Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Spaces

Small space gardening is made easy with our list of the top 10 dwarf conifers.

It’s easy to see why conifers are a staple of most backyard landscapes. They provide reliable shelter for birds, offer nice color and year-round structure in the garden and are mostly maintenance-free. Now you can have those same virtues in a smaller package, thanks to newer downsized varieties. While often referred to as “dwarf conifers,” many of these are technically just slow growers. They will eventually get larger in 20 or 30 years, but most stay fairly compact and are classified based on their growth rate and size at 10 years. With the help of conifer expert and author Richard L. Bitner (Timber Press Pocket Guide to Conifers, 2010), we put together this Top 10 list of dwarf conifers, specifically with small space gardening in mind.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Norway spruce
    Richard L. Bitner

    Norway spruce

    (Picea abies species, Zones 3 to 7)

    This popular spruce has a pyramidal shape with shiny dark-green foliage. It prefers full sun, but adapts well to a variety of soil conditions and will tolerate wind. For years, it’s been a favorite fast-growing tree for large landscapes, but now gardeners are starting to look for dwarf cultivars as well. Some of the top choices include Clanbrassiliana, Echiniformis, Little Gem and Perry’s Gold (pictured).

    Why we love it: The horticulture world has embraced this plant, so it’s easier to find than some other small conifers.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Creeping juniper
    Richard L. Bitner

    Creeping juniper

    (Juniperus horizontalis species, Zones 4 to 9)

    This North American native grows well in just about any soil and is a popular choice for mountain slopes and seashores. Like other junipers, it prefers full sun and good drainage. Top picks include the blue-green Icee Blue, and Mother Lode (pictured), with its golden color in summer.

    Why we love it: We’re always big fans of plants with dual benefits. With this one, you can have your conifer and ground cover, too!

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Hinoki false cypress

    Hinoki false cypress

    (Chamaecyparis obtusa species, Zones 5 to 8)

    If you need a conifer to provide unique form and texture, this is an excellent choice. A native of Japan, considered -sacred in the Shinto religion, it has dark-green fan- or shell-shaped foliage and interesting bark. For a small space, try slow-growing cultivars like Minima (pictured), the golden Nana Aurea and the glossy green Nana Gracilis.

    Why we love it: This dwarf conifer is among the best of small conifers. Check a nursery or look online to find a cultivar that meets your needs.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Arborvitae
    Richard L. Bitner

    Arborvitae

    (Thuja occidentalis, Zones 3 to 7)

    This popular species is easy to find almost anywhere. But if you have deer in your area, beware. They love to munch on the foliage! The tree is dense, with a pyramidal shape and clusters of small seed-bearing cones. Smaller cultivars include Golden Globe, Hetz Midget and Tiny Tim.

    Why we love it: It has a classic conifer look, provides generous coverage for birds and offers plenty of cultivars to choose from.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Bald cypress
    Richard L. Bitner

    Bald cypress

    (Taxodium distichum, Zones 4 to 11)

    You’re likely to find this large, deciduous tree in the swamps of the eastern half of the U.S. (It’s also the state tree of Louisiana.) It needs full sun and acidic soil to thrive, growing best in moist, deep soil with good drainage. Slow-growing species include Cascade Falls, which is a weeping form. Also, Secrest is a nice flat-topped cultivar.

    Why we love it: This tough conifer is tolerant of wet and poorly drained sites. Also, it has beautiful orange to pumpkin-brown fall color before the needles drop.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Sawara cypress

    Sawara cypress

    (Chamaecyparis pisifera, Zones 4 to 8)

    The cultivars of this species vary widely, with the large versions growing up to 150 feet in natural settings. Good cultivars for a small landscape include Filifera Aurea, with golden-yellow foliage that makes it an attractive border plant. Also try Golden Mop, a low and mounding variety with threadlike foliage.

    Why we love it: If you do a little research, you can find dwarf varieties in all kinds of shapes and sizes, including shades of green, blue, yellow, white and variegated.

     

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Hiba arborvitae
    Richard L. Bitner

    Hiba arborvitae

    (Thujopsis dolobrata species and cultivars, Zones 5 to 7)

    A native of Japan, this conifer has large, broad branchlets with glossy leaves. It’s often used for hedging and is a versatile backyard plant. It’s not as common as other conifers, but it’s definitely worth a chance in your yard. Look for the compact form, Nana.

    Why we love it: It tolerates a wide range of soils and does best in partial shade, making it a natural choice for many mature backyards.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Colorado blue spruce
    Richard L. Bitner

    Colorado blue spruce

    (Picea pungens  species, Zones 3 to 7, 8 to 9 on West Coast)

    This Colorado native prefers rich, moist soils and full sun, though it is more drought-tolerant and adaptable than other spruces. Avoid insects, mites and diseases by finding a suitable location and providing proper care. Montgomery is a compact variety that does well in most yards.

    Why we love it: The stiff needles and elegant shape make it a standout in any yard. Check with your local extension office or nursery to find out what works well in your area.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Mugo pine
    Richard L. Bitner

    Mugo pine

    (Pinus mugo, Zones 2 to 7)

    Dwarf mugo cultivars are most common but the species can grow 20 or even 30 feet tall. Mugos come in many varieties, including dwarf, upright and ground-hugging. Pine needle scale is common and can be a problem. Watch for disease problems in hot, humid summers. Top dwarf picks include Corley’s Mat, Sherwood Compact and Slowmound.

    Why we love it: It’s one of the hardiest conifers available, thriving even in Zone 2! It also adapts well to many conditions and tolerates wind, drought and heat.

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Oriental spruce
    Richard L. Bitner

    Oriental spruce

    (Picea orientalis  species, Zones 4 to 7)

    While Norway spruce is a favorite of many gardeners, the oriental spruce tends to be a better alternative. The needles are glossy green and soft to the touch. For smaller gardens, look for slow-growing cultivars like Nana (usually stays under 3 feet high), or Tom Thumb, with golden foliage.

    Why we love it: It’s very tolerant! While you might have to protect it a bit during winter, it will tolerate some shade, drought and wind.

  • More From Birds & Blooms
  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Norway spruce

    Norway spruce

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Creeping juniper

    Creeping juniper

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Hinoki false cypress

    Hinoki false cypress

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Arborvitae

    Arborvitae

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Bald cypress

    Bald cypress

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Sawara cypress

    Sawara cypress

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Hiba arborvitae

    Hiba arborvitae

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Colorado blue spruce

    Colorado blue spruce

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Mugo pine

    Mugo pine

  • Top 10 Dwarf Conifers for Small Space Gardening: Oriental spruce

    Oriental spruce

  1. Mary says

    Since when is the Colorado Blue Spruce a ‘dwarf’? Here in Utah these trees grow quickly up to 60 feet tall and 20 feet diameter. They often fall over in windstorms after growing to full height. I do have the Montgomery spruce going in my yard and I love it although it can also get rather wide. People are so uneducated, they buy these tiny trees in box stores and plant them right next to their houses and walkways. This article does absolutely nothing to educate anyone about how huge this tree can grow.

  2. Ronald says

    You’re right about Colorado Blue Spruce being a full size tree. There are however a handful of mid sized-dwarf varieties that are great plants for smaller gardens.
    Picea Pungens ‘Fat Albert’ is a wonderful cultivar, and like the name suggests is a shorter and wider variety.
    Even smaller is P. Punges ‘Glauca Globosa’ which only grows a few inches each year.
    While most true species of evergreens can grow to impressive heights, many of the cultivars that you find at a nursery are bred for a desirable quality, i.e. slower growing, brighter colors, etc.
    Just be sure to ask questions or do a little homework when purchasing a new plant. Otherwise as Mary says, you run the risk of planting something that will quickly outgrow your space.
    Don’t be scared to branch out (no pun intended) and try something dwarf or miniature. Plant availability is ever changing, and new and exciting cultivars are constantly being introduced.
    Happy planting~

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