If you’re yearning for something to freshen up your winter containers, miniature conifers are a great solution. They come in a wide array of colors and textures but grow so slowly that they can thrive for years in a pot. Some are tidy little buns, others are cones so small they may as well be gnome hats and a few have quirky irregular shapes that grab your attention.
Here are some of our favorites:
Silberperle Korean Fir: Abies koreana ‘Silberperle’
Short, soft & fat green needles with white reverse and white resinous buds at branch tips in winter make Silberperle a garden standout. It grows in a tight bun shape in youth, but given time it may develop into a pyramid form.
Grows 8” x 10” in 10 years, sun-part shade, Z4
Miniature Hinoki Cypress: Chamaecyparis obtusa
Hinoki Cypress is a huge category of conifers with varieties in every size and color. The miniature forms are particularly sweet and interesting.
Chamaecyparis obutsa ‘Golden Sprite’ is shown in the foreground. It’s gold and green leaves hold their color all year round and it glows the brightest in winter. It grows in a tight congested form habit & develops a cool irregular bumpy texture over time.
Grows 8” x 10” in 10 years, thrives in moist well-drained soil, best with morning sun, Z5
*Also shown in the photo are dwarf conifers, Cedrus libani brevifolia ‘Kenwith’ and the last gold leaves of Larix gmelinii ‘Romberg Park’ on the left.
Mugo Pines: Pinus mugo
Plant breeders have been hard at work developing truly dwarf Mugo pines. After years of testing, they’ve developed several that are truly miniature in habit as well.
‘Mitsch’s Mini’, ‘Donna’s Mini’, ‘Moppet and ‘Short Needle’
‘Mitsch’s Mini’, ‘Donna’s Mini’, ‘Moppet and ‘Short Needle’ are all excellent selections. All are excellent choices for container gardens, accenting companion plants with dark green needles and low mounding shapes.
Growth varies by variety with some growing 4” tall x 10” wide and others creating a perfect ball shape, 10” x 10” in 10 years. Full sun is best. Mugo Pines are incredibly cold tolerant, hardy to Z2 (-40f).
Tom Thumb Oriental Spruce: Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb’
This is a true garden standout. Short gold-brushed needles hug branches creating definition in the branching structure that is unique among miniature conifers. It develops a nest-like shape that can find a place in any garden or container.
Grows wider than tall, 6” x 10” in 10 years, best in sun, but can burn in the hottest areas. Hardy Z4
The most important things to know about conifers when considering a purchase are growth rate and shape. Light conditions & needle color are also key factors.
Conifers can grow very fast or very slow and since most gardeners are working with limited space, understanding growth rates is very important. The American Conifer Society has developed 4 categories for growth.
Rate: Less than 1"/yr
Size in 10 years: 10-12"
Size in 10 years: 1’-6’
Size in 10 years: 6’-15’
Rate: More than 12"/yr
Size in 10 years: Over 15’
Most labels on conifer plants list a 10 year size, but conifers do not stop growing after 10 years. Assume the 20 year size to be double the 10 year size.
Cultural conditions (sun, rain, soil compaction, fertilizer, etc.) affect the growth rate of any given plant. It is worth noting that in Portland it rains a lot and the moisture often makes plants grow on the larger side of the growth spectrum.
Shape matters. Conifers come in all shapes; pencil, globe, cone, vase, weeping and creeping.
Some grow outward rather than upward, so knowing the shape of the plant is the key to understanding how much room it will take in your yard.
Before you go shopping, take time to observe the light conditions in your planting site.
Areas that are sunny during the hottest parts of the day, south and west facing spots, require planting trees that enjoy warmth, such as Spruce Picea, Juniper Juniperus and Pine Pinus.
Shady areas, those usually on the north and east sides of a house are better suited to plants like Hinoki Cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa, Yew Taxus, and Hemlock Tsuga.
Conifers planted in the correct light conditions for their needs have the best needle color, don’t get sunburned, don’t need as much summer water and are fuller, happier plants.
Leaf or Needle Color
Conifers come in a wide range of colors and textures, and can play off of their surroundings in beautiful and unique ways.
Before going shopping, take into consideration the colors and textures of the site where the plant will go. What is the house color? If there are trees, what is their summer and fall leaf color?
Knowing this can help you decide between gold or blue needles, bright or dark green leaves, winter oranges and purples.