In garden design, the term 'bones' refers to something architectural that defines the structure of a garden. It can be artificial, such as a arbor or obelisk, or it can be a plant. Very often it is an evergreen tree or shrub. Large scale gardens have successfully used evergreens in mixed borders for centuries. It is fairly recent that home gardens have developed an enthusiasm for including them in more modest garden designs. Part of the recent popularity of using evergreens as the garden's bones is due to the wonderful variety of dwarf evergreens currently on the market.
Dwarf conifers are evergreen trees and shrubs that either have a mature height of less than 12 feet or are so slow growing that the garden will probably be long gone before the evergreen out grows it. Even if a grouping of containers on your deck or patio constitutes your garden, the same great features of dwarf conifers apply.
The ideal time to plant conifers is while they are dormant, in October through March. Most prefer full sun and slightly acid soil. Because they grow so slowly, no fertilizer except healthy soil should be necessary.
Also because of their slow growth, dwarf evergreens are expensive to propagate and can be expensive to buy. Be sure to buy from a reputable nursery with a 1-2 year guarantee. Here are some great varieties. New ones are being developed every year.
- Abies balsamea 'Hudsonia' (1' H x 2' W) This tiny, slow growing balsam fir is perfect for small gardens and landscapes. And as anyone who's had a balsam Christmas tree can attest, balsams are among the most pleasantly aromatic evergreens. (Zones 3 - 7)
- Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minnima Aurea' (2' H x 1' W) This is a beautiful bright yellow False Cypress with a pyramidal shape that lends some height to the garden. Easy growing, but like most Chamaecyparis, it doesn't like exposure to strong winds. (Zones 4 - 8)
- Juniperus communis 'Compressa' (3' H x 1.5' W) There are so many wonderful compact and creeping Junipers. 'Compressa' is a dense, columnar dwarf tree that brings formality to a garden design. (USDA Hardiness Zones 2 - 6)
- Juniperus squamata 'Meyeri'v (3'H x 2' W) The drooping almost shaggy nature of 'Meyeri' is an eye catcher. It has a nice cool, blue color, but can develop brown patches on older growth, that will need to be kept trimmed. (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 - 8)
- Picea glauca albertiana 'Conica' (4' H x 2' W) The dwarf Alberta Spruce is deservedly one of the most popular dwarf evergreens. It keeps its perfect conical shape without effort and the new spring growth is a bright lime green. (USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 7)
- Pinus mugo 'Gnom' (2' H x 4' W) Mugo or Mountain Pines are finally getting their due, with several excellent varieties on the market. They form low, mounding, almost bonsai-like structures in the garden. Will grow in almost any type of soil. (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 - 7)
- Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Fletcheri' (3' H x 5' W) Furrowed bark, long, blue-green needles and a flat top make this dwarf Douglas Fir an excellent focal point. 'Fletcheri' likes to spread out, but it won't get anywhere near as tall as it's non-dwarf cousins. (USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 7)
- Thuja occidentalis 'Hertz Midget' (1' H x 1' W) 'Hertz Midget' is one of the smallest evergreens you will find. It grows as a tight, round ball, with the feathery Arborvitae needles. A good choice for a small garden and it easily tolerates some shade. (USDA Hardiness Zones 2 - 8)
- Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' (3' H x 3' W) 'Rheingold' looks like someone brushed its branches straight up, giving the round shrub a more conical appearance. Its rich, gold color mellows to copper in the fall. (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 - 8)
- Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' (3' H x 8' W) Canadensis means it's hardy and 'Pendula' means it's a weeper. It's also a stunner if given the room to spread out, especially if it can drape over a wall. (USDA Hardiness Zones 3 - 7)