If you’ve ever planted a cute little fir, pine or spruce in your yard only to pay hundreds of dollars a decade later to have a 40-foot monster cut down and removed, you may be leery of being fooled again. But, believe me, with the exciting array of dwarf and miniature conifers now available, pumping up the beauty of your winter garden with some gorgeous evergreens is a cinch. When I started to segue from planting mainly vegetables, fruit and a few annual flowers into a full-blown obsession with perennials and deciduous flowering shrubs, my garden looked fantastic in spring, summer and fall. What I neglected, and what many gardeners discover they’ve forgotten in this bleak season, is something interesting to look at through the rain-streaked windows in winter – the season that always seems the longest. I looked at a cheerless garden of dead sticks and stems.
Conifers, to me, were those Douglas firs edging the garden and blocking the light. But the lovely small trees bred by Oregon nurseries such as Iseli Brothers are nothing like them. Dwarf conifers tuck easily into existing beds and borders, playing an in- nocuous role in the high season but shining like diamonds in the wet. In colors from silvery gray and blue-green to golden yellow and copper, and with foliage that twists, curls and feathers, they offer welcome eye candy during January’s gloom. Some are narrow, such as Wissel’s saguaro (Chamaecyparis), a blue-green beauty shaped like a saguaro cactus that grows 10 feet tall and 2 feet wide. Wilma Goldcrest (Cupressus mac- rocarpa), a cultivar of Monterey cypress that grows 9 by 2 feet, gives off a lemony scent when brushed. Other narrow lovelies include the blue-gray Ellwood’s Pygmy (C. lawsonia, 3 feet tall) and Ellwood’s Pillar (C. lawsonia, 4 feet tall). Chamaecyparis thyoides “Red Star” grows into a dense cone to 3 feet but is only 1 foot wide. Its tips turn red in winter.
Dwarf conifers also come in traditional cone shapes, such as Cryptomeria japonica “Elegans Compacta,” which has soft, feath- ery foliage that turns purple in winter; it grows to 6 feet. “Tiny Tower” Alberta spruce (Picea glauca) and C. lawsonia “Barry’s Silver,” a silvery green with white tips, also reach 6 feet. Some of the most fun shapes are the whipcord conifers, with tight ropes of drooping foliage growing in a circle. One of the finest is Thuja plicata “Whipcord,” a dwarf Western red cedar, which grows 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide. These look wonderful in pots.
Conifers also work well in the rock garden or as groundcov- ers. Globe-shaped mounds or spreading carpets, they add sparkle all year long. For a dense, round green ball, try Little Gem Norway spruce (Picea abies), 18 inches in diameter, with red tips in winter. Pimoko Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) is a dense, broad bun 18 inches tall and 30 inches wide. Fire Chief globe arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis “Congabe”) has golden foliage tipped with red and grows 4 feet tall and wide. It’s a sport (variant) of the popular Rheingold. And Treasure Island (C. lawsonia), a miniature cone-shaped tree with yellow-green foliage, tops out at 2 feet.
Most conifers need full sun, although yew (taxus), hemlock (tsuga), and conifers with pale green or white-tipped foliage do well in part shade. Tsuga canadensis “Gentsch White” looks as though it has been frosted with snow and grows 4 feet tall and wide.
Portland freelance writer Jan Behrs specializes in stories about gardeners, gardens, remodeling and real estate. A master gardener, her work appears in The Oregonian, Better Homes and Gardens and online.