Evergreen Container Garden Ideas

Count on conifers to brighten your potted gardens this winter.
In winter, container gardens anchored by dark green conifers add some eye-catching interest to a home's entrance.

In winter, container gardens anchored by dark green conifers add some eye-catching interest to a home's entrance.

If this brutally cold winter has you looking at your container gardens and wondering what happened, chances are they don’t hold a conifer.

Conifers are the workhorses of the garden, especially in winter when most plants curl up for a long nap in what seems like an eternally brown bed. Primarily evergreens, these trees and shrubs make a pot pop when combined with annuals like pansies, violas and winter veggies. And when a deep freeze flattens those companions, often to the point of no return, the conifer stands proud, seemingly resistant to the elements, with most cold hardy to zone 4.

For containers, small conifers offer not only a dark green backdrop but also a wide-ranging variety of sizes, shapes and textures. Ranging from charming miniatures popular for bowl and rock gardens all the way up to giant towering cypresses, conifers include a whole category of small shrubs ideal for container gardens. (For starters, choose a 3-gallon variety that should not outgrow its container for at least three to five years.)

Their shapes range from loose pines to pyramidal junipers with mounded, spiral pruned and prostrate forms in between –the most popular being cone and columnar types. For texture, choose among dense prickly branched to long-needled varieties. And while most people think dark green when you mention conifer color, there are chartreuse, yellow, blue and even variegated choices.

When adding a conifer to a container garden, first know what they like. Best planted in fall, most prefer full sun, though many can tolerate some shade—and if you live in a warm climate, most perform better if they receive afternoon shade. Even though they are slow-growing plants, choose a pot at least four to six inches wider than the root ball—and even wider if you plan to add other plants around it to create a container garden. Give them well-drained soil, and water deeply and only when the soil is dry to the touch. Mulch around the base of the plant to keep roots cool, retain moisture and discourage pests and diseases.

For container gardens, the most popular choices are arborvitae, cypress, juniper, spruce, pine and hemlock. Here are several varieties to consider:

  • ‘Carolina Sapphire’ Arizona cypressCupressus arizonica ‘Carolina Sapphire’ — Bluish scale-like needles; conical, pyramidal shape.
  • ‘Black Dragon’ Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’  deep green, needle-like leaves; pyramidal shape.
  • ‘Berkman’s Gold’ arborvitae, Thuja orientalis ‘Berkman’s Gold’ — Pale green-yellow to yellow scale-like foliage; rounded form.
  • Deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara — Gray-green arching branches; pyramidal shape.
  • ‘Globosa Nana’ Lawson’s cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Globosa Nana' — Blue-green foliage; rounded form.
  • ‘Smaragd’ arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ — Glossy bright green, scale-like foliage in flat sprays; narrow, pyramidal shape.
  • Golden Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Tsatsumi Gold’: Yellow to light green thread-like foliage; rounded to pyramidal shape as matures.
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