When Size Does Matter: Dwarf Conifers for the Home Landscape

I just returned from another great “Addicted Confer Syndrome” conference. In reality, ACS stands for the American Conifer Society. The meeting I attended was the Central Region chapter of the ACS held in Green Bay, Wisconsin. You might be thinking that only white spruce and tamarack are the only conifers that can be grown this far north, but you would be wrong. There are many outstanding conifers that can grow up here and throughout the U.S. Not all conifers are evergreen as there are deciduous conifers, like larch and baldcypress, but most dwarf conifers are evergreen.

Dwarf conifer garden near Green Bay, WI
Dwarf conifer garden near Green Bay, WI

According to the American Conifer Society (www.conifersociety.org/conifers/conifer-sizes), dwarf conifers are those that grow between 1-6” per year with an approximate size after 10 years between 1-6’. In contrast, large evergreens grow over a foot a year and are 15’ tall or more after 10 years. Size can vary due to climatic, environmental and cultural conditions. These smaller than usual evergreens are a fraction of the size of their species and fit nicely into the landscape often requiring very little pruning or shaping. Dwarf conifers can provide food and shelter for birds and other small mammals as well as year round interest due to their bright colors and interesting form and texture. An otherwise bleak, winter landscape can be accented with dwarf conifers that come in a variety of colors besides green such as blue, blue-green, silvery-blue, yellow, and purplish.

Below are a few of my favorite dwarf conifers that are available at many garden centers and nurseries.

'Silberlocke' Korean fir
‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir
Foliage of 'Silberlocke' Korean fir
Foliage of ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir

‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’, a.k.a. ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’) is a unique dwarf conifer that looks spectacular all year round. The soft needles are different than most conifers as they curve upwards, revealing the bright, silvery-white, frosty undersides. The silvery-gray twigs also add to the plant’s interest. ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir grows slowly up to 5-7’ in height with a 4-5’ spread eventually growing into a small, compact, conical tree. Firs, in general, require a sandy-loam, moist, well-drained soil and are intolerant to heavy, poorly-drained, clay soils. This cultivar prefers morning sun, but some afternoon shade. ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir is hardy to zone 4b.

'Blue Shag' white pine
‘Blue Shag’ white pine

‘Blue Shag’ eastern white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’) is a dwarf conifer shrub with a compact, rounded form that reaches 3-6’ tall with a 6’ spread. The bluish-green, finely textured needles are very soft and pliable. ‘Blue Shag’ has a slow growth rate and a dense, mounded form making it a great choice for use as a foundation plant instead of the all-too-common yews (Taxus spp.). Like all cultivars of eastern white pine, it grows best in a sandy-loam, slightly acidic to neutral soil. It is sensitive to drought, heavy-clay, poorly drained soil, and road salt. ‘Blue Shag’ eastern white pine is hardy to zone 3a.

'Bergman' Japanese white pine
‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine
Foliage of 'Bergman' Japanese white pine
Foliage of ‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine

‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora ‘Bergman’) is an outstanding, dwarf conifer that forms a dense, compact, wide, rounded to upright shrub. ‘Bergman’ Japanese white pine is a slow grower eventually forming a 4-6’ tall with a 6’+ spread shrub. The blue-green needles are soft, long and twisted. In spring, the immature cones are bright carmine-red contrasting dramatically with the blue-green needles. It is hardy to zone 5a and is adaptable to most, well-drained soils and pH. Unlike many other five-needled pines, Japanese white pine is road salt tolerant.

'Gold Drop' arborvitae
‘Gold Drop’ arborvitae

‘Gold Drop’ eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Gold Drop’) adds bright color to the landscape. This dwarf conifer shrub grows 4-5’ tall and 3-4’ wide and is shaped like a teardrop; narrow at the top, wider at the base. The soft, aromatic foliage is bright golden yellow when grown in full sun turning a deeper yellow during winter. ‘Gold Drop’ arborvitae is hardy to zone 3b and is adaptable to most soils and pH, but grows best in moist, well-drained, loamy soil. If grown in shade, the golden colored foliage will turn green.

Even though dwarf conifers are often more expensive than other deciduous shrubs, they are well worth it. They have a slow growth rate, require little maintenance and provide year-round color and texture in the landscape.

Laura Jull

There is a Cure for the Summertime Blues

Like some television commercials say about their product, “But wait, there’s more”, this statement can also be said about flowering shrubs. Just because spring is over, it does not mean there is no more color in the garden. Yes, there are herbaceous perennials that bloom in summer, but there are some fabulous flowering shrubs that also shine during the dog days of summer besides roses and Japanese spirea. Here are three of my favorite larger shrubs with big landscape impact.

Roses ('Graham Thomas') are not the only shrub that blooms in summer
Roses (‘Graham Thomas’) are not the only shrubs that blooms in summer

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) produces flowers in the northern U.S. in early July. The white flowers are especially unique and are borne on large, 8-12” long panicles rising far above the leaves. The flowers resemble a large bottlebrush and are often home to visiting butterflies and bees.

Bottlebrush-like flowers
Bottlebrush-like flowers
Bottlebrush buckeye in full bloom
Bottlebrush buckeye in full bloom

In autumn, the foliage turns bright yellow early in the season. This large, spreading, suckering shrub needs a lot of space to grow reaching 8-12′ tall and 12-15’ wide at maturity. It is native to the southeastern U.S. and performs best in rich, moist, well-drained soil, but is adaptable to most soils and pH. Bottlebrush buckeye grows in shade to partial shade and out of the hot afternoon sun. Unlike its tree relatives, this Aesculus species is not susceptible to powdery mildew, leaf blotch or leaf scorch and is hardy to zone 4b.

 ‘Nordine’ smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Nordine’) is another large, wide-spreading, upright shrub that grows 10-15′ tall and wide. It produces purplish-red new leaves throughout the growing season that later turn dark bluish-green. When crushed, these leaves smell like a combination of radishes and oranges.

'Nordine' smokebush in full bloom
‘Nordine’ smokebush in full bloom

The individual flowers are not particularly attractive, however, that quickly changes. The hairs on the individual stems of the 6-8” long flower panicle elongate and turn a wonderful smoky pink to purple color that lasts for many months. The orange-yellow to purple fall color is equally appealing.

Hairy flower panicles of 'Nordine' smokebush
Hairy flower panicles of ‘Nordine’ smokebush

The species is native to southern Europe over to central China and the Himalayas. This particular cultivar of smokebush is hardier than other purple-leaved cultivars of smokebush and should reliably flower in zone 4b each year. It is able to withstand most soils and pH, full sun, drought, and urban conditions. Deer don’t seem to bother this plant. Maybe the smoky appearance of the flowers scares them away?

‘Limelight’ panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’) is one of the best flowering cultivars of panicle hydrangea. The flower panicles are huge, up to 6-10” long starting lime-green and eventually turning all white. As the flowers fade, they turn pinkish to brown from fall through winter providing multi-seasonal interest. The added benefit of this cultivar is that the flowers are borne on strong stems that are held upright, so flowers will not flop over like some other panicle hydrangea cultivars.

Green flowers of 'Limelight' hydrangea before they turn white
Green flowers of ‘Limelight’ hydrangea before they turn white

‘Limelight’ hydrangea is smaller than the species growing 6-8’ tall and 5-6’ wide at maturity with an upright, spreading form. The species is native to Japan and China and hardy to zone 4a. Panicle hydrangea does well in an organic, fertile soil, but is quite adaptable to soil and pH. It requires full sun for the best flower display and moist, well-drained soil, but it is not as finicky about soil moisture as some of the other species of Hydrangea.

'Limelight' panicle hydrangea in full bloom
‘Limelight’ panicle hydrangea in full bloom

When designing a landscape, incorporate a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials to insure continual bloom throughout most of the growing season. These three, non-invasive shrubs are all available at most nurseries and garden centers. If you have not tried one of these beauties yet, plant one or all three in your yard. You will be happy you did.

–Laura Jull, a.k.a. The Lorax