Almost our evergreen trees, from towering redwoods to reliable spruce trees, and from the graceful cedars to sturdy pines, all have special relatives that are among the most important garden plants. These are all small versions of their big parents, often with unique forms and foliage in stunning colors. Bred and collected over the years, there are many to choose from, and these versatile little plants can be used for everything from simple low hedges to stunning specimens of beauty and rarity. Dwarf evergreens add year-round interest to our gardens, and it’s hard to imagine gardening without the support of these sturdy little helpers. Whether you use them in the foreground of your regular beds, plant them in a rock garden, make special display beds just for them, or grow them in planters and pots, these fascinating miniature jewels bring grace, elegance and color to your garden – with the bonus of mostly being very easy to grow and largely trouble-free.
These plants are so important in gardens that we have given them their own section on our site, gathered together, where you can come and meet them, instead of searching for them scattered among their larger relatives – which are mostly plants more suitable for big trees, hedges or screening. Let’s see what you can do with these wonderful Dwarf Evergreens and inspire you to create a better garden. Plants in this section won’t be over 5 or 6 feet tall after 10 years, and most will be much smaller.
When we set up our beds, we want them to play a tune for us. A rhythmic flow of form and color should lead us along them, catching our attention and making us stop to admire one or the other, depending on the season. Dwarf evergreens are always attractive, so you are guaranteed something interesting in your beds on every day of the year. Many change colors, either dramatically or more subtly, as the seasons pass, so there is always something fresh and unique to see.
The forms of Dwarf Evergreens vary enormously, from flat spreaders to pencil-thin upright columns, with everything in between. No matter what kind of accent you want, there will be a plant for that. They can be used alone, or in groups and clusters – either way you will create wonderful looks.
Considering how prominent the foundation planting is around your home, it is surprising how often we see it planted with the most boring of round, green plants. If you inherit a mature planting around a new home that is like that, you can work miracles with it by adding interesting shapes and colors in the foreground, or between green bushes. Touches of gold, blue or silver will really make it sparkle and draw attention, and you can frame doors and windows elegantly too, with a classy touch.
Dwarf Evergreens have a natural affinity for rock and stone. So, if you have retaining walls, terracing, or a natural rock garden, these plants are perfectly in scale for it, and fit neatly into pockets among the rocks, or along a terrace. Used in this way, perhaps adding tumbling flowers as well, they give more structural form, and with walls and terracing they break up those long vertical lines very effectively, perhaps with something cascading over their edges.
There is a spreading trend to reduce or eliminate watering in gardens, in response to shortages and environmental concerns. Many (although not all) of the Dwarf Evergreens are very drought resistant, once they are well established, so they fit perfectly into this trend. Many will grow even in poor soil too, so for projects where you want a ‘plant it and forget it’ garden they are often ideal. Make sure you pick tough guys for this, and avoid more delicate, or miniature types, which may need more care than gardens like this have to offer.
Some people become entranced and fascinated by Dwarf Evergreens, and find themselves seeking more and more of the rarest and most exciting types. For these collectors – or for anyone who just likes the neat look of these plants – creating a special bed is an ideal way to grow them. In northern zones there are a relatively limited number of plant types available, but fortunately many of the Dwarf Evergreens are very cold resistant, and thrive in zones 3 and 4. You can make a lovely display bed in your yard for them, which will always look colorful, especially in the coldest months, where most of the trees are bare.
Choose a sunny spot, perhaps on a slope if you have one. Sloping ground ensures good drainage. Prepare the bed and plant it with a diverse collection of Dwarf Evergreens. Remember to space them out well and allow enough room for their mature sizes after 10 years at least. You don’t want it to become a crowded mass, where their individual character will be lost. Place some attractive boulders among them, mulch the bed with gravel or broken stone, and you have a display that will look better and better every year, as the plants turn from new arrivals into mature specimens.
Among all the groups of plants, it is with Dwarf Evergreens that we see the greatest diversity of forms. Some, often Junipers, are low-growing carpets, just a few inches tall, but covering in time several square feet, or even yards. These are ideal in the front of beds, especially where they can spread unhindered across paving, or flow over the edge of a wall. Others are slender columns, just a few inches wide, but several feet tall. Pick the ones that do this best naturally, as clipping can give a look that is too formal and artificial, as well as needing work.
In between there are a host of shapes. Some are rounded globes, perfect for accents. Others are neat pyramids, and those can be relatively tall, or very short and broad. Then there are weeping plants that can be allowed to cascade over the ground, or trained up to make graceful curtains of foliage. Each one of these becomes a unique individual, with no two looking the same by the time they mature. You can have fun with them, and guide them as you choose, for something very eye-catching and special.
You can easily see from the photographs of each plant what form it has, so browsing for a particular shape is simple.
We all love to see color in our gardens, and getting it from flowers can be hard work, with just a few weeks a year as reward. Dwarf evergreens bring color 365 days of the year, and they come in many colors. Some have stable, all-year colors, perhaps golds, or silver-blues. Others change more, including many that are bright yellow in spring, and turn more chartreuse in summer. Some turn purple or bronze in winter, which is sometimes not desirable if you want green in winter, but for other plants it can be considered a positive feature. The spectrum of colors available is large – golds and yellows, all tones of blues and silvers, grays, blue-greens, purples, and of course many shades of green. All these colors can be used to good effect to lift your garden and make it more interesting.
You will notice that some plants are listed as ‘Tree Form’. This is also called by nurseries, ‘standard’, but that name tells you very little, since it doesn’t mean ‘normal’, but ‘raised above the ground’, like a flag on a pole. It is possible, with skill, to graft a dwarf evergreen onto a strong stem, between 1 and 3 feet long, which lifts it up into the air, making a taller plant. These Tree Form plants turn a mounding dwarf pine, for example, into a miniature tree 3 or 4 feet tall. Our Tree Form versions of Dwarf Evergreens are perfect for giving extra height in narrow beds, and they really show off the beauty of these little plants.
Almost all these trees are easy to grow, usually free of pests or diseases, and trouble free. Once established they can be left to take care of themselves, and they will do that well, becoming more and more attractive and substantial over the years. When choosing and planting, remember to take note of the size after 10 years, which we list as ‘mature size’, and also remember that these plants keep growing as long as they live, and can easily become double that size in time – there is no final limit, just age. Don’t make the mistake of planting them too close to walls and paths, or to other plants, just because they look so ‘small and cute’ when you plant them.
In general, Dwarf Evergreens lean towards the colder zones, and many are cold-hardy in zones 3 and 4, while relatively few are hardy in zone 9. Large evergreen trees are characteristic of northern climates. This is a real bonus for northern gardener’s, who don’t have such a big range of other garden plants available to them.
Full sun is almost always best for Dwarf Evergreens. The growth will be compact and dense, and the colors will be their strongest. Some golden forms can burn in hot summers, so a little afternoon shade may suit them better, with plenty of sun in the morning.
The majority of Dwarf Evergreens need well-drained soil to thrive. Wetness is their enemy, especially in winter. Otherwise they are rarely fussy, although some have a slight preference for acid soils. Many, such as the spruce, tolerate poor soils, including clays, rocky soils and gravels. Overall, they will grow in ordinary garden soil with no trouble, another plus in their favor.
Almost all the Dwarf Evergreens are naturally dense, be they globes or columns. They rarely need trimming – much of their appeal is in how they grow neatly all by themselves. You can easily spoil their special look with trimming, so we don’t recommend it. The exception is with plants like dwarf arborvitae (Thuja) grown as hedges, or if you need very formal balls, cones or spirals, where you will need to trim.
When growing most of the weeping and trailing forms, especially with spruce or cedar, you have a choice. You can allow them to grow naturally, and with most varieties that will mean a trailing plant that could spread over a large area. This can be very effective on a slope, among boulders, or spilling over a wall.
The alternative is to train a main stem up a stake, allowing the branches to cascade from it, and creating a tall plant with weeping branches. These trees can be very beautiful as specimens. If you choose this route, start with a strong metal stake, as wood will rot and snap at ground level in time, potentially breaking your tree. You can grow your tree as tall as your stake – above that it will begin to weep and grow downwards. Tie up the chosen branch loosely and check the ties at least once a year to make sure they aren’t cutting into the bark. You could strangle the main stem and kill everything above the tie.
It can be confusing, looking at Dwarf Evergreens, to see plants that have very different foliage, yet with the same species name. Many evergreens have two types of foliage. One type has leaves that are flat scales, attached firmly to the smaller stems. These create sprays or fans of foliage, with a smooth feel. This is called ‘adult foliage’. The other type, always seen in seedlings, is called ‘juvenile foliage’, and in nature it protects the plant from being eaten. The leaves grow outwards and they are often sharp, or they give the plant a fuzzy feel and a ‘softer’ look. Either type can be found in Dwarf Evergreens derived from the same plant species, creating some very different looks and textures. You will usually find which type of foliage each plant has in our detailed plant descriptions.
Arborvitae (Thuja) – these hardy plants, growing well even in zones 2 and 3, are well known for hedging, but there are dwarf forms as well. Several are grown as globes, trimmed or untrimmed, and the most popular are ‘Little Giant’, ‘Hetz Midget’, and the well-named ‘Mr Bowling Ball’. These are green, but there are golden varieties too, such as ‘Golden Globe’. A more upright but still small golden arborvitae is ‘Rheingold’, and for winter interest there is ‘Fire Chief’, which turns red in the cold months.
Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria) – most of these are taller trees, but there is a small, round one, more refined than the arborvitae, for zones 5 and warmer. Called ‘Dwarf Globe’ it makes a very neat mound, or consider ‘Mushroom’, which is wider than tall, and again very neat.
Cedar (Cedrus) – the spectacular Himalayan, Atlas and Lebanese Cedars are wonderful large trees if you have the room for them and live in at least zone 6. But there are dwarf forms too, such as the globe-shaped ‘Compressa Dwarf’. There are also some wonderful weeping forms, especially the Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (‘Glauca Pendula’). It is not really a dwarf, but it’s very suitable for trailing down walls or staking into a unique specimen.
Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) – this Japanese tree offers some of the most beautiful and elegant dwarf evergreens, often with graceful shell-shaped sprays of foliage. They are too numerous to list, and there are both green and golden forms. Some are conical (e.g. ‘Cripsii’, Fernspray Gold, and Koster’s). Others are more rounded (e.g. ‘Nana Gracilis’ and ‘Nana Lutea’)
False (Sawara) Cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) – also from Japan, many of the dwarf varieties of this tree are among the best of the golden evergreens, often with feathery juvenile foliage. Among the best are King’s Gold, Sungold and Gold Mop.
Junipers – among these rugged plants, hardy to zone 3, silver blue is the most common color. The trend is either for flat spreading plants (e.g. ‘Blue Rug’ and ‘Blue Chip’) or very narrow columns (e.g. ‘Pencil Point’). ‘Blue Star’ is a rounded compact plant with a soft look. Many are too large to qualify as ‘dwarf’, but among the bigger ones the Hollywood Juniper deserves mention for its special look, even if it grows over 6 feet tall. Twisting and looping in all directions, each tree is unique, with coral-like clusters of foliage studded with blue berries. Always worthy of a special spot in the garden.
Pine – two of the most widely grown Dwarf Evergreens are pines – the Mugo Pine and the Dwarf White Pine. Mugo pine is available in a range of forms, some more dwarf than others, while a popular Tree Form is made from the Dwarf White Pine. With their distinctive needles these dwarf pines give a look that no other Dwarf Evergreen can bring. Carsten’s Wintergold is a Mugo pine with beautiful golden needles in the winter months, deserving a special place where it can be admired.
Spruce (Picea) – another tough group, all hardy in zone 3, most spruce trees grow well over 6 feet tall. Some are smaller, such as the popular Dwarf Norway Spruce, and the Little Gem Norway Spruce. For a silver-blue globe, consider the Globe Blue Spruce, which is often available on a trunk as a Tree Form. The Columnar Blue Spruce is an attractive narrow column, and for weeping forms the Weeping Norway Spruce (which needs staking) and the beautiful The Blues Weeping Colorado Spruce are stand-outs.
The world of Dwarf Evergreens is a large one, and with so much to choose from there is something for everyone, whatever their taste or garden style. They give us important structural elements in our gardens, especially in smaller space – no garden is too small for a miniature tree, so start growing them in yours, because they bring so much, yet ask so little.