Looking for a less expected way to greet guests at the front door or surround yourself with color on the back patio? Consider packing pots with a forest’s worth of dwarf evergreens that combine verdant color, interesting shapes, and varied textures. They’ll earn raves well beyond fall. Another bonus: Planted properly, these robust plants go into cruise control, meaning less maintenance for you.
“There is a real ‘aha’ moment that happens when you pot up plants you don’t typically see in containers,” says horticulturist and author Melinda Myers, who has been designing with dwarf conifers for more than 20 years. “These evergreens bring trees and shrubs, some that normally grow taller than your house, down to an approachable, touchable scale.”
While you may have seen evergreens added to containers in the past to provide structure, they were likely young versions of full-size plants that had to be heavily pruned to prevent them from consuming their neighbors. But over the last two decades, breeders have been busy developing dwarf versions of traditional firs, spruces, cypresses, pines, and hemlocks.
These dwarfs are smaller, though they won’t necessarily stay pocket-size for life. The American Conifer Society classifies dwarf plants as those that grow up to 6 inches per year, reaching a mature height of up to 6 feet after 10 years. (Slower-growing miniatures reach only about a foot in height after 10 years.) That means slow-growing dwarf conifers are unlikely to outgrow their pots in the near future.
Shown: Dwarf conifers offer a wide range of textures—from short, soft needles to whorled feathery growth—that invite a closer look.
Breeders have also come up with cultivars whose foliage color goes far beyond basic green. Like the swatches on a paint-chip strip, new cultivars come in subtle variations on the true-green, blue-green, and yellow-green spectrums, running from bright chartreuse to dusty blue and almost every shade of green in between. To maintain the yellowest of greens, be sure to place pots in full sun.
Some of the cultivars have variegated foliage, like ‘Oberon’ Korean fir, with its white buds and green needles backed with white. Others, like ‘Twinkle Toes’ cedar, offer the contrast of bright-yellow spring growth against the dark green of its mature foliage. Planted together in a pot, the varying shades and shapes stand apart, offering a range of looks that might otherwise require an entire backyard.
This container garden and the seven that follow were all all created by Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon; thanks to Sandy Dittmar.
Shown: Cone-shaped ‘Jean’s Dilly’ Alberta spruce, with its fine green needles; the feathery chartreuse mound of ‘Golden Mop’ false cypress; spreading dark-green ‘Green Carpet’ juniper; and ‘Pusch’ Norway spruce, which has upright branches that produce red cones in spring.
Tall Focal Point
When designing with dwarf evergreens, it’s still a good idea to follow the old-standby container formula of combining thrillers, spillers, and fillers. Tall pyramid-shaped evergreens, like dwarf Alberta spruce, command attention because they look like tiny holiday trees at the back of a container. ( To get the scale right, pick a plant that’s twice the pot’s height.) Fillers are typically broad at the crown or mounding sphere shapes, like some cypresses and firs, and are placed at the base of the thriller. Spillers, like creeping juniper and low-growing hemlocks, cascade over the edges of the pot.
Shown: (clockwise from top) ‘Jean’s Dilly’ Alberta spruce, ‘Nana’ Hinoki cypress, ‘Golden Sprite’ Hinoki cypress, ‘Shimpaku’ Chinese juniper, and ‘Mitsch Mini’ mugo pine.
Let It Flow
Most of these evergreens like full sun, though some can tolerate partial shade. During the summer, drip irrigation will ensure the plants don’t go brown if you go away on vacation. A layer of mulch will also help keep their roots moist.
Shown: Tall and wide ‘Oberon’ Korean fir echoes the container’s low, rectangular shape, while shorter ‘Cis’ Korean fir fills the space beside it. Cascading groundcovers spill over the sides for a lush, naturalistic look.
Keeping potted conifers from drying out is key, because evergreens are slow to show signs of stress. They rarely drop needles or leaves, but once their foliage turns crispy, they don’t bounce back the way perennials and annuals do. The limited amount of soil in a pot naturally makes a container planting more susceptible to drought.
A windy location can also be drying, especially in winter, when evergreens continue to lose moisture and must combat the stress of a frozen root ball. In Zones 5 and below, potted evergreens should winter over in a sheltered area or an unheated garage.
Shown: This garden shows off the range of shades, from chartreuse to blue-green. Clockwise from top: ‘Nana Lutea’ Hinoki cypress, ‘Dwarf Pagoda’ Japanese holly, ‘Mother Lode’ juniper, and ‘Cis’ Korean fir, accented with red-tipped succulents.
Planted with well-draining potting soil in a properly sized pot—one that is half as high and wide as the tallest plant—dwarf conifers are unlikely to need transplanting anytime soon. The only boost they need is an annual dose of slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer come spring. Pruning usually entails snipping off a wayward branch here and there. With minimal fuss, they can look smart not just for seasons, but for years, to come.
Shown: When pairing one plant with a deep container, a cultivar that streams down the sides creates a filled-out look. ‘Whipcord’ western red cedar offers a spray of arching glossy-green leaves that turn bronze in winter.
‘Jakobsen’ mugo pine juts out to the side of the container with sturdy branches and dramatic ball-shaped foliage—the look of bonsai without all the work. The steely-blue mound of ‘Blue Moon’ cypress anchors its base, while yellowish-green ‘Mother Lode’ juniper creeps over the edge.
Another attractive container that makes the most of varying plant heights. ‘Mitsch Select’ Japanese umbrella pine rises highest in back, and super-low-growing ‘Pancake’ juniper spills out in front. Two deciduous shrubs fill out the rest of the pot: ‘Romberg Park’ larch, left, and ‘Bagatelle’ Japanese barberry, right.
When using just one dwarf conifer in a container, pick a cultivar with an interesting form. This mugo pine has distinctive branching and mounds of medium-green needles that point up as well as out.
Keep Them Watered
An automated drip-irrigation kit can be used to prevent pots from drying out.
Step 1: Install the battery-operated timer on the spigot, then connect the kit’s ½-inch hose to it. Run the hose to where the farthest-away container sits; trim and cap the end. Use the hole punch to pierce the hose for a tubing branch, as shown.
Watering: Step 2
Insert a connector into the hose hole, then add a length of ¼-inch tubing long enough to reach into the pot. To water multiple plants in one pot, add a tee connector for a tubing branch, as shown.
Watering: Step 3
Use more tubing to branch off of the tee and fit each end with an emitter, such as the 1-gallon-per-hour bubbler shown here. Then set the timer to water for two 10-minute sessions a day.
Test the first few inches of soil with your finger—if it feels like a wrung-out sponge, increase the watering time.