Dwarf Evergreen Trees: Terrific for Containers and Small Spaces!

Dwarf Evergreen
Photo Credit
Elena M. Tarasova/Shutterstock

Tiny trees, big impact!

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We usually treat evergreen trees as background plants, quietly doing their work offstage where they offer cover and food for wild animals, provide shade, block the wind, or mark a boundary line. Cue the dwarfs! Like the Munchkins in Oz, these small evergreen trees will steal the show!

What are Dwarf Evergreens?

Like large evergreens, the smaller “dwarf” evergreens hold their green needle-like leaves all year long; they’re simply a more compact size and rarely get over 6 feet in height. This makes dwarf evergreens versatile and easier to care for and prune if needed.

Every part of a dwarf conifer is small: Its needles are shorter than those of the parent by half or more, and its branches are all proportionately smaller and closer together. A dwarf conifer is shorter in stature than the parent tree and can be as much as one-twentieth the size of the large species. Some dwarfs can reach several feet in height, while others stand only inches tall. 

Dwarfs appear spontaneously and unpredictably in nature, the result either of a chance seedling variation or a bud mutation. Although chance seedlings may occur in the wild, they are most commonly spotted at tree farms. Bud mutations, aka “sports,” are single branches that develop differently; some are removed and then propagated. Most dwarf conifers must be propagated by rooted cuttings or grafting.

While larger evergreens are often used for privacy or screening, dwarf shrubs are used as a border or accent that stays green all year. See our article on hedges and fast-growing shrubs for privacy.

As with all evergreens, it’s best to plant while they are dormant in October through March. Most prefer full sun. With dwarf evergreens, you simply need healthy soil; no fertilizer is needed as they grow very slowly.

dwarf evergreens
Dwarf evergreens in plants provide perfect year-round accents (and can be decorated for Christmas)!

How to Use Dwarf Evergreens?

Dwarf evergreens are so visually appealing. They look great in container gardens, rock gardens, in front of a house, along a wall, or in small to moderate-sized landscapes. They can also be used in more extensive gardens as part of a mixed perennial border.

Pinus mugo
Pinus mugo in rock garden. Credit: Helen Liam

These tiny evergreens are especially perfect for planters, singly or in artful combinations. You don’t need to keep replanting your seasonal containers; birds and wildlife love dwarf evergreens. Keep an eye out for them when plant shopping this spring, and create a mini-landscape in a half-barrel planter for the patio or pot up a pair to place at each side of a walkway leading to your main entry.

Thuja occidentalis danica in container
Thuja occidentalis danica in container. Credit: GaNa/Shutterstock.

Not all evergreens are green; steely blue, golden yellow, and chartreuse, and some change color with the season. Play with textures, too, combining stiff needles with soft, lacy foliage. If you wish, you can still plant a mixed container; remember the fool-proof recipe for flowering pots of including a thriller, a spiller, and a filler. It works for evergreens, too!

Get the kids involved! These tiny trees make attractive fairy gardens or gnome homes. Have fun with them.

Dwarf Evergreen Trees for Containers

Here are just some of the many great dwarf evergreens that are especially perfect for planters:

  1. Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca): This dwarf evergreen is often sold as a mini-Christmas tree because of its perfect pyramidal shape—which it keeps without effort. New spring growth is light lime green. A slow grower at 2 to 4 inches per year, this spruce will take a while to outgrow its space, but then it can be planted in your yard, where it will reach about 12 feet tall, giving you a permanent tree for the holidays. They are also extremely hardy, reported to survive down to USDA Zone 3, provided it is completely covered for the winter.

    For Dwarf Alberta spruce trees that are super-small, look for ‘Tiny Tower’, which tops out at only 5 feet tall, and use fillers if you have a larger container. Another tiny dwarf is ‘Jean’s Dilly, ’ a dense conical shrub with short, thin needles that only grows up to 2.5 feet tall. For a stand-alone tree, the popular ‘Conica’ variety, its fully-grown height is 10 to 12 feet tall.

    picea glauca 'jean dilly'
    Image: Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly
  2. Dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) ‘Nana’: This dwarf evergreen is very slow growing, eventually reaching 3 feet tall after many years. Hardy to zone 4, it forms a compact globe shape. For something special, look for ‘Nana Lutea’ or ‘Sungold’, which have golden needles that contrast nicely against darker greens or in a dark part of the garden. Or, ‘Nana Gracilis’ is a popular, drought-resistant dwarf with dark green foliage that grows as feathery, soft needles in a loose, pyramidal form. If you want a super tiny one, try ‘Golden Sprite’, which forms a 6-inch ball.

    nana cypress
    Image: ‘Nana Lutea’ with bright yellow foliage
    nana dwarf
    Image: ‘Nana Gracilis,” the most popular Hinoki
  3. Dwarf mugo pine (Pinus mugo) ‘Mitsch Mini’: One of the most dwarf of the dwarf evergreens, this miniature pine appears as a small, low, dense, and round mound with dark-green needles. It’s so slow growing it takes 10 years to form a 12-inch mound! It will grow in almost any type of soil and is happy in zones 3 through 7.

    pinus mugo mitsch mini
    Image: The pincushion that is Pinus mugo ‘Mitsch Mini’
  4. Dwarf arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) ‘Bobozam’: Also called ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’ for its compact round shape, this dwarf evergreen has lacy, rich green foliage and is hardy to zone 3. It maintains its perfect round shape, maintaining its shape of a sphere on the ground without pruning. Bowling Balls never grow past 30 inches in height. For containers, keep spillers low to cascade over the edge of the pot.

    Bowling Ball dwarf evergreen
    Bowling Ball is perfectly round without pruning! 


  5. Creeping junipers (Juniperus horizontalis): These dwarf evergreens are the perfect spiller for planters; they will cover the soil between taller plants and cascade over the edge of your container. Look for ‘Pancake’ which only gets 3 inches tall at the most, and has layered, low-growing blue-green leaves. ‘Mother Lode’ is a little taller at 6 inches high. It’s a creeping, flat, low-growing evergreen with finely textured yellow foliage which turns orange in autumn. All are hardy to zone 3.

    Juniperus horizonalis
    Juniperus horizontalis ‘Pancake’ cascading over a wall, just as it would over a container

Stand-alone Dwarf Evergreens

  • For standalone plantings, try an upright mugo pine such as bonsai-like ‘Jakobsen’ for its interesting structure. Hardy to zone 3, they stand up well in tough environments.
  • Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii) ‘Compact Gem’ is a slow-growing, very full, pyramidal-shaped dwarf also hardy to zone 3 that would look charming in a tall pot by the front door.
  • Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ is a dwarf tree that’s columnar and almost pencil-thin in shape, growing about five feet tall with less than a foot-wide spread of densely packed branches. This silvery-blue tree adds a formality or whimsy to a garden design and is a “must-have” for many who love conifers. It grows in zones 3 through 6.
The Compressa is a perfect accent in a garden.

Before you purchase any dwarf evergreen, check the tag for its mature height so you know what to expect. Most are slow-growers, taking 10 years or more to reach full height. Growing in a pot where the roots are confined also slows growth, so you won’t have to repot for 2 to 4 years or until they become rootbound. Because of their slow growth, dwarf evergreens can sometimes be pricey, so make sure you only buy from a reputable nursery.

What is a Witch’s Broom?

A witch’s broom is an abnormal, dense, slow-growing mass of twigs and foliage on a tree that may appear to be a bird’s nest or ball-shaped dwarf plant. It can be caused by any number of factors, including fungi, viruses, phytoplasmas (bacteria-like microorganisms), mites or other insect infestations, mistletoe, genetic mutations, herbicides, and adverse environmental conditions. These can occur on any plant but are most frequently associated with conifers and are the source of many dwarf cultivars.

Winter Care for Dwarf Containers

Frigid winters are brutal on any container plant since the roots are exposed to colder temperatures than they would be if planted in the ground. To ensure the survival of your potted evergreens, choose ones hardy in even colder zones than your own, and consider wrapping the pot with insulating materials like bubble wrap or banking them with soil, straw, leaves, or hay for the winter. Harsh winds and direct sun also take a toll, so position your potted plants in a sheltered place out of the wind and where they will be shaded from direct sun, which could dry them out and cause winter burn. Since they are not fully dormant in winter, keep watering them until the rootball is completely frozen. 

→ Learn more about protecting shrubs and trees in winter.

If you received a potted dwarf evergreen for Christmas, don’t immediately put it outside for the winter. It needs some time to acclimate to the cold unless grown outdoors and not in a greenhouse. Please put it in an unheated garage for a few weeks, where it will be protected while it cools down and hardens off.

Learn more about choosing shrubs for your yard.

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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