Dwarf conifers: how to use in landscape design?

29 December 2020

The dwarf conifers represent a great enrichment for the garden, they have many shapes and colors that remain almost unchanging throughout the year. In autumn winter they act as small sparks of life making the garden alive with their intense colors. In spring summer they create contrasts of shapes and colors with the other plants in the garden. Let’s find out how we can use them in our projects!

The dwarf conifers, precious allied in the garden

Most conifers come from the northern hemisphere, they have narrow leaves similar to needles or scales that help reduce moisture loss and allow snow to fall easily. They grow in sunny locations with well-drained and slightly acidic sandy soil, but they also tolerate some clay soil. These plants are not as widespread as they should be, due to their importance in garden design, let’s see their many strengths!

Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb’

With dwarf conifers, the gardens are beautiful even in winter

Dwarf conifers are evergreen plants characterized by a very slow growth which makes them easy to maintain. Their name, compared to the other conifers, qualifies their height which usually does not exceed one meter. All types of dwarf conifers available today offer great versatility and are a design enrichment. There are many colors and shapes with a wide selection of textures, (sturdy needles, delicate needles). The size, shape, and persistence of the leaves make them truly precious in the design of beautiful valuable in designing beautiful gardens even in winter. They can be placed in small and large gardens but are also suitable for balconies.

Color and shape with dwarf conifers in winter. Drawing by Arch. D. Olivero

Let’s avoid the pot-pourri effect!

Let’s see togheter how to use dwarf conifers in a well-organized design, avoiding the formation of unbalanced composition, like the ones we can easily find on the images from the web. It is important to calibrate the isolated groups or speacements.

How to use the small conifers on the terrace?

On small terraces the scenic presence of dwarf conifers can be a great help. They can be used in isolated specimens placed in colored vases, to form a focal point for the whole balcony, or used in groups. Dwarf conifers are excellent on terraces because they are durable, robust, easy to grow. Their slowness in growing means that it takes many years to overcome the space of the pot.

Which dwarf conifers can grow in pots?

The Abies (balsamea nana, amabilis) are very suitable for the terrace. With their naturally low and prostrate forms, they fill the vase forming suggestive pillows. It is very pleasant to combine dwarf conifers’s evergreen cushions with some grasses. Stipa tenuissima or Pennisetum alopecuroides are great for this, and to get some color we can add Verbena bonariensis or Achillea millefolium.

How to use dwarf conifers in the garden?

Be careful of the composition in using dwarf conifers in the garden, both small and large ! Combine them with other plants both shrubby and herbaceous. We used them near some stipa in our project on a farm. The small conifers, if well calibrated, have the ability to bind the various components of the garden in many ways. For example they guarantee a very interesting contrast placed next to rocks.

Picea pungens ‘Glauca globosa ‘ and Stipa tenuissima

Which dwars conifers to use?

There are really many dwarf conifers, we find them with silver, green, yellow, rounded, conical or creeping leaves. They are suitable for rock gardens and do not require much work. We recommend combining greens or silvers or yellows dwarf conifers, in separate compositions. In some cases they can be inserted in groups with other conifers, or some grasses or shrubby plants. Using dwarf conifers, it is very important, design of combinations. It is possible to create special contrasts thanks to the color of the stem or leaves.

Let’s see some genus

Abies are evergreen conifers, often very tall, with needle-like leaves arranged in a spiral on the twigs. Very resistant to cold, they love sun exposure and a well-drained soil with adequate humidity. Here are some “dwarf” varieties among the many available:

Abies koreana “Cis” is a slow-growing dwarf shrub of small form that reaches a maximum height and a width of about 1 m. The narrow, shiny, dark green needles are arranged radially on the shoots. It’s graceful even alone in a garden, and if near boulders it makes a nice contrast thanks to its dark green color.

Abies balsamea ‘Nana’ ideal for a rock garden, with his beautiful rounded shape, it grows about 6 cm per year.

The Picea (abies, glauca, omorika) have a range of shapes, from small domes, to prostrate and upright. Many dwarf Picea are available:

Picea omorika nana characterized by dark green needles with the white bands of the stomata in the lower part. Perfect if placed in a sunny position with well-drained soil, but still tolerates a light shade.

Picea pungens Globosa with silver needles, forms a rounded cushion.

• Pyramid-shaped Picea orientalis ‘Gracilis Nana’ needs full sun and moderate humidity conditions.

We have a lot of varieties (mugo, nigra, silvestris, orientalis) of dwarf Pinus:

Pinus mugo Mops is a slow-growing evergreen conifer that forms a medium-sized shrub with a thick and rounded habit, with thin dark green needles. Slowly growing, the plant reaches a height of 80 cm and a diameter of 1 m.

Combine dwarf conifers

There are many dwarf conifers available, but we love the combinations that we can create by mixing them with other species. Mixing different textures, helps create contrasts of light and shadow that change in the seasons.

For example, combining the beautiful evergreens with perennial herbaceous plants, we will get a fantastic outcome!

Here we have on front, a winter meadow, yellow or almost white, of Stipa tenuissima, with a series of cushions of Pinus mugo Mops. In the background we have the red bare branches of Cornus sibirica, which during the winter combines very well with the intense green colors of dwarf conifers.

Color and shape with dwarf conifers in winter. Drawing by Arch. D. Olivero
Color and shape with dwarf conifers in winter. Drawing by Arch. D. Olivero

Dwarf conifers  in the design of japanese gardens: the reference style!

The first image we think about when we decide to include dwarf conifers in our projects is the Japanese garden. Have a look in the following photo! Look the suggestive effect creates by the snow on dwarf conifers cushions. The conifers attract and introduce the gaze towards a wider vision in the distance, on a meadow with bare trees that will be in bloom in spring!

According to our design style, the reference to an oriental design in which the conifers act as structural elements, almost symbols of immortality, is very effective! Evergreens blend harmoniously with stripped autumn-colored plants. The red of Japanese maple, (Acer palmatum) the yellow of ginko (Ginko biloba) or weeping willow (Salix babylonica). Japanese garden design is clean, never saturated with admixtures, perfect as inspiration for using dwarf conifers.

Dwarf conifers under the snow

The article’s drawings are inspired by the Bartram historic garden, founded by John Bartram (1699–1777) in Philadelphia in Pennsylvania in North America. An excellent example of design with dwarf conifers.


  • Richard L. Bitner, Conifers for gardens an illustrated encyclopedia, Timber Press
  • Sachimine Masui e Beatrice Testini San sen sou moku. Il giardino giapponese nella tradizione e nel mondo contemporaneo.  illustrata (Italiano)