Dwarf Conifers in Containers: Designing a Miniature Landscape

Conifers are among the most popular and dependable of garden plants. Available in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and hues, they offer the gardener year-round interest and color. Dwarf conifers are perfect for building texture in—and giving permanent shape to—confined garden spaces such as patios or terraces. Though small, the plants can also help block wind and screen undesirable views.

Most gardeners use containerized dwarf conifers as foils or backdrops for their potted perennials or annuals. An alternate approach is to create a miniature landscape made up almost entirely of dwarf conifers, perhaps with trailing ivy or annuals planted around their bases. Below is a simple design for a miniature landscape composed of slow-growing conifers with nicely contrasting leaf forms and colors. A heath plant, Erica carnea 'Golden Starlet', is added for floral interest.

All the trees grow between three and six inches per year, thus meeting the technical standards for "dwarf" plants. Cultural requirements are similar: They require well-drained soil and should never be left standing in water. Most of them prefer full sun, but Chamaecyparis can tolerate shade. To fertilize, add compost at the beginning of the season and top it off with shredded bark mulch.

All the plants should be overwintered outdoors. Water them on frost-free days. And if you use frost-sensitive containers (such as terra-cotta or glazed pots), insulate the sides with bubble wrap or burlap. Spring is the best time for planting. Pot your conifers in containers that are at least two to three inches larger all round than the nursery pots they come in. And make sure that when you're buying dwarf plants, you buy them in the sizes you desire, so it doesn't take a lifetime for them to grow into the design.

dwarf conifers
  1. Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis' (Hinoki false cypress)
    This conifer has a dense, irregular, pyramidal habit and rich green foliage. It grows up to ten feet high and four feet wide and is hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8.
  2. Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Golden Mop' (Sawara cypress)
    A low, mounding plant with yellow, threadlike foliage, this tree grows five feet high and seven feet wide and is hardy from Zones 4 to 8.
  3. Erica carnea 'Golden Starlet' (winter heath)
    This plant has lime-green foliage and produces white flowers from winter to midspring. It grows up to 10 inches high and 15 inches wide and is hardy from Zones 5 to 7.
  4. Juniperus communis 'Compressa' (common juniper)
    This conifer forms a compact, narrow cone of gray-green foliage. It grows up to 3 feet high and 18 inches wide and is hardy from Zones 2 to 6.
  5. Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' (singleseed juniper)
    This is a compact, rounded bush with silvery blue needles. It grows 16 inches high by 3 feet wide and is hardy from Zones 5 to 8.
  6. Pinus mugo 'Valley Cushion' (mountain pine)
    This conifer has tight, low growth and deep green needles. It reaches three feet in height and spreads three feet wide and is hardy from Zones 3 to 7.

Joan McDonald runs a private garden design business, Gardens by Joan, and is a graduate of the BBG Certificate in Horticulture program.

Illustration: Paul Harwood


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