The best-kept secret among landscapers


Dwarf conifers may be the best-kept secret in landscaping.

What exactly are conifers? Conifers are trees or shrubs that are (mostly) evergreen and bear cones. There are four sizes of conifer, and growth can be measured vertically or horizontally:

  • Miniature: growth per year that is less than 1 inch
  • Dwarf: growth per year of 1 to 6 inches
  • Intermediate: growth per year of six to 12 inches
  • Large: growth per year of more than 12 inches

Why add dwarf conifers to my landscape?

Dwarf conifers offer year-round interest and beauty, stemming from color, shape and texture. This is not only provided by the tree or shrub itself, but also from the color and shape of the cone.

While many plants are dull in the winter months of northwestern Ohio, conifers add color and drama.

Some dwarf conifers even change color in winter, such as the Pinus contorta known as Chief Joseph — a lodgepole pine that changes from a deep green to a bright yellow; and the Juniperus horizontalis known as mother lode, a dwarf creeping juniper that transitions from green to a stunning plum color in winter.

What causes a conifer to become a dwarf?

Dwarf conifers can occur naturally because of extremely harsh weather or poor soil conditions. Bud or seedling mutations can also produce dwarf conifers.

Perhaps the strangest cause comes from a snarled mass of undersized branches found in a full-sized conifer called a witch’s broom — a result of either disease or genetic mutation. These variations can all then be propagated. One of the most renowned producers of dwarf conifers is Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon.

Where can I see dwarf conifer collections?

To view photos of the vast array of dwarf conifers, simply do a quick search on Pinterest.com. To view videos, peruse the American Conifer Society’s website at conifersociety.org.

If you want to take a road trip, Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton, Michigan, is home to the Harper Collection of Dwarf & Rare Conifers. This collection has grown to more than 500 specimens of conifers of all sizes. The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, has an impressive Dwarf Conifer Garden.

The Dawes Arboretum in Newark, Ohio, has the Conifer Glen, a 14-acre collection of conifers of all sizes. You may even find some examples if you attend the Findlay Garden Club’s annual Garden Tour this summer on July 14 and 15.

Where would I plant dwarf conifers in my garden?

The possibilities are endless! Dwarf conifers are perfect for rock gardens. They can add texture and shape and mix well with heathers or succulents.

If you live in a condominium or an apartment, dwarf conifers can be grown in containers. They can be the thriller plant in a container surrounded by creeping and vining flowers.

Dwarf and miniature conifers also are perfect for fairy and miniature gardens. They will not overwhelm a fairy garden in one season, like many full-sized plants.

Dwarf conifers can be used as foundation plantings. If you ever planted a beautiful tree and, 10 years down the road, discovered it had outgrown its area, a dwarf conifer could be your solution to that problem.

You could plant a whole garden of dwarf conifers, or simply plant one in your garden as a specimen tree. The websites mentioned in this article will provide inspiration for each of these options.

Where can I buy dwarf conifers?

The easiest dwarf conifer to find is the dwarf Alberta spruce. You can usually find them wherever you buy plants. Dwarf mugo pines are also easy to find. A search of garden centers can usually yield some interesting finds.

A day trip to Gee Farms Nursery in Stockbridge, Michigan, can provide not only amazing plants, but also an abundance of information. Dannaher Nursery, located in Galena, Ohio, offers a wide variety of dwarf conifers.

Hilliard, Ohio, is home to Seely’s Landscape Nursery, which also has a beautiful selection of plants. If you wish to order online, try kiginursery.com, coniferkingdom.com, or singtree.com.

Now that the secret is out, you will start noticing and appreciating dwarf conifers. Choose your favorite full-sized conifer like spruce, pine, juniper, arborvitae or fir, and find a dwarf variety. You may even become a collector!

DeFrancesco is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener volunteer intern in Hancock County and a member of the American Conifer Society. Follow the Master Gardeners on Facebook at Master Gardeners of Hancock County Ohio.

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