Relish Summer, Plan 4 Fall
15 best dwarf evergreen shrubs to plant in fall in every region
Can you think about fall without spoiling the last, lazy days of summer? Fall, when temperatures cool and rain (usually) comes more frequently, is the best time to plant shrubs in much of North America. And evergreen shrubs play an important role. So today I’m going to provide an extensive list of dwarf evergreen shrubs for you to consider planting as you stroll around your yard — which you’re doing at least daily, right?
“The smaller your garden — the more evergreens you need,” opines garden design teacher Rochelle Greayer. So true! It makes me think of those charming box-and-brick side yards in Charleston. Or private gardens in Paris filled with broadleaf evergreens like North American native magnolias and rhododendrons.
Evergreens brighten entries in winter, give structure to perennial gardens, and provide privacy year-round. Most of the structure plants recommended by experts for English-inspired Blooming Romantic gardens with plants of each U.S. region are evergreens.
Because many temperate native evergreens eventually grow a hundred feet or more tall, residential gardens large and small benefit from cultivars. Even with a substantial seven acres, landscape designers restoring Newport’s Blue Garden selected dwarf — though still large — varieties to ensure the frame of 250 evergreens would not overwhelm the secret inner garden the way the original, early 20th century evergreens eventually did.
Read on for the why, how and wow of dwarf native evergreens, including specific dwarf cultivars for each major region. Then take another stroll and consider where they belong in your yard.
Happy summer strolling!
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Regular readers know how important it is to plant moth and butterfly host plants, both to save those species and to save birds, most of which must feed their nestlings hundreds of caterpillars a day. However, with all the focus these days on pollinator-friendly perennials, you may be surprised to learn that native evergreens can contribute mightily to a wildlife garden.
The number of caterpillars a genus hosts depends on location. I randomly picked Evanston, IL, and found that pines host more species of moths and butterflies there than any flowering perennial does — 165 vs. 112 for goldenrod, the top perennial genus. In Bellingham, WA, my random Pacific Northwest pick, evergreen conifers are even more important ecologically, with fir (Abies), spruce (Picea), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga), and hemlock (Tsuga) all hosting more than 100 caterpillars, whereas no flowering herbs host that many.
In states across the south, as well as California, much of which has a Mediterranean climate, many more shrub species are evergreen and they host even more caterpillars. For example, in San Antonio, where live oaks are evergreen, oaks host 468 species of moth and butterfly.
Non-native species of the same plant genus may not serve as hosts for these caterpillars, since they did not evolve together.
As usual, it takes work to find native species — but not as much work for dwarf evergreen shrubs as for other plants. Plant breeders like Proven Winners and national nurseries like Monrovia favor plants that perform consistently. For this article, I’ve selected cultivars available from these large companies so you can find or order them from your local garden center. (Monrovia evidently supplies more than 5,000 nurseries with 22 million plants of over 2,000 varieties!)
When shopping, please avoid the plethora of exotic (non-native) — and overused — evergreens you’ll also find there. Sometimes the names give them away — English holly, Norway spruce, Scots pine, and invasive Chinese privet. But often cultivars, especially hybrids, are identified only by the genus, which can be identical to the native one. So please verify the species listed below or check the native range in the USDA Plants Database.
From smallest to biggest, here are 15 easy-to-find cultivars of native dwarf evergreen shrubs for temperate climates. Note the Latin names of species local to your region to find more native cultivars.
Groundcovers (under 1 foot tall)
Low, wide native species of juniper work well as evergreen groundcovers, especially effective on slopes or in front of a privacy hedge. Examples include Blue Rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) and Icee Blue juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), native along the northern U.S. border from Montana eastward. Tortuga juniper (Juniperus communis) is native from the mountain states westward, as well as along the north border.
Globes (1 to 3 feet)
Small, rounded evergreens punctuate a design. Plant them close together to edge a perennial bed, as a more ecological, less disease-prone replacement for box. Or herald the beginning of a path by planting them on either side, as at Rough Point in Newport. Or, as I’m doing here in Bristol, put them in classic planters on either side of the front door — an always-green welcome.
From Minnesota eastward, natives include many globe-shaped cultivars of feathery-leaved arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis); check out Tater Tot and Mr. Bowling Ball. Also native to the eastern half of the country is Green Twist eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), which I picked for my planters for its unusually long, twisting needles. In place of box along the East Coast from New Hampshire to Louisiana, consider Gem Box, one of many dwarf cultivars of inkberry holly (Ilex glabra).
In the mountain states and westward, I like Bryce Canyon white fir (Abies concolor), plus Blue Pearl Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) in the mountain states, and Grune Kugel western red cedar (Thuja plicata) in the Pacific Northwest.
Mounding or weeping (3 to 5 feet)
Mounding or weeping dwarf evergreens have sufficient oomph to make a statement on their own. Or you can plant a mix along with evergreen groundcovers and smaller shrubs to create a care-free entry or courtyard garden. Finally, many of these cultivars can be planted in containers; taller than the rounded cultivars above, they can even be shaped into standards by clipping the lower branches.
Options from Minnesota eastward include: flowering, broadleaf Elf mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), dramatic Sargent’s weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and dwarf black spruce (Picea mariana ‘Nana’).
In northern states from Idaho eastward, add a conical note with Tiny Tower dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca).
In the Mountain States westward, check out Albers Elegant Weeping Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), as well as Dwarf Globe blue spruce (Picea pungens) in the Mountain States and Whipcord western red cedar (Thuja plicata) in the Pacific Northwest. I envy you PNWers who can call Whipcord — with its fantastically long, weepy leaves — native.
Privacy hedging (6 to 15 feet)
Perhaps the most usual — and cliché — use of conifers is a line of a single species to form a privacy hedge. When they are native species, these monoculture hedges can have great wildlife value and be beautiful, as some towering hedges of clipped arborvitae are in my neighborhood. If you don’t want the work of maintaining a clipped hedge, a mixed evergreen hedge of more sculptural species in a staggered planting will provide just as much privacy and a more interesting, natural look.
From Minnesota eastward, good choices for a privacy hedge include Pink rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum), Emerald Fountain Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and Conica dwarf alberta spruce (Picea glauca).
In the Mountain States and westward, check out Bush’s Lace Engelmann spruce (Picea Engelmannii), Skyrocket and Blue Arrow junipers (Juniperus scopulorum), and Iseli Fastigiate and The Blues blue spruce (Picea pungens).