Conifers – Which is Your Favorite?

Conifers are evergreens with needles or scales.  This time of year you might have one decorated in your house.  Pine, spruce, cypress, arborvitae, chamaecyparis, fir, larch, juniper, cedar there are so many species and many, many more varieties.

If you are a collector and a gardener, dwarf conifers are your calling.  You can fit quite a few little shrubs into a small area.  Or you can appreciate them in a more casual manner as a part of the landscape.  The dwarf and miniature conifers are also excellent for model railway gardens or faerie gardens.

I had the good fortune to be a horticulturist at Taltree Arboretum as they installed their Railway Garden in 2010.  I got the chance to work with hundreds of dwarf and miniature conifers.  While it was fun to push the edges of our zone and try the tender varieties, I came to appreciate the little trees that could. The ones that take hard situations.  The guys who thrive in the windy, exposed, top of the “mountain” spots and the crevices with little soil.

Here are a couple of my favorite conifers.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce at Taltree Arboretum in northwest Indiana - Photo credit: Foy Spicer

Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’)

Perhaps the most commonly available dwarf conifer. It shouldn’t be over looked just because you can find it at any plant nursery that sells trees and shrubs.  Left to it’s own devices it will reach six to eight feet tall and be a full lush cone shape a couple feet wide.  The reason you will find me doodling Dwarf Alberta on my notebook cover with pink swirly hearts is because this sucker is hardy.  It will take some really crappy conditions and the abuse of heavy pruning.  It can be grown in zones 3-8.  That’s most of The States.  From the view of a model railway garden it can be shaped into giant sequoia type grandeur.  You may also have seen it cropped into pom-poms and spirals.    Dwarf alberta spruce can be a wonderful foundation plant or to provide a backdrop for bright colors.  Just make sure it has full sun and well drained soil.

Picea banksiana 'Uncle Fogy' at Taltree Arboretum in northwest Indiana Photo credit: Foy Spicer

‘Uncle Fogy’ Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana ‘Uncle Fogy’)

This tree is a jack pine, but it doesn’t look anything like the straight species.  Uncle Fogy cascades looking like a rolling fog bank of pine.  The trunk generally grows up and over draping its branches below creating tunnels for trains to pass through or rooms for fairies. It is not a true dwarf conifer as it grows to rapidly; topping out around four feet tall and will arch up to ten feet to the side.  Again this is a tree that will take punishing conditions.  The American Conifer Association says it will take up to a zone 2 and Bachmann’s nursery give it a zone 1 rating.  That’s up to -55F! Like most conifers full sun and well drained soil is it’s preferred location.

From The Midwest American Conifer Tour 2011 near Ames, Iowa - Photo credit: Foy Spicer

‘Pusch’ Flowering Spruce (Picea abies ‘Pusch’)

This little guy has festive red cones that decorate its branches in spring and then fade to a duller brown through the season.  I’m not sure I ever got one for the arboretum, but it was on my wish list.  I adore Pusch’s mounding form and charming tiny needles.  Expect it to get no larger than a foot tall and a foot and a half wide.  The American Conifer Society awarded it Conifer of the Year in 2008.  They give this tough guy a hardiness of zone 3.  I’d locate this petite stunner in a prime location or even a container where it’s dainty nature can be appreciated.

So there you go.  Those are my favorites. Now share yours!

We are going to try out something new on the Master Gardener Blog.  We’d like you to share your favorite conifers too.  Submit a link to a photo or webpage on your top choice with the Linky below.  Click on the “Click here to enter” button and follow the directions.

by Foy Spicer
Purdue Master Gardener
Wabash County, Indiana


2 Replies to “Conifers – Which is Your Favorite?”

  1. Foy, this was a lot of fun to add conifers to the list. I’ve had a photo list of evergreens from the MN Landscape Arboretum for years, and this was just the place to share this….

    As some of the country is getting icy snow today, it seems like a good fit to also put a link to this post about what do do with all that snow build-up on your plants>

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