Dwarf Conifers for the Shade

So I’ll admit the front beds are a bit underwhelming but it’s the unique conifers that will someday define the space.  Conifers are low maintenance, do well in poor soil, can handle our cold Zone 4 winters, and look good all year round when other plants go dormant so of course I wanted them in our new front flower beds.  The only problems were that we had limited space and not enough sun.

Living in the woods is beautiful but with all the shade it has made my gardening effort much more difficult!  Conifers love sun but there a some odd balls that can handle shade you just need to do your research.  Surprisingly, the hardest time of the year for these conifers is winter.  The deciduous trees have lost their leaves and the ground is covered in snow which increases the amount of light they get and they can easily burn (aka. browned needles).

The style of our house limited how tall the plants in our front beds should be.  A long, short ranch with tall arborvitae on each corner just makes the house look shorter.  Plus our windows are less than 4′  off the ground and we someday plan to turn the screened in porch into a covered porch with railings so we were limited in height.  Also our front door is accessed from a sidewalk that runs along the side of the house which creates one of the beds which is 6′ wide and 30′ long.  My solution to this was to buy some slow growing conifers called dwarf conifers.  Which just means that they grow between 1-6″ a year.  For example a”mother” variety may be 40′ tall but the dwarf variety will only be 20′ tall in the same time…not really what you think of when you see the word “dwarf.”  Conifers never stop growing so unless they are in the middle of a field they will always outgrow a space but at least with dwarf conifers it will take them a few more years to outgrow a space.

After doing all this research I thought I’d let you know which plants I ended up buying.  As you walk up to the house the first conifer you see is this guy:

Tsuga canadensis ‘Frostie’

Canadian Hemlocks are one of the best conifers for partial shade (besides arborvitae which are just considered deer food in the country).  ‘Frostie’ gets to be approximately 4′ wide and 3′ tall in 10 years creating a mop head like mound.  It is known for holding it’s white color longer than other varieties and having a faint pink color in the winter.  Similar varieties include ‘Moon Frost’ and ‘Gentsch White.’


Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’

This Canaden Hemlock creates a birds nest shape with light green growth turning to dark green.  It’s approximate 10 year size is 3′ tall and 4′ wide creating multiple “nests.”  It’s overlapping fan shaped branches create an interesting layered effect.  This variety was actually discovered as a seedling in a German cemetery in 1950 and raised by Jeddeloh Nurseries in Oldenburg.  Similar varieties include ‘Bennett’ and ‘Gracilis.’


Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘White Pygmy’

The Cypress family has some of my favorite irregular shaped and colored conifers but unfortunately Chamaecyparis obtusa do not do well in our area and can die unexpectedly.  However the Chamaecyparis pisifera family (this is why scientific names are important!) can handle our area though they have a more limited range of options.  But when I saw this little guy at a local nursery and there was only one left I just had to buy him!  It had a much whiter color when I bought it a few months ago but being true to it’s name still has a hint of white.  It’s such a cute little ball that visitors are always stopping to touch it’s feathery texture.  In 10 years it should be approximately 1.5′ around.


Abies koreana ‘Starker’s Dwarf’

OK, so this Korean Fir was a splurge.  It cost significantly more than the other conifers (besides our big blue conifer).  I’m not exactly sure why but I think it’s because it is a rarer variety which is why it was difficult finding information on this variety. It’s unique texture won me over though; I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It has short, flat needles that are stiff but blunt on the end so they don’t prick you.  The needles are widely spaced and have a fun white underside.  It creates a nice contrast with the nearby ‘White Pygmy.’  In 10 years it will be approximately 2.5′ wide and 3′ tall.  Similar but not nearly as cool as ‘Starker’s Dwarf’ is ‘Cis.’


Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’

This Japanese Yew has the best yellow color for shade.  It’s new growth is school bus yellow in the spring which fades to lime green in the fall.  Like most yews it is a vigorous grower but since this is a dwarf variety it should be more manageable.  Because of this I went with only a 1 gallon plant instead of the 3 gallon and saved my money for the other conifers.  In 10 years it should be approximately 3′ tall and 6′ wide.  ‘Dwarf Bright Gold’ is a very similar variety but is said to be slightly less yellow.


Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica ‘Glauca Compacta’ aka. ‘Arizonica Compacta’

This big guy is our focal point!  Because this is the end of 60′ of flower beds we needed something with some height to catch the eye and add a pop of color.  This corner of the yard drops off to a step slope so we used that to our advantage and created a short retaining wall that extends the flower bed past the side of the house so this area would receive more sun.  This Cork Bark Fir needs more sun than the other conifers so hopefully it’s 4 hours of direct morning light and 1-2 hours of afternoon light will be enough.  It is supposed to be one of the more shade tolerant blue conifers which normally need full sun.  This plant has dense growth with silvery blue needles and light green new growth in the spring.  Mature trees have purple colored cones and the trunk is a creamy white color.  Its is a slow growing pyramidal conifer that stays relatively narrow at approximately 4′ wide and 6′ tall in 10 years.  This one is could be 10 years old already (which is why it cost so much) looking at the growth each year.  As shown below it only grew 1.5″ last year but it may have already been in burlap at that time.

Well that’s all of them.  Did you have any idea conifers could be so interesting?  I had no idea a year ago.
You can find more information here, here, and here.


7 Responses to “Dwarf Conifers for the Shade”

  1. 1 Sara @ Russet Street Reno September 23, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Well, I just printed this post because I need some evergreens for our yard as well. Thank you for all the wonderful info! And, isn’t it funny how much planning has to go into landscaping? I used to think that you just picked out some bushes and planted them. HA!

    • 2 Robin September 23, 2010 at 2:13 am

      I completely agree. I used to think that the Shopko temporary garden center in the parking lot had a wide vareity of plants. I had no idea what was out there!

      On a regional note I’d recommend Jung’s Garden Center if you have one over there. I bought two of my dwarf conifers there but the rest were from a one man shop in a Madison suburb.

  2. 3 Christine September 23, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    I love that “white pygmy” plant! It looks like it would give you such a great shape and fullness.

  3. 4 Ed Remsrola October 5, 2010 at 9:25 pm


    I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to see that you have not only chosen to create a conifer garden, but you have started off with some very good choices!

    I enjoyed my brief visit today, but I’ll be back to check in on you kids and your progress – looks like a great project home and garden!

    Conifer Lover

    • 5 Robin October 6, 2010 at 4:29 am

      Thanks Ed! That means a lot coming from someone like you. I’m just a beginner when it comes to the world of conifers but I’m hoping to add more in the future.

  1. 1 2010 Accomplishments & 2011 Goals « 3 acres & 3000 square feet Trackback on December 29, 2010 at 8:03 am
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This is the story of two twenty something newlyweds who are learning to adjust to life in their first house, a 1973 fixer-upper.
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