Conifers are slow-growing, mostly evergreen trees that take decades to reach their full height. Some, like the Giant Fir, can eventually grow as tall as 150 feet. There are four well-known types that are deciduous, and a whole lot that remains very small, growing only 1-6 inches every year.
While large conifer trees will grow up to 10 feet after 10 years, a dwarf conifer will reach a height of 1-5 feet during this time. Miniature conifers, which may be dubbed true dwarfs, will grow less than an inch in a year and they will be less than a foot high after 10 years. But all conifers varieties will continue to grow throughout their lives.
What are dwarf conifers?
The American Conifer Society (ACS) has created four categories of sizes for conifers. These are based on their average rate of growth over 10 years.
Their definitions reveal that just about every major conifer species has one or more cultivars that grow just a few inches every year. Some grow less than an inch each year.
This wasn’t commonly known until quite recently, and many landscapers would include slow-growing conifers in their garden designs. They looked great for many years, but then many simply got too big for the landscape, towering over houses and shutting out the light.
The ACS categories are determined from the time the plant started. When you buy any sort of tree, it’ll usually be several years old already.
The ACS’s four categories for conifer trees are miniature, dwarf, intermediate, and large.
Large conifers will grow more than 12 inches in a year and reach 10 feet or more after 10 years. Intermediate conifers grow 6-12 inches every year and reach 5-10 feet after 10 years.
Dwarf conifers only grow 1-6 inches in a year and grow to 1-5 feet in 10 years.
Miniature conifers are even smaller, growing less than an inch in a year. They won’t grow anymore than a foot in 10 years.
How tall do dwarf conifers grow?
From the ACS categorization, you will see that miniature and dwarf conifer varieties will grow no more than about 5 feet in 10 years. Some will grow less than a foot during this time.
But they don’t stop growing after this. So it stands to reason that after about 40 years, dwarf conifers could reach anything from 4-20 feet, depending on the variety.
If you opt for a miniature conifer, it won’t get any taller than 4 feet in 40 years, maybe even half that size!
Additionally, climatic and geographical impacts can affect their eventual size.
By comparison, the Giant Fir, Abies grandis, is one of the tallest conifers in the world and it will eventually reach a height of 100-150 feet after 100-150 years.
The tallest tree in the world is a conifer, the Californian Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. According to a 2021 Forest Ecology and Management publication, Comparative development of the four tallest conifer species, the tallest living tree is Sequoia, with living trees up to 380.5 feet tall. But then some have been growing for more than 2,000 years!
There’s a dwarf Sequoia sempervirens too, that only grows to about 4 feet in 10 years.
10 Best Dwarf Conifers
There are hundreds of dwarf conifers to choose from. But not all are widely available in mass-market garden centers.
As the ACS points out, you may have to find specialty nurseries that ship mail-order trees. ACS also has information about growers.
These are just 10 of the best dwarf conifers. It’s up to you to decide which will best meet your needs.
- Dwarf Silver Fir
Abies balsamea Hudsonia and Abies Arizonica Compacta are both silver firs.
Abies balsamea Hudsonia is a dwarf form of the Balsam fir. It is very slow-growing and has a compact shape that is ideal for rock gardens. It will only reach a foot in height in 10 years.
Abies Arizonica Compacta has a dense, conical shape and its leaves are blue-gray in color. It will grow about 2 feet every 10 years, eventually reaching a height of about 7 feet after a few decades.
- Dwarf False Cypress
There are several dwarf false cypress trees.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Minima Aurea is one of the best of all dwarf conifers. It has tightly packed foliage that forms a naturally rounded pyramid shape.
It has bright yellow leaves and makes an outstanding rockery plant, particularly in winter.
It is very slow growing and will only reach about a foot in height after 10 years. It won’t ever grow taller than about 4 feet.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Minima Glauca will also only grow about a foot in 10 years. It is a popular choice for small shrub borders and rockeries.
Chamaecyparis Obtusa Nana Gracilis is another popular rockery plant that will grow to 2 feet after 10 years. Chamaecyparis Pisifera Boulevard is a favorite that grows to 3 feet. It has a neat, conical shape and feathery, silver-blue foliage.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Ellwoodii and Ellwoodii Gold are also popular conifers, small and slow-growing. But they will reach heights of 4 and 5 feet respectively after 10 years.
- Dwarf Juniper
There are a lot of dwarf juniper trees. Two that will only reach a foot in 10 years are Juniperus communis Compressa and Juniperus communis Depressea Aurea.
Compressa is a column-like tree while Depressea Aurea is a wide-spreading prickly bush. It is a golden color in summer and turns bronze in winter. Neither will grow more than 2-3 feet in height.
There is also a dwarf Japanese garden juniper, Juniperus Procumbens Nana. This is a low-growing juniper that forms a mat that will spread up to 6 feet wide. It doesn’t grow much taller than 6-12 inches.
- Dwarf Spruce
Most spruce or Picea trees look like the epitome of a Christmas tree. But there are in fact many variations including dwarf forms with yellow, gray, or blue foliage.
Picea abies Nidiformis is a dwarf evergreen conifer that is nothing like a Christmas tree. Also known as the bird’s nest spruce, it is a compact, flat-topped bush with horizontal branches.
It won’t get taller than 1 foot in 10 years.
Picea glauca Albertiana Conica will grow to 2 feet in 10 years. It’s a hugely popular rockery conifer that won’t grow any taller than 6 feet ever.
- Dwarf Pine
Most pine trees are much too big for the average garden. But there are a few evergreen dwarf species that will only reach about 2 feet after 10 years.
Pinus mugo Gnom is a variety of mountain pine that looks great in a rock garden. Pinus strobus Nana is a dwarf form of the Weymouth pine.
Pinus sylvestris Beuvronensis is a dwarf form of the Scots pine. It spreads about twice its height but is compact and a densely branched Pinus plant.
There are also many dwarf Japanese pines, including red and white pines.
- Dwarf Douglas Fir
The Douglas fir is one of the tallest trees in the world. But the dwarf Pseudotsuga Menziesii Fletcheri will only reach 2 feet in height in 10 years.
It’s not very well known but is a good choice for larger rockeries. It forms a flat top and has blue-green needles that are about an inch long.
- Dwarf Californian Redwood
This is the dwarf Sequoia sempervirens we mentioned earlier. It grows very slowly but needs to be pruned regularly to keep its dwarf form.
A lovely feature is its creamy white growing tips.
- Dwarf Yew
Yew trees commonly have blackish-green leaves. It is probably best known as a hedging tree for old gardens and churchyards.
But the dwarf varieties have yellow-green leaves.
Taxus baccata Elegantissima is a golden yew and a small version of the common yew. The leaves start out yellow and then become green with yellow edges as it matures.
Taxus baccata Semperaurea is a brightly colored golden yew. It is a male plant that doesn’t bear berries.
- Dwarf Arborvitae
Arborvitae, Thuja, is similar to Chamaecyparis in form. But their cones are very different.
Something to consider when growing Thuja is that they need well-drained soil.
Thuja occidentalis Hetz Midget is one of the smallest of all dwarf conifers, reaching only ¾ foot after 10 years. It is a true miniature and can be used in a sink garden or very small rockery.
Thuja occidentalis Rheingold is a lot bigger, reaching 3 feet after 10 years. It is the color of old gold in summer and turns a coppery color in winter.
It looks beautiful when planted amongst heathers or ericas.
Thuja orientalis Aurea Nana and Thuja orientalis Rosedalis will both reach about 2 feet in 10 years. Aurea Nan forms a neat shape and makes an excellent specimen shrub.
Rosedalis is quite different, starting out the golden yellow in spring. Then it changes to pale green in summer and purple in the fall.
- Dwarf Hemlock
Hemlocks are graceful-looking conifers. Tsuga canadensis Pendula is dwarf hemlock that grows to 2 feet in 10 years.
It has drooping branchlets that cascade over the stones in a rockery created on a slope.
Do dwarf conifers stay small?
As you have seen, even dwarf conifers continue to grow. So, while they will always be a lot smaller than large or intermediate conifers, they won’t stay small.
The miniature conifers are the true dwarfs, and they do stay relatively small.
If you’re looking for a dwarf evergreen conifer for your garden, our list of the 10 best dwarf conifers will give you some food for thought.
Whether you want miniature conifers, dwarf conifers, or just very small conifers that aren’t going to outgrow your garden, this is the place to get ideas.
But as mentioned earlier, you won’t necessarily find all these varieties.