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 12”
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea orientalis Tom Thumb Gold conifer gold mounding
Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

Blue Pearl Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens ‘Blue Pearl’

Needle Color: Blue

Cone Color: Brown

The Blue Pearl miniature conifer is a cute addition to a fairy garden or railroad display. The short, dense foliage forms a tight ball around the central trunk.

This spruce responds well to pruning, so you can shape it up into a small tree form or allow it to take on a more natural, mounding shape.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea pungens Blue Pearl conifers mounding dense blue
Picea pungens ‘Blue Pearl’

Jakobsen Mugo Pine

Pinus mugo ‘Jakobsen’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature pine is a new cultivar from Denmark, and it is praised for how the needles drape against the branches and create an elegant, tufted look.

This miniature conifer is larger than most of the other plants in this category, and it doesn’t respond as well to hard pruning. This cultivar is best for trough gardens and larger fairy or railroad gardens. Jakobsen is more cold-hardy than most miniature conifers.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Tip blight
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus mugo Jakobsen conifer green miniature
Pinus mugo ‘Jakobsen’

Paul’s Dwarf Mugo Pine

Pinus mugo ‘Paul’s Dwarf’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

Paul’s Dwarf is a cultivar that can be kept to a small size through consistent pruning. The open, upright branching structure gives the appearance of maturity, which adds character to small fairy or trough gardens.

Over time, this plant will form a subtle cone shape, but you can manipulate the form by pruning.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Tip blight
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus mugo Paul's Dwarf conifer green upright open cone
Pinus mugo ‘Paul’s Dwarf’

Aoi Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’

Needle Color: Blue/Silver

Cone Color: Red

This brilliant, frosted white pine is a fan-favorite for trough and fairy gardens. The striped needles and bright red cones add a burst of color and character, as well as structural interest with the open, upright branches.

This dwarf conifer prefers warmer climates, and it can tolerate a wide range of soils as long as it is in a well-drained area.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus parviflora Aoi conifer blue silver needles red cones upright structural
Pinus parviflora ‘Aoi’

Catherine Elizabeth Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Catherine Elizabeth’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

Catherine Elizabeth is a dense, mounding specimen with a windswept appearance. The branches are compact and upright, and with a little pruning, this conifer can become a miniature tree with a Japanese flair.

This specimen won the ACS Select Conifer of the Year award in 2019.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus parviflora Catherine Elizabeth conifer blue green mounding  compact upright
Pinus parviflora ‘Catherine Elizabeth’

Sea Urchin Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

Sea Urchin is a compact, bushy conifer with long, soft needles. The overall form resembles a sea urchin, hence the name.

This conifer has a compact, mounding habit, and the long, dense needles can restrict airflow to the center of the plant. Clear out dead needles before new growth in the spring to help prevent disease.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Fungal infections
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Sea Urchin conifer blue green compact mounding
Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’

Green Penguin Scots Pine

Pinus sylvestris ‘Green Penguin’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This unique cultivar has an odd, upright habit with thick needles, which apparently gives this plant the rough character of a penguin. Old needles are extremely long compared to the short, dense new growth.

This pine will eventually develop into a small cone.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus sylvestris Green Penguin conifer green upright cone
Pinus sylvestris ‘Green Penguin’

Moseri Scots Pine

Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

The Moseri Scots Pine has a unique form and brilliant fall color. Old needles can be up to 4x as long as new growth, which gives the plant an overall full, shaggy look. This is amplified by the color change in the fall as the needles fade from a deep green to a bright yellow gold.

This larger conifer is a good background plant for smaller, more unique specimen plants.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Dothistroma needle blight
    • Red band needle blight
    • Needle cast
    • Pine stem rust
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus sylvestris Moseri conifer color shaggy yellow gold
Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri’

Malonyana Holub Arborvitae
Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana Holub’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

Dense, dark green foliage tightly covers the branches of this dwarf tree, which give it an odd, random growth pattern. The needle size can vary, which adds to the illogical nature of this plant’s growth habit. However, this arborvitae is easy to prune into a more predictable shape while maintaining the unique character of the branches.

This conifer adds character to a landscape, and it can be pruned down to fit the size requirements of a small fairy, trough, or railroad garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Bagworms
    • Spider mites
    • Scale
    • Leafminers
  • Container Plant: Yes
Thuja occidentalis Malonyana Holub conifer green dense
Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana Holub’

Complementary Plants:

These unique Japanese maple cultivars also handle the growing conditions of specialty gardens, and the palmate leaves add a lacey, whimsical texture.

Baby Lace Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Baby Lace’

Leaf Color: Red/Purple/Burgundy

Bloom Color: N/A

This delicate Japanese Maple changes color throughout the year, but it always has deep red undertones. The leaves are light and lacy, as the name suggests, and they add a delicate, magical character to small fairy gardens or railroad displays.

Plant Baby Lace in a protected area away from strong winds.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Acer palmatum Baby Lace Japanese maple laceleaf color red
Acer palmatum ‘Baby lace’

Goshiki Kotohime Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki Kotohime’

Leaf Color: Pink/Red/Gold/Green

Bloom Color: N/A

Goshiki Kotohime has a unique, pronounced upright growth habit. The leaves have a distinct palmate shape, true to the Japanese Maple, but the leaves hug the branches in dense clusters, which makes the branch structure much more visible.

This tree will outgrow small specimen gardens, but it provides a beautiful, structural background for specialty plantings.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Acer palmatum Goshiki kotohime Japanese maple green upright structural
Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki kotohime’

Shaina Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’

Leaf Color: Pink/Red/Purple

Bloom Color: N/A

This cultivar floats between an upright shrub and compact dwarf tree, depending on the pruning style. The leaves will maintain a red color throughout the growing season, but the intensity and warmth will vary depending on the time of year.

Shaina is a sensitive cultivar and will not do well in cold climates. Plant in a protected area.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Acer palmatum Shaina Japanese maple red compact upright
Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’

Sharp’s Pygmy Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Sharp’s Pygmy’

Leaf Color: Green/Orange/Red

Bloom Color: N/A

This cultivar is one of the few true dwarf Japanese Maples. The leaves on this specimen tree are tiny, and they have a whimsical, curved shape.

Sharp’s Pygmy has a distinct, open tree shape that can be pruned into a flat, draping specimen.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Acer palmatum Sharp's Pygmy Japanese maple leaves tiny whimsical open
Acer palmatum ‘Sharp’s Pygmy’


Conifers for Shade

Although there are many conifers that tolerate shade, it’s difficult to find ones that thrive in shade.

Most of the conifers on this list have white or cream-colored variegated needles, which can easily burn in direct sun. However, the color is best in partial shade, and the plant may be stunted or lose the vibrant coloration in deep shade.

Full sun is defined as sites that receive at least 6+ hours of direct sun each day.

Part sun/shade is defined as sites that receive 3-6 hours of direct sun each day.

Mostly shade is defined as sites that receive less than 3 hours of direct sun each day.

Deep shade is defined as sites that do not receive sunlight. There are no conifers that thrive in deep shade.

Conifer Genus and Species that tolerate shady sites:

Shady sites tend to be wet, and wet soil is one of the most limiting factors for growing conifers. Although conifers use lots of water, they don’t like extended periods of having their roots wet.

The best options for wet soils are deciduous conifers, like bald cypress.

If your soil drains well but gets less than 6 hours of sunlight per day, you have more options. Most shade-tolerant conifers will thrive in low light as long as the soil drains easily.

Spiral Japanese Cedar

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Spiralis’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This large conifer prefers full sun, but it will tolerate light shade. This upright tree has layered, slightly drooping branches with tight, feathery needles.

This conifer is sensitive to harsh winds and drought conditions. Plant in a protected area in rich, well-drained soil.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 9’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Leaf blight
    • Leaf spot
  • Container Plant: No
Cryptomeria japonica Spiralis conifer green upright needles
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Spiralis’

Silver Seedling Oriental Spruce

Picea orientalis ‘Silver Seedling’

Needle Color: White/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf conifer has an extraordinary, variegated needle color. The outer needles have a bright, creamy white color which creates a sharp contrast to the deep green, old inner growth. The color variation is more pronounced in part shade, where the tips become bright white.

Plant this conifer in part shade to prevent tip burn.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Picea orientalis Silver Seedling conifer white green needles variegated
Picea orientalis ‘Silver Seedling’

Tom Thumb Gold Oriental Spruce

Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature conifer is a perfect specimen plant for shady locations. The light green foliage turns a brilliant gold in the spring, and the foliage may burn if it is in direct sun.

This conifer has small needles, slightly upright branches, and a low, mounding growth habit.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 12”
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea orientalis Tom Thumb Gold conifer gold green upright mounding
Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb Gold’

Tanima no yuki Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Tanima no yuki’

Needle Color: White/Pink/Grey

Cone Color: Brown

The name of this cultivar translates to “snow in the valley”. This unique conifer has an unexpected mix of pink and white growth in the spring. The bold, pink and white candles contrast with the slate grey/green color of the old growth, which gives the entire tree an icy, frosted look.

Plant in part shade-mostly shade for a more pronounced color variegation.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Part Shade/Mostly Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus parviflora Tanima-no-yuki conifer white pink grey candles
Pinus parviflora ‘Tanima-no-yuki’

Blue Shag Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf conifer has the characteristic long, soft needles associated with Eastern White Pines. This cultivar is a slow-growing, mounding plant with shaggy branches.

The Blue Shag cultivar is a low-maintenance plant suited for rock gardens and landscape beds. Although this plant performs well in full sun, it can also tolerate some shade.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Blue Shag conifer blue green needles soft
Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’

Silver Spire English Yew

Taxus baccata ‘Silver Spire’

Needle Color: Green/Gold/Silver

Cone Color: Brown

This upright cultivar has a distinct, columnar form with colorful, variegated needles. Old growth has a deep green color with silver stripes, which is contrasted in the spring by bursts of new, golden needles.

Yews can withstand heavy pruning, so this cultivar could be shaped into a more formal, columnar specimen.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade/Mostly Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Taxus baccata Silver Spire conifer green gold silver variegated needles
Taxus baccata ‘Silver Spire’

Watnong Gold English Yew

Taxus baccata ‘Watnong Gold’

Needle Color: Green/Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This spreading cultivar has a bright, gold color that is more pronounced with new growth in the spring. In mild climates, the color is brightest in full sun. However, in warmer climates, the plant requires part shade-mostly shade to produce a vibrant color and prevent tip burn.

Yews can handle significant pruning, so this specimen can be shaped to fit a variety of landscape styles.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade/Mostly Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Taxus baccata Watnong Gold conifer green gold needles
Taxus baccata ‘Watnong Gold’


Conifers for Japanese Gardens

Traditional Japanese gardens strive to evoke a calm, peaceful feeling through soft, sweeping, foliage and open, structural branch patterns.

Pines and cypress are the most common conifers used in Japanese gardens, but there are many complimentary plants that can provide a unique focal point and add to the overall design.

Japanese gardens are maintained through meticulous pruning, with the goal being an intentional, natural look.

Hage Hinoki Cypress

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Hage’

Needle Color: Dark Green

Cone Color: Brown

This miniature cultivar has layered, fan-shaped branches with small, tight needles. The overall form of the plant is sweeping, graceful, and wavy.

Leave the plant to grow naturally for a compact, mounding specimen, or prune the bottom layers into a miniature tree form. This cultivar is a great addition to specialty gardens, including Japanese gardens and fairy gardens.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis obtusa Hage compact mounding layered
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Hage’

Dwarf Yellow Hinoki Cypress

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’

Needle Color: Yellow/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf conifer adds a bright pop of color to a landscape. The intensity of the yellow undertones will change depending on how much light the plant receives. The more shade, the more lime green or yellow the needles will appear. However, this plant can only tolerate part shade; it will suffer in low light.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Chamaecyparis obtusa Nana Lutea yellow green
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’

Fukuzumi Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Fukuzumi’

Needle Color: Green/Silver

Cone Color: Brown

Fukuzumi is an unpredictable cultivar with a unique, structural form. Mature plants take on the shape of a sweeping wave or bowl. These pines can be pruned to direct new growth into unexpected, architectural growth patterns.

Japanese white pines are salt, pollution, and drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus parviflora Fukuzumi green silver structural
Pinus parviflora ‘Fukuzumi

Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine

Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’

Needle Color: Green/White

Cone Color: Brown

This mounding cultivar is a popular specimen in traditional Japanese gardens. Long, soft needles are offset by bright white candles in the spring, and sweeping, upright branches add an elegant, peaceful touch to the landscape.

This conifer is drought and salt tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus thunbergii Thunderhead green soft needles white candles
Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’

Diggy Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Diggy’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This upright conifer has a burst of new growth in the spring, followed by a curious second growth spurt adorned with bright green needles. The open, structural growth habit of this pine complements the natural order of a Japanese garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Diggy conifer blue green needles structral
Pinus strobus ‘Diggy’

Spartan Chinese Juniper

Juniperus chinensis ‘Spartan’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This Japanese native is described as the exclamation point in the landscape. The overall growth habit is a tight, compact column with green, feathery needles.

This conifer adds a unique structural element to the landscape, and it will maintain a more formal shape without intense pruning. Spartan is tolerant of drought, salt, and poor soil.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Juniperus Chinensis Spartan green needles structural
Juniperus chinensis ‘Spartan’


Complementary Plants:

These complimentary cultivars are rare forms of traditional plants used in Japanese gardens.

Mikawa yatsubusa Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’

Leaf Color: Yellow/Green/Red

Bloom Color: N/A

The leaves of this Japanese maple grow close to the branch, which gives the overall plant a layered, hooded, structural form. The leaves are a yellow/green during the spring and summer, but transition to a bright red color in the fall.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: No
Acer palmatum Mikawa yatsubusa Japanese maple leaves structural, green, fall colors
Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’

Shishigashira Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Leaf Color: Green/Red

Bloom Color: Red

This Japanese maple cultivar has small, tight, crinkly leaves that hug the branch and show off an upright, vase-shaped growth habit. Although the natural shape is more of an upright shrub, the lower branches can be pruned to create a small, upright tree.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: No
Acer palmatum Shishigashira Japanese maple crinkly leaves upright vase green red
Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Goshiki kotohime Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki kotohime’

Leaf Color: Orange/Green/Pink/White

Bloom Color: Brown

The leaves on this Japanese maple grow close to the branch, and they go through an incredible color transformation each growing season. In the spring, new leaves break out in a bright orange color, which slowly fades to a soft green with pink and white variegations before returning to a burnt orange color in the fall.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: No
Acer palmatum Goshiki kotohime Japanese maple orange green pink white leaves
Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki kotohime’

Tamukeyama Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Tamukeyama’

Leaf Color: Red/Purple

Bloom Color: N/A

This lacy cultivar has a bold, deep color and a droopy, layered form. The tree will transition through different shades of red during the growing season, before fading to a dark purple in the fall.

The almost weeping nature of this tree, combined with the delicate, lacy leaves, provides an excellent companion to a traditional Japanese garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 10’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: No
Acer palmatum Tamukeyama Japanese maple red purple layered lace leaves
Acer palmatum ‘Tamukeyama’

Taki no gawa Full Moon Maple

Acer japonicum ‘Taki no gawa’

Leaf Color: Green/Red/Pink/Orange/Purple

Bloom Color: Red

With a name like Full Moon, this cultivar is sure to make an impression in any landscape. The leaves are so many different colors throughout the growing season, that it is constantly providing a new warmth to the landscape.

This is a larger specimen tree, and it will develop the traditional bark and growth habit of a small maple.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids
  • Container Plant: No
Acer japonicum Taki no gawa Japanese maple Full Moon leaves color green red orange purple
Acer japonicum ‘Taki no gawa’

Harp Strings Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Koto no ito’

Leaf Color: Green/Red/Orange/Gold

Bloom Color: Red

This cultivar has lacy, strap-like leaves that resemble small, golden strings. The leaf structure is so delicate that the plant has a weeping look, although the branches are quite structural.

Like most Japanese maples, this cultivar goes through many color changes throughout the growing season. This cultivar tolerates more shade than any other Japanese maple on our list.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade/Mostly Shade
  • Soil Preference: Clay-sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Aphids

Container Plant: No

Acer palmatum Koto no ito Japanese maple Harp Strings green strap leaves structural
Acer palmatum ‘Koto no ito’

Conifers for Containers

Container gardening is an easy way to show off unique features of smaller specimen plants. Most dwarf and miniature conifer cultivars grow well in containers as long as they are watered consistently and the potting soil drains easily.

Container selection:

Choose containers that are 2x-3x wider than the existing root ball, and at least 16” deep. If you live in a climate with harsh winters or hot, dry summers, try to choose containers you can lift or roll so you can move plants to a protected area if needed.

Light colored containers won’t absorb as much heat, which will help protect roots in hot climates.

Wood containers fit into a more natural landscape, but they can break down quickly if they aren’t maintained.

Stone or concrete containers are extremely durable, but they are very heavy and difficult to move.

Terra cotta containers regulate temperature and blend into a variety of landscapes, but they tend to freeze and crack in climates with harsh winters.

Growth rate:

There are two types of conifers that do well in containers: dwarf and miniature. This has less to do with the potential mature size and more to do with the annual growth rate. The less plants grow each year, the easier it is to control the overall shape and size of the mature plant.

Dwarf conifers are conifers that grow less than 6” per year. Most dwarf conifers will be no more than 6’ tall after 10 years.

Miniature conifers are conifers that grow less than 2” per year. Most miniature conifers will be no more than 3’ tall after 10 years.

Lifespan:

Conifers that receive consistent maintenance can live happily for decades in a container. However, neglected conifers have a much shorter lifespan and may not survive beyond a few seasons.

You can maximize the life of your container plants with the following maintenance practices:

Move conifers out of direct sunlight in hot, dry climates or during periods of freezing temperatures. Soil in containers will heat up and dry out faster than the landscape soil, and the roots may dry out or cook. Soil in containers is also more susceptible to a freeze/thaw cycle, which can kill roots and crack containers.

Water conifers consistently. As long as the potting soil drains easily, conifers will thrive with frequent irrigation. Line the drainage holes of the container with screens to prevent soil washing out of the bottom of the pot and encourage water movement.

Fertilize conifers yearly. Use a slow-release fertilizer at ¼ the rate, and add a few inches of compost as mulch to help with nutrient and water retention.

Prune conifers yearly to control growth and encourage a dense, healthy root system.

There are many conifers that tolerate container planting, but the following cultivars are consistent, reliable container specimens.

Blue Globe Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’

Needle Color: Grey/Blue

Cone Color: Brown

This conifer forms a dense, upright, mounding shape with a metallic blue color that is extra bright during the spring. Spruces respond well to pruning, so these conifers can be pruned up into small trees or shaped into more formal specimens.

Blue spruce are drought and salt tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea pungens Glauca Globosa conifer grey blue mound needles dense
Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’

Spiralis Hinoki Cypress

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Spiralis’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

The Hinoki cypress is a popular choice for container growing. These conifers are known for their unique structural component and fine-textured needles.

Spiralis has a tight, upright growth habit and responds well to pruning.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Honey fungus
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis obtusa Spiralis conifer structural needles upright
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Spiralis’

Little Monster White Spruce

Picea glauca ‘Little Monster’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

As the name suggests, this miniature conifer has a small, aggressive growth habit. The limbs are sporadic, and the needles are tight and sparse, showcasing the odd, structural branching.

This conifer does well in small containers, or it can be used as part of a larger container garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Width @ 10 Years: 10”
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea glauca Little Monster conifer green needles structural miniature
Picea glauca ‘Little Monster’

Koru Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Koru’

Needle Color: Blue/Green/Silver

Cone Color: Brown

This cultivar has a unique, recurved needle shape with silver, variegated coloration. The plant has an upright, open, pyramidal form, which can be accentuated through selective pruning.

Japanese white pines can tolerate slightly alkaline soils, and they are drought and salt resistant once established.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus parviflora Koru conifer blue green needles recurve variegated pyramidal
Pinus parviflora ‘Koru’

Bob’s Whiskers Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Bob’s Whiskers’

Needle Color: Blue

Cone Color: Brown

This cultivar has long, shaggy needles typical of Eastern white pines. Needles grow in tufts along weeping branches, giving a soft, unique character to this upright specimen tree.

The Eastern white pine can tolerate dry, rocky, alkaline soils, but it cannot tolerate soils with poor drainage.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Blight
    • Cankers
    • Weevils
    • Pine sawfly
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Bob's Whiskers conifer blue needles shaggy tufts weeping
Pinus strobus ‘Bob’s Whiskers’

Taihei Japanese Black Pine

Pinus thunbergii ‘Taihei’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This Japanese native adds a strong, structural element to the landscape while providing a soft, elegant touch due to long, upright needles. This cultivar has a cork bark form which gives it a unique character in a container.

Japanese pines are tolerant of drought, salt, and a wide variety of soil conditions.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus thunbergii Taihei conifer green structural soft needles cork bark
Pinus thunbergii ‘Taihei’

Icicle English Yew

Taxus baccata ‘Icicle’

Needle Color: Green/Yellow/White

Cone Color: Brown

This upright, conical yew has a bright gold/white color and tight, dense foliage. Yews respond well to pruning, so this is an excellent container option to showcase formal and artistic shaping.

Be careful with this species because the berries are poisonous.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Taxus baccata Icicle conifer green yellow white dense conical upright
Taxus baccata ‘Icicle’

If you’re reading this, congratulations! You just learned which plants to use in those unique, special spaces to liven up an area.

 

 

35 Dwarf Conifers by Feature

When most gardeners picture an eye-catching landscape plant, they envision colorful annuals, winding vines, and variegated perennials.

However, there is a whole industry devoted to creating and producing rare dwarf conifer specimen plants, or more simply, amazingly unique little trees and shrubs. These plants are full of character and have some surprising color variations that can add a unique pop of seasonal color to your landscape.

One of the major benefits of using dwarf conifer specimen plants is that most are evergreen, so they provide interest from late fall through early spring, when most other landscape plants are dormant and boring.

Some of the plants in our guide are classified as rare, meaning they can only be found through specialty growers. When you decide which plant is right for your landscape, contact a certified rare conifer grower to order high-quality, disease-free plants.

Some specimen plants benefit from careful pruning, while others are best left to their natural, sporadic growth habits.

In general, conifers with unique cones or needle colors should be gently candled or shaped to encourage new outer growth and amplify the unique features of the plant. Some of these conifers make stunning hedges or windbreaks, but gold or yellow conifers may need more shelter from the wind and sun to prevent leaf burn.

However, conifers with a unique or weeping form generally require little to no pruning, except to remove dead or damaged wood. These plants are better suited for solo focal points in the garden.

Skip ahead to the plants that interest you:

  • Conifers for Year-Round Color
  • Conifers for Winter Color
  • Conifers for Spring Color
  • Conifers with Showy Cones
  • Weeping Conifers
  • Conifers with Unique Forms

Conifers for Year-Round Color

Conifers in this category have been bred for unique needle and cone colors. Blue and silver conifers can add depth and contrast to a landscape, while gold and yellow conifers add a bright, cheery backdrop.

Of course, these plants can also stand alone as a specimen. With careful pruning (link to pruning page), these conifers will make excellent focal points in a landscape or container.

In general, blue or deep green conifers do well in full sun. Gold, yellow, or cream-colored conifers may have a more noticeable color difference in part shade.

Silberlocke Korean Fir

Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’

Needle Color: Silver

Cone Color: Purple

This beautiful silver evergreen provides strong contrast in a landscape. Needles are tightly recurved, which gives the tree a firm, pyramidal shape. Upright, deep-purple cones provide seasonal, structural interest.

This conifer is considered to be low-maintenance and tolerates a variety of growing conditions.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Abies koreana Horstmann's Silberlocke evergreen conifer white
Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’

Golden Spreader Nordmann Fir

Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader

Needle Color: Yellow/Gold

Cone Color: N/A

This golden conifer adds warmth to a landscape or container garden. New growth is a soft, light green that slowly fades into a brilliant yellow color. This plant will grow into a small, wide globe that requires little pruning. Plant in part sun for a more pronounced color.

The standard Nordmann fir has an almost perfect, elegant pyramidal shape. The Golden Spreader cultivar has the same elegant form, but on a smaller scale.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies nordmanniana Golden Spreader evergreen conifer gold
Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’

Satellit Bosnian Pine

Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) ‘Satellit’

Needle Color: Deep Green

Cone Color: Blue

The bright blue cones of this dwarf pine provide a cool contrast to the long, dark green needles. This pine has an open, pyramidal shape with upright branches. Plant in full sun for best color.

This conifer, and its miniature cousin, the Smidtii Bosnian pine, prefer acidic soil but can tolerate alkaline soil, making them a perfect addition to landscapes with chalky soils.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 8’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Sawflies
    • Pine shoot moth
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus heldreichii leucodermis Satellit evergreen conifer green
Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) ‘Satellit’

Smidtii Bosnian Pine

Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) ‘Smidtii’

Needle Color: Deep Green

Cone Color: Dark Purple

This little evergreen is the miniature cousin of the Satellit Bosnian Pine. The needles are shorter and more compact, and the branches form a tight, round globe. The cones are small, but they are a beautiful blue/purple color before maturing into a dark brown.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Sawflies
    • Pine shoot moth
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) Smidtii evergreen conifer green
Pinus heldreichii (leucodermis) ‘Smidtii’

Bergman Japanese White Pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Bergman’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Bright Red

This pine keeps a dense, pyramidal shape despite colorful, twisted needles. In the spring, bright red male cones provide an additional layer of visual interest. This pine is more heat tolerant than other conifers in this category. It also tolerates drought and salt spray.

This interesting cultivar began life in Pennsylvania in the 1960s as a distinct seedling in a nursery. The growers propagated the plant, and in 2011, it won the ACS Collectors Conifer of the Year award.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Pine wilt
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus parviflora Bergman evergreen conifer green
Pinus parviflora ‘Bergman’

Edit Colorado Spruce
Picea pungens ‘Edit’

Needle Color: Silvery Blue

Cone Color: Red/Brown

This striking Colorado spruce cultivar has a frosted, silvery blue color and a dense growth habit. The cones are a bright red color and then fade to brown as they mature. This evergreen maintains a dense, bushy profile throughout its life, making it a strong focal point in a landscape.

This spruce tolerates drought and salt spray.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea pungens Edit evergreen conifer green
Picea pungens ‘Edit’

Mushroom Japanese Cedar

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Mushroom’

Needle Color: Bronze/Purple

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf conifer has unique, coarse needles that turn a deep bronze/purple color in the fall. The slow, mounding growth habit combined with drooping branches results in a dense, mature, weeping globe. Hence, the name mushroom.

Although this conifer performs best in full sun, it dries out quickly in windy areas, so plant it in a sheltered part of your landscape.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 8’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing of significance
  • Container Plant: Yes
Cryptomeria japonica Mushroom evergreen conifer red green
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Mushroom’

Complementary Landscape Plant:

Coral Tower Japanese Maple

Acer palmatum ‘Sango-Kaku’

Leaf Color: Light Pink in spring, light green in summer, bright yellow in fall

Bark Color: Bright Red

This colorful Japanese maple provides visual interest during all four seasons. The leaves continue to change color throughout the season until they drop in the fall, revealing the beautiful coral-red bark. This ornamental tree provides a beautiful accent piece that has the lacey, delicate appearance of a Japanese maple with sharp, striking color changes.

Although this tree performs well under most light conditions, the color will be most profound in part shade.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Horse chestnut scale
    • Aphids
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Container Plant: No
Acer palmatum Sango kaku Japanese maple coral red bark color
Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’

Conifers for Winter Color

These conifers have a similar color change as deciduous trees in the fall, except most of the plants in this category will fade to a deep gold or bronze color throughout the winter, and then regain their green color in the spring.

Conifers that change color during the winter provide excellent seasonal interest while the rest of the garden is dormant.

Chief Joseph Lodgepole Pine

Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

Chief Joseph lodgepole pine is a rare specimen tree that makes a bold statement in any landscape. This unique pine fades into a brilliant gold color during the fall/winter season. The mature plant has an open, pyramidal shape and bright, twisted needles.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Sawflies
    • Pine shoot moth
    • Pine needle cast
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus contorta var. latifolia Chief Joseph conifer evergreen gold yellow
Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Chief Joseph’

Moseri Scots Pine

Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

The Moseri Scots Pine has a unique form and brilliant fall color. Old needles can be up to 4x as long as new growth, which gives the plant an overall full, shaggy look. This is amplified by the color change in the fall as the needles fade from a deep green to a bright yellow gold.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Dothistroma needle blight
    • Red band needle blight
    • Needle cast
    • Pine stem rust
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus sylvestris Moseri conifer evergreen gold yellow
Pinus sylvestris ‘Moseri’

Louie Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Louie’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf pine begins life as a little globe, and then matures into a small, golden pyramid. Needles are light green and frosted with yellow during the summer, but fade to a deep gold during the fall and winter seasons.

This plant benefits from annual candling (link to pruning page) and occasional shaping to keep a more compact structure.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing of significance
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus strobus Louie conifer evergreen gold yellow
Pinus strobus ‘Louie’

Kohout’s Ice Breaker Korean Fir

Abies koreana ‘Kohout’s Ice Breaker’

Needle Color: White/Silver

Cone Color: Brown

This unique conifer began life as a witch’s broom, a common plant deformity, and is now a miniature specimen for landscapes and containers. The mature plant is less than 2’ tall, and is a dense, compact globe. New growth is tightly recurved, showing the white underside of the needles.

This cultivar is more tolerant of hot, dry conditions than most other firs.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Essentially disease-free
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies koreana Kohout's Ice Breaker conifer evergreen white
Abies koreana ‘Kohout’s Ice Breaker’

Blue Surprise Lawson False Cypress

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’

Needle Color: Blue/Purple

Cone Color: Blue/Brown

This bright blue false cypress has a tight, upright, columnar form. The branches are thin, delicate, and dense, which gives the plant a soft, formal appearance. During the winter, this small tree fades to a blue/purple color.

This false cypress is drought tolerant and pollution tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing of significance
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Blue Surprise evergreen conifer blue conical
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’

Carsten’s Wintergold Mugo Pine

Pinus mugo ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This compact, bushy mugo pine has a rich orange/gold color during the fall and winter seasons. This pine has incredible cold tolerance, and as temperatures drop, the color intensifies. This specimen plant is perfect for small landscapes or containers.

This pine is drought resistant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: .75’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Sawflies
    • Pine shoot moth
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus mugo Carstens Carstens Wintergold conifer evergreen gold
Pinus mugo ‘Carstens’ (‘Carstens Wintergold’)


Conifers for Spring Color

These conifers produce bright new growth in the spring that stands in sharp contrast to the mature needles. Most of the conifers on this list will have a more noticeable color display if they are planted in part shade.

Prune (link to pruning page) these conifers to create dense outer growth, which will produce a more spectacular display in the spring.

Taylor’s Sunburst Lodgepole Pine

Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’

Needle Color: Yellow

Cone Color: Brown

This upright dwarf tree has bright yellow candles each spring, which stand in stark contrast to the mature, deep-green needles from the year before. This pine is more columnar than a pyramid, but more pyramidal than a column, placing it firmly in a unique form category. Branches curve upwards at the tips, and in the spring, it almost looks like the tree is a flaming candelabra.

This pine is drought resistant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus contorta var. latifolia Taylor's Sunburst conifer evergreen yellow conical
Pinus contorta var. latifolia ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’

Brentmoor Blonde Scots Pine

Pinus sylvestris ‘Brentmoor Blonde’

Needle Color: Cream

Cone Color: Brown

This rare Scots pine has an almost frosted appearance during the spring as new needles emerge. As one of the only pines with white foliage, this dwarf specimen tree is difficult to find, but makes a spectacular addition to any landscape.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 8.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus sylvestris Brentmoor Blonde conifer evergreen yellow
Pinus sylvestris ‘Brentmoor Blonde’

Perry’s Gold Norway Spruce

Picea abies ‘Perry’s Gold’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This unique cultivar of Norway Spruce is an excellent specimen plant for part shade. The bright yellow burst of growth each spring makes the tree look like it grew its own Christmas lights. The color will eventually fade to a deep green, but this perky spruce still makes a statement during the summer with a fun, whimsical form.

The delicate, golden needles may burn in full sun.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea abies Perry's Gold conifer evergreen yellow gold
Picea abies ‘Perry’s Gold’

Pusch Norway Spruce

Picea abies ‘Pusch’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Red

This dwarf conifer was propagated from a witch’s broom on an Acrocona Norway spruce. Like the Acrocona, the Pusch cultivar has raspberry-red cones during the spring. The major difference between these two cultivars is the size. The Pusch Norway spruce maintains a very small, compact globe form through maturity.

This conifer is drought, wind, and pollution tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea abies Pusch conifer evergreen green
Picea abies ‘Pusch’

McConnell’s Gold White Spruce

Picea glauca ‘McConnell’s Gold’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This frosty golden specimen tree is one of the first to break buds in the spring with a burst of soft yellow needles. This dwarf conifer has a strong pyramidal form with dense, deep green mature needles. The gold white spruce tolerates harsh winters and part shade, making it the perfect choice for northern landscapes.

This conifer is mildly resistant to pollution, but should be planted in a sheltered area of the landscape. Under ideal conditions, this conifer can last 50+ years.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: No
Picea glauca McConnell's Gold conifer evergreen yellow
Picea glauca ‘McConnell’s Gold’

Golden Spring Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens ‘Bialobok’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Brown

This elegant, feathery spruce has a traditional deep blue color, but during the spring, creamy golden new growth creates a delicate, colorful contrast. This tree has a looser form than other Colorado spruce cultivars, but its slightly droopy nature adds personality to any landscape.

This spruce is drought, salt, and pollution resistant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea pungens Bialobok yellow conifer evergreen
Picea pungens ‘Bialobok’

Ruby Teardrops Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens ‘Ruby Teardrops’

Needle Color: Blue

Cone Color: Red

This dwarf Colorado spruce sports hundreds of bright red cones for over 2 months each spring. The cones emerge pink and quickly deepen into a sharp red, before eventually maturing into a brown color during the summer. The needles on the Ruby Red Colorado spruce are a richer blue than most other cultivars, making this a popular landscape specimen.

This tree does well in poor, rocky soils.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rocky, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea pungens Ruby Teardrops conifer evergreen red
Picea pungens ‘Ruby Teardrops’

Deep Cove Himalayan Cedar

Cedrus deodara ‘Deep Cove’

Needle Color: Silver

Cone Color: Brown

This magical tree has deep blue needles, but in the spring, the new silver growth makes it look like it has a light dusting of snow. This cultivar has a slightly droopy, whimsical form, and is a striking specimen tree in lawns or landscapes. This tree does not perform well in containers.

This cedar is wind and drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Canker
    • Weevil
  • Container Plant: No
Cedrus deodara Deep Cove conifer evergreen yellow
Cedrus deodara ‘Deep Cove’

Conifers with Showy Cones

Conifers in this category will produce colorful or uniquely-shaped cones in the spring. These conifers are good specimens for the more accessible parts of a landscape so the cones can be viewed and admired.

Once the cones begin to mature, they will all turn into a reddish brown or dark brown color.

Consistent pruning (link to pruning page) can help increase cone production.

Pusch Norway Spruce

Picea abies ‘Pusch’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Red

This dwarf conifer was propagated from a witch’s broom on an Acrocona Norway spruce. Like the Acrocona, the Pusch cultivar has raspberry-red cones during the spring. The major difference between these two cultivars is the size. The Pusch Norway spruce maintains a very small, compact globe form through maturity.

This conifer is drought, wind, and pollution tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 1’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Sun
  • Soil Preference: Loamy-sandy, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea abies Pusch conifer evergreen cones green
Picea abies ‘Pusch’

Ruby Teardrops Colorado Spruce

Picea pungens ‘Ruby Teardrops’

Needle Color: Blue

Cone Color: Red

This dwarf Colorado spruce sports hundreds of bright red cones for over 2 months each spring. The cones emerge pink and quickly deepen into a sharp red, before eventually maturing into a brown color during the summer. The needles on the Ruby Red Colorado spruce are a richer blue than most other cultivars, making this a popular landscape specimen.

This tree does well in poor, rocky soils.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Rocky, moist-dry, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
    • Verticillium wilt
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea pungens Ruby Teardrops Colorado Spruce conifer evergreen red cones
Picea pungens ‘Ruby Teardrops’ Colorado Spruce

Silberlocke Korean Fir

Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’

Needle Color: Silver

Cone Color: Purple

This beautiful silver evergreen provides strong contrast in a landscape. Needles are tightly recurved, which gives the tree a firm, pyramidal shape. Upright, deep-purple cones provide seasonal, structural interest.

This conifer is considered to be low-maintenance and tolerates most soil and light conditions.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Abies koreana Horstmann's Silberlocke conifer evergreen cones white
Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’


Blue Compact Subalpine Fir

Abies lasiocarpa ‘Glauca Compacta’

Needle Color: Light Blue

Cone Color: Purple

This little conifer is true to its name. The tree is a dense, compact pyramid with upright branches. The frosted, light-blue needles provide year-round interest, but the true focal point of this conifer is the bright purple cones that appear in the spring.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 1.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Abies lasiocarpa Glauca Compacta conifer evergreen cones green blue
Abies lasiocarpa ‘Glauca Compacta’

Coney Island Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Coney Island’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf pine has long, brown cones hanging from the branches that resemble hot dogs. Although the color isn’t spectacular, the cones are conspicuous because they are conspicuous compared to the small size of the mature plant. This is another variety that was cultivated from a witch’s broom, and it will retain a small, globose shape into maturity.

This pine is drought tolerant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: Yes
Pinus strobus Coney Island conifer evergreen cones soft needles
Pinus strobus ‘Coney Island’

Wiethorst Hybrid Pine

Pinus schwerinii (x) ‘Wiethorst’

Needle Color: Blue/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This hybrid pine is another conifer that began life as a witch’s broom. The long, delicate needles are soft and loose, but the plant can become quite dense if it is pruned regularly. This conifer produces an abundance of long, blue cones that eventually mature to a deep brown color.

This pine is drought resistant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-rich, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus schwerinii x Wiethorst conifer evergreen cones soft needles
Pinus schwerinii (x) ‘Wiethorst’


Weeping Conifers

Weeping conifers commonly earn the nickname “Dr. Seuss tree” from loving homeowners. Their floppy, droopy, sporadic growth habit adds a humorous element to many landscapes.

Of course, some weeping conifers have a truly elegant look to them. These conifers are more symmetrical and even, but the limbs are flexible and create a soft, layered look.

Either way, weeping conifers are an amazing specimen plant for a landscape or container garden.

Weeping White Spruce

Picea glauca ‘Pendula

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This weeping conifer has a tall, lanky look with pillowy, layered branches. The mature tree has a tight, columnar form with a pointed top. This plant can be grown almost everywhere except the extreme lower portions of the United States.

This conifer is an excellent selection for a bird garden.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 9’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-rich, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea glauca Pendula conifer evergreen weeping green blue
Picea glauca ‘Pendula’

Gold Drift Norway Spruce

Picea abies ‘Gold Drift’

Needle Color: Gold

Cone Color: Red

This droopy tree has a deep green foliage that fades into a bright gold color. As the tree matures, the top will fall over, giving the tree a humorous character. Although the tree has a general weeping habit, the branches can be sporadic.

You can also train this conifer up a stake to the desired height, then allow the top to fall over. This gives the tree a more elegant, graceful appearance.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea abies Gold Drift conifer evergreen weeping gold
Picea abies ‘Gold Drift

Catherine’s Golden Heart Norway Spruce

Picea abies ‘Catherine’s Golden Heart’

Needle Color: Light Green

Cone Color: Brown

This is a new cultivar with bright green needles and a slightly drooping form. Contrary to most weeping conifers, this small tree has a gentle, graceful appearance without being floppy. Combined with the golden undertones, this rare conifer is an excellent specimen for a landscape or large container.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Picea abies Catherine's Golden Heart conifer evergreen weeping gold
Picea abies ‘Catherines Golden Heart’

Blue Maltese Eastern White Pine

Pinus strobus ‘Blue Maltese

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This shaggy conifer has a unique, dense, fluffy appearance. Branches droop down over each other to create a carpet of bluish green needles. The mature tree has a long, thin, mounding appearance that is slightly pyramidal.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Verticillium wilt
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
  • Container Plant: No
Pinus strobus Blue Maltese conifer evergreen weeping blue
Pinus strobus ‘Blue Maltese’ Specimen 1643

Feelin’ Sunny Himalayan Cedar

Cedrus deodara ‘Feelin’ Sunny’

Needle Color: Yellow/Green

Cone Color: Brown

This bright conifer has a sporadic, horizontal growth pattern that resembles a splash of lime green water. Although the main branches tend to be strong and sturdy, new growth is quite flexible and droopy. New spring growth is a bright yellow or white color, which provides an incredible contrast with the weeping, mature growth.

This conifer is drought resistant.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 4.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 6-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
    • Rabbit
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Cedrus deodara Feelin' Sunny conifer evergreen weeping yellow gold
Cedrus deodara ‘Feelin’ Sunny’


Conifers with Unique Forms

The conifers in this category could also be classified as randomly intriguing. Some plants have showy cones, others have twisted needle or branch shapes, and a few are just too unique for words.

These plants tend to have sporadic growth patterns. Some benefit from careful pruning that enhances their natural growth habit, but these conifers do not do well as hedges or shaped specimen plants.

Most of these dwarf conifers are rare plants, and they are only available from a few specialty growers in the United States.

Krejci European Larch

Larix decidua ‘Krejci

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This larch is unique for a variety of reasons; namely, its tufts of irregular, twisted needles spaced along the branches. This conifer is also deciduous, and as the needles drop in the fall, they reveal contorted branches. This spunky plant began life as a mutation from a more common European larch, but the needle pattern was so interesting that it was propagated and has become a quirky addition to many landscapes.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 2-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Essentially disease-free
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Honey fungus
    • Canker
  • Container Plant: Yes
Larix decidua Krejci conifer deciduous unique forms feathery needles
Larix decidua ‘Krejci’

Weeping Blue Alaskan Cedar

Cupressus nootkatensis ‘Glauca Pendula’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This weeping cedar has beautiful deep green needles and elegant, weeping branches. The tree has such a graceful form that mature branches look as though they are draped in ice. This variety is extremely shade tolerant and can reach over 10’ tall.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 12’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 3’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade/Shade
  • Soil Preference: Rich, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Honey fungus
    • Phytophthora root disease
  • Container Plant: No
Cupressus nootkatensis Glauca Pendula conifer evergreen unique forms green blue
Cupressus nootkatensis ‘Glauca Pendula’

Bruns Weeping Serbian Spruce

Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Red

This is considered one of the “weepiest” weeping spruce varieties. The branches are so relaxed that the tree becomes quite narrow as it matures, while the branches hang down in layers and provide a dense, blue/green carpet that drapes over the rigid trunk. This conifer can be grown farther south than most conifers, although it can’t tolerate the extreme summer conditions of south Florida, Texas, and California.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 7’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 3-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic-slightly alkaline
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Aphids
    • Adelgids
    • Conifer red spider mite
  • Container Plant: No
Picea omorika Pendula Bruns conifer evergreen unique forms green
Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns

Malonyana Holub Arborvitae

Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana Holub’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

Dense, dark green foliage tightly covers the branches of this dwarf tree, which give it an odd, random growth pattern. The needle size can vary, which adds to the illogical nature of this plant’s growth habit. However, this arborvitae is easy to prune into a more predictable shape while maintaining the unique character of the branches.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 4’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2’
  • Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Sun Exposure: Sun/Part Shade
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Bagworms
    • Spider mites
    • Scale
    • Leafminers
  • Container Plant: Yes
Thuja occidentalis Malonyana Holub conifer evergreen unique forms green
Thuja occidentalis ‘Malonyana Holub’

Wissel’s Saguaro Lawson False Cypress

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’

Needle Color: Green

Cone Color: Brown

This dwarf tree has a consistent upright growth habit that resembles the saguaro cactus; hence the reference in the cultivar’s name. The needles are a deep green color, and they are packed tightly along the tree’s curvy branches. This ornamental conifer has become quite popular in parks and playgrounds, and it has even naturalized into the wild in some parts of the United States.

This conifer is tolerant of pollution.

Plant Profile:

  • Height @ 10 Years: 6’
  • Width @ 10 Years: 2.5’
  • Hardiness Zone: 5-8
  • Sun Exposure: Sun
  • Soil Preference: Sandy-loamy, well-drained, slightly acidic
  • Pest Resistance:
    • Deer
  • Pest Vulnerability:
    • Nothing significant
  • Container Plant: Yes
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Wissel's Saguaro conifer evergreen unique forms green
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’

And there we have it! You should be well on your way to choosing which specimen conifers will compliment your home and landscape.

Remember- most of these plants are considered rare, and they can only be purchased at specialty growers. Find a reputable supplier and order certified nursery plants.

Happy planting!

How to Prune Conifers

Well-maintained evergreens provide year-round structure to a landscape. Although conifers are considered a low-maintenance plant, they’re picky about the pruning process.

Dwarf conifers are an excellent landscape plant because they require far less pruning to keep them a manageable shape and size near homes or in planters.

Conifers should be pruned sparingly or else they may develop dead spots. There are three reasons to prune a conifer:

  • To remove dead/diseased wood
  • To control size
  • To control shape

The most common mistake in landscaping is to plant the wrong plant in the wrong place, which can lead to a lot of unnecessary pruning. If you plant a large tree in a small space, the plant will suffer and you will struggle to contain new growth. Follow the right plant, right place rule to minimize pruning time in the future.

Ready to begin?

Buxus boxwood hedge trimmers shears pruning conifers evergreens
Buxus boxwood pruning

Good, put those hedge trimmers down and learn the art of pruning conifers.

Conifer Pruning Tools

First, let’s start with what you don’t need: hedge trimmers.

Although they may be the easiest, fastest way to give your hedges a flat-top, they don’t work well with a conifer’s growth pattern.

Needled evergreens can only heal and regrow from buds within the first few inches of a branch.

Clean, properly-placed cuts will remove enough plant material to stimulate new growth without going too far and debilitating the entire branch.

Hedge trimmers rip and tear through branches to create an even shape, but they can leave open wounds that have trouble healing, and it’s easy to cut too deep and cause permanent damage.

Although hedge trimmers have their place among professional landscapers, it’s better to learn how conifers grow and which tools to use to make small, precise cuts to create healthy, mature plants.

Common Pruning Tools

The key to clean, sharp cuts is clean, high-quality tools.

Dip tools in a 10% bleach solution after each cut, and clean blades with mild soap and water after each pruning session. This will prevent transferring diseases from branch to branch, as well as prevent rust in storage.

To make a complete pruning set, you will need the following:

  • Bypass pruners
    • For most dwarf conifers, a high-quality set of bypass pruners will be sufficient for maintaining the shape and size of a shrub or small tree. Use bypass pruners on branches 1” in diameter or smaller.
  • Snips
    • Snips are precision tools that help create clean shapes. They are also helpful on smaller conifers and tender, young growth.
  • Loppers
    • Loppers are used for cutting off branches or pruning back dead and diseased wood. Use loppers on branches 2” in diameter or smaller.
  • Pruning saw
    • Pruning saws are for cutting branches 2” in diameter or thicker. If you are using a pruning saw, you should also use the pruning method known as the safety cut.
  • Hand shears
    • Hand shears help with trimming small amounts of growth off hedges or shaped plants. Hand shears aren’t as precise as pruners or snips, but they have a much cleaner cut than hedge trimmers.

Keep your pruning tools clean, dry, and sharp to extend the life of the blades.

When to Prune Conifers

Timing is important when you prune conifers.

You can begin pruning conifers the day you plant them. Always remove dead or diseased wood before you plant, and prune long, scraggly branches. This way, the plant won’t waste energy supporting undesirable plant material while it is trying to build a new root system.

Avoid harsh pruning until the plant has recovered from transplanting and shows signs of new growth.

Many conifers are only able to trigger new growth from dormant buds during a small window of time. If you prune during this window, the plant will recover and heal while sprouting new lateral branches and becoming fuller.

If you prune outside this window, the plant may be able to heal from the cut, but it won’t be able to fill in the pruned area, which can leave an open space or brown spot in the outer foliage.

The only time you should prune outside the normal window is if there are broken, diseased, or dead branches.

Prune pines in the spring when they are producing candles, or new growth from the tips of the branches. Pines have a beautiful natural shape and they don’t respond well to heavy shaping. Limit pruning to removing diseased or damaged wood and candling in the spring for more full branches.

Prune spruce, firs, and Douglas firs in later winter before new spring growth. These conifers have a more compact, dense growth pattern and may need to maintain a certain size or shape, which is easier to direct if you prune before the spring growth spurt.

Prune junipers, cypress, redwoods, and yews any time throughout the year, as long as the weather is mild. These conifers are always growing, so they can tolerate consistent pruning and shaping. These plants are best for formal or sharp hedges and shaping.

Always prune early in the day to give wounds a chance to scab over before the sun goes down. This will help prevent diseases or infections.

Avoid pruning during extremely hot, cold, windy, or wet weather conditions. Heavy pruning during extreme weather will cause excess stress and may harm the overall health of the plant.

How to Remove Dead/Diseased Wood from Conifers

Any time a plant has dead, dying, or broken branches, prune them off as soon as possible. This damage may spread to healthy tissue, and it might permanently alter the shape of the tree or shrub if you don’t take it out with a clean cut.

There are many causes of dead or dying branches:

  • Heavy snowfall/ice
  • Salt spray
  • Vehicle damage
  • Mold/rot/disease
  • Old, dead wood
  • Pest damage

When you prune off damaged wood, the main goal is to cut all the way back to healthy tissue so the wound heals quickly.

If the damage is light, and it only affects the first few inches of green growth, you can prune off the damage the same way you would shape new growth. However, most damage on conifers reaches far into the middle of the plant, so this is uncommon.

If the damage reaches beyond the first few inches of growth, you should take a step back and look at the big picture. Odds are, the branch will be a stub if you prune off a moderate portion of damage.

In most cases, the easiest and most straightforward way to prune off dead, damaged wood is to prune the branch back to the trunk. However, you may be able to save a portion of the branch if you prune back to a healthy fork in the damaged wood.

Dead, lower branches or inner branches can be pruned off. Cut these back to the swollen joint near the trunk.

Use loppers or a hand saw to prune off full branches.

If the branch is 2” in diameter or less, use loppers. Make a clean, angled cut above the swollen joint where the branch meets the trunk (or the other branch).

For extremely large branches, remove portions of the branch as you work back towards the final cut. This reduces the weight on the loppers as they cut, and it makes the final cut more even.

If the branch is over 2” in diameter, use a hand saw. Make an angled cut above the swollen area where the branch joins the trunk. Make long, smooth cuts to give the wound clean edges.

For long or heavy branches, make a safety cut. This technique consists of three separate cuts.

The first cut removes excess weight, which makes it easier to make the second and third cuts.

The second cut is a precautionary measure in case the branch breaks during the final cut. If the branch snaps or breaks, the bark can rip or break pieces of the trunk. The precautionary cut acts as a stopgap to mitigate potential damage.

The final cut is the removal of the stub from the trunk. This cut should be clean to aid healing.

To make a safety cut:

  • Lop off the majority of the branch with loppers to remove excess weight
  • Make a cut 1” deep from underneath the branch near the final cut
  • Cut off the branch with an angled cut above the swollen joint where the branch meets the trunk

Use a safety cut when you remove long, heavy lower branches from pines. Safety cuts prevent ripping or tearing in case the branch breaks away from the trunk while you are sawing.

If your tree has a double leader, prune away the weaker branch.

A leader is the branch that extends straight up at the top of a plant and is responsible for upward growth. Some plants have double leaders, which can lead to a fork in the trunk and weaken the tree.

Cut off the weaker leader down to where it meets the trunk.

Do not damage the primary leader. If you cut off both leaders, you will top your tree, which may permanently stunt the growth. Sometimes, gardeners do this on purpose if trees are going to come into contact with power lines, but it leaves an ugly, flat-topped plant that could have been avoided with proper planning.

How to Prune to Control the Size of Conifers

This is more complicated than removing dead or dying wood. When you prune to maintain size, you must be consistent and thorough with a clear image in mind.

Dwarf conifers grow slowly, and most of them will remain small throughout their lifetime. However, you may want to keep a plant within certain visual or physical boundaries, which is where candling and tip pruning come into practice.

Candling is a method used to control the overall size of pine trees.

Evergreen pine conifer pruning candles pruning shear shape needles
Candle Pruning

In the spring, pines put out new, green growth known as candles. These candles add to the overall size and shape of the plant.

If they are left untouched, the plant will reach its mature size. If you pinch off some or all of the annual growth, the plant will stay the same size.

If you want to slow down the growth of a pine tree, use snips or bypass pruners during the spring to cut off half of the fresh growth. Wait until the candles are a few inches long before you prune.

If you want to completely halt the growth of a pine tree, use snips or bypass pruners to cut off all of the fresh growth during the spring.

Either way, make a neat, angled cut on the branch right above a bud. This will trigger small, lateral sprouts that will make the pine appear fuller and direct the overall shape.

Use a similar technique for spruce, fir, and Douglas fir, except begin the process before the burst of new growth in the spring.

Snip back the outer few inches by making an angled cut above a dormant bud. Never cut more than half of the green growth off any one branch.

Junipers, cypress, redwoods, and yews can be pruned more like deciduous plants.

Control the size of these plants by pruning off branches either where they join to other branches or where they meet the trunk.

Make an angled cut with pruners, loppers, or a hand saw, depending on the size. Cut above the swollen portion where the branch meets the main branch/trunk.

Use a safety cut for large branches.

How to Prune to Control the Shape of Conifers

The techniques to control shape are similar to the techniques to control size, except they are more detailed and severe.

There are many different ways to shape a conifer:

  • Hedges
  • Cones
  • Clouds
  • Globes
  • Boxes
  • Spirals
  • Espalier
Juniperus scopulorum Skyrocket evergreen conifer pruning shape spiral formal
Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’ spiral

Shaping has become an art form, but basic shaping can also be practical. For instance, you may need to keep new growth away from a building or power line.

Whether your shaping is for aesthetic or practical reasons, it’s important to have a goal early in the plant’s life so you can take small, consistent steps toward a desired shape.

The best conifers for artistic shapes are:

  • Yews
  • Junipers
  • Alberta spruce
  • Arborvitae
  • Pines (cloud pruning)
Picea abies Little Gem evergreen conifer pruning shape globular globe globose on a standard formal
Specimen 1500 Picea abies ‘Little Gem’ 4′ std.

These plants can withstand consistent pruning and maintain a strong shape, although yews are by far the most common plants for formal topiaries.

Formal shaping is an extensive topic, and it requires thorough planning and experience. However, you can create and maintain basic shapes with a few simple techniques.

First, have a plan. Don’t start shaping anything until you know what you want the mature plant to look like. Whether you’re planting a hedge or creating spiraled spruces, you must have a plan for the final shape and stick to it.

Second, take small steps. You can start pruning your dwarf conifers the day you transplant them. Take small, consistent steps to direct new growth in a direction that fills in the desired shape. Large cuts will look messy and won’t fill in properly.

Third, be consistent. Not only do you need to be consistent in the frequency of your pruning, but also in the desired shape. Changing direction after a few years will be extremely difficult unless you want a more loose, natural look.

For more practical shaping, like pruning around objects or walls, try to look ahead at what parts of the plant may become problematic in the future and remove them when they’re young. This will give the plant time to recover and be much less stressful than lopping off large, mature branches later in life.

Use bypass pruners or snips to shape conifers.

  • Stand back from the plant and envision an outline for the desired shape.
  • Start snipping and pruning small amounts of plant material into a rough outline. Remember: it’s always better to prune too little than too much.
  • Take another step back and make note of which parts of the plant should be cut back further.
  • Continue to prune and snip until you have a solid outline, taking a few breaks to step back and look at the big picture.
  • Once you have a basic shape, let the plant recover. This is especially important for plants under 3 years old that are still establishing a root system.

As the plant grows, snip away new branches and stragglers to maintain the basic shape. Continue to do this a few times per year for basic shapes, like globes, cones, and hedges.

For more elaborate shapes, you will have to prune more often.

Spirals, clouds, and espalier pruning will require more consistent and detailed pruning.

When you make cuts, try to cut above a bud that will produce growth in the desired direction.

For example, if you prune back to a bud on the top of a branch, the new growth will point up, which may or may not work with the overall shape of the plant.

Take care to prune back to buds that will force the plant to grow into the desired shape. This will cut back on how often you need to prune, and it will also prevent undue stress from cutting off large portions of plant material in the future.

Dwarf conifers are an ideal choice for most hedges and shaped landscape plants because they grow slowly and have a small mature size. This eliminates the need for harsh pruning, and it allows you to focus on the artistic or aesthetic look these plants can provide to your landscape.

Find dwarf conifers for hedges and shaping here.