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.

Richard L. Bitner
Norway spruce
(Picea abies species, Zones 3 to 7)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Creeping juniper
(Juniperus horizontalis species, Zones 4 to 9)

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!

Hinoki false cypress
(Chamaecyparis obtusa species, Zones 5 to 8)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Arborvitae
(Thuja occidentalis, Zones 3 to 7)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Bald cypress
(Taxodium distichum, Zones 4 to 11)

Bald cypress

(Taxodium distichum, Zones 4 to 11)

Look for dwarf types of this deciduous tree that is normally found 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 compact 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.

Sawara cypress
(Chamaecyparis pisifera, Zones 4 to 8)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Hiba arborvitae
(Thujopsis dolobrata species and cultivars, Zones 5 to 7)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Colorado blue spruce
(Picea pungens species, Zones 3 to 7, 8 to 9 on West Coast)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Mugo pine
(Pinus mugo, Zones 2 to 7)

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.

Richard L. Bitner
Oriental spruce
(Picea orientalis species, Zones 4 to 7)

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.

Stacy Tornio
Stacy Tornio is a freelance writer and author with more than 15 gardening and outdoorsy books. She tries to get as much sunshine as possible and is currently on a quest to see all the national parks in North America.