Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
Best Evergreens for Containers

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Even some of the tough and reliable evergreens that seem to do well in containers are really only tolerating their treatment.  Obviously they much prefer to grow in the ground, and some will not tolerate growing in a pot at all. To some extent poor growth rates in a container is an advantage.  Evergreens growing in a container rarely reach mature size in ten years and rarely grow to their full size potential.  To make it as easy as possible for the plant to not just survive but thrive, be sure to find an ideal site and take good care of the evergreen. 

Potted Buxus by Annette Thomson

Container grown plants will generally do better transplanted to your own container than plants grown in the ground then balled and burlapped.  The plant is not only conditioned to growing in a pot but it will not bring with it any problematic soil organisms from growing in the ground.

Needled conifers generally don’t require much if any pruning so that will help reduce maintenance time.  Flat needled conifers such as arborvitae and cypress take to shearing very well so it is easier to maintain the size, but pruning must be consistent.  Severely pruning any conifer will often result in barren spots that never recover.

There is great variety of color, foliage and form of evergreens that you can plant in containers.  You can choose something that can accent, punctuate or blend with existing design.   Weeping and prostrate forms are excellent for trailing out the side of a container.

Look for evergreens that are slow growing, dwarf, and compact growing habit.  Remember that dwarf does not always mean small, just smaller than the parent which could be 100 feet tall.  Fortunately there are more small dwarf varieties suitable for growing in containers all the time.  For smaller containers there are miniature conifers.  These typically only reach about a foot tall when 10 years mature and grow about an inch a year.

Species and variety hints and reference:

Certainly not all varieties are referenced here.  Check with your local garden center about the best evergreens to grow in containers for your region.

Buxus, Boxwood

Boxwood is not only a tough and tolerant broadleaf evergreen for containers but it will also tolerate being stored in an unheated garage or shed without sunlight over winter.  It won’t be happy about it and will show it by spring, so don’t store your potted boxwood until the very last minute for winter and take it out just as soon as you can in spring.  Remember that an attached garage will warm up very early in spring especially on a common wall to the house, before it seems ready to be outside.  But boxwood are pretty hardy and should be fine going outside as soon as it gets a little warm outside.   Buxus sempervirens American Boxwood and Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ English boxwoods both grow very slowly, minimizing any need for pruning.

  • ‘Green Gem’ Buxus hybrid is one of many varieties that does well in containers.  This one has nice bright foliage of yellow green and grows to a 2 foot globe.  It is hardy to zone 4 so up to zone 6 it can easily be over wintered outside.
  • ‘Green Mountain’ Buxus hybrid is a slow growing upright pyramid with dark green foliage.  It is hardy to zone 4 and can normally grow to 5 feet high and 3 feet wide, but will not grow that large in a container.
  • Korean Boxwood Buxus koreana Several small varieties are available and suitable for containers.
  • Japanese Boxwood Buxus japonica Several small varieties are available and suitable for containers.

Juniperus, Juniper

Junipers are a tough and tolerant evergreen for containers.  They adapt quite easily to a variety of conditions but require full sun and well drained soil.  Many junipers are especially cold hardy and can withstand more exposed sites.  Most junipers also take to pruning well.  The variety of shapes and color available as well as excellent growth form make junipers a popular selection for containers.

  • ‘Shore’ Juniperus conferta has blue green needles.  The spreading branches will trail over the edge of your container and reach about 3 or 4 feet long.
  • ‘Shimpaku’ Juniperus chinensis is a gray green dwarf that grows to about 3 feet high and 4 feet wide with a vase shaped form.
  • ‘Compressa’ Juniperus communis is a miniature with a tall thin form, reaching only 3 or 4 feet at 10 years maturity.  A perfect little column for the centerpiece of a large container.  Grows about 2 inches per year.
  • ‘Blue Star’ Juniperus squamata is a dwarf, like all squamata.  This is perhpas the best of the blues with steely blue foliage.  It grows to about 3 feet and will spread wide as it matures. Puts up with adverse conditions well.
  • Also:

  • Juniperus squamata (all are dwarf)
  • ‘Pyramidalis’ Juniperus chinensis
  • ‘Blue Pacific’ Juniperus conferta
  • ‘Expansa Aureospicata’ Juniperus davurica
  • ‘Expansa Variegata’ Juniperus davurica
  • ‘Nana’ Juniperus procumbens
  • ‘Blue Arrow’ Juniperus scopolorum
  • ‘Blue Carpet’ Juniperus squamata

Pinus, Pine

Pines in general tend to grow quite large and outgrow a container.  But there are certain cultivars and dwarfs that can remain with the bounds of the container for many years.  Pines will adapt quite well to container growing and withstand exposed sites.  Some of the smaller pines are hardy to zone 2 or 3, those that are will overwinter well up to zone 4 or 5.

  • ‘Nana’ Pinus cembra is a dwarf pyramid pine with long, soft, blue green needles.  ‘Nana’ is a dwarf of an enormous tree so this is not a tiny dwarf.  In ten to fifteen years it will be 10 feet tall with a spread of 5 or 6 feet.  Eventually it will be 20 feet tall.
  • ‘Alice Verkade’ Pinus densiflora is a globe shaped with a slightly flattened top and bright green needles.  At 10 years maturity it may be 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall.
  • ‘Schmidtii’ Pinus leucodermis is a slow growing compact shrub with a rounded form.  Needles are very dark green.  At ten years maturity it will be about 2 feet tall and wide.
  • ‘Osmaston Compact’ Pinus densiflora is a bright rounded shrub with long needles.  At 10 years maturity it reaches 40 inches.
  • ‘Coney Island’ Pinus strobus has a compact spreading form, slightly mounded.  With bright blue green needles and cone production when very young it is a lovely specimen.  At 10 years maturity it will be 4 feet high with a spread of 5 feet.  Hardy to zone 3.
  • ‘Compact Gem’ Pinus leucodermis has dark green long needles and grows to a broad pyramid form as it matures.  Reaches 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide at 10 years maturity.  Hardy to zone 4.

Pinus Mugo, Mugho Pines are also known as Swiss Mountain Pine, do very well in containers if you make sure they receive regular water.  It is especially important that they have sufficient water going into winter.  Water on a regular schedule right up until the soil freezes.  If the weather gets warm enough in winter to thaw the soil it is critical that you water.  In spring begin your watering schedule as soon as the soil first begins to thaw.

  • ‘Gnom’ Pinus mugo has dark green needles with a roughly rounded form.  At 10 years maturity it will be 4 feet tall and spread to 5 feet.  Hardy to zone 2, so it will easily over winter to zone 4.
  • ‘Honeycomb’ Pinus mugo has bright emerald needles that turn golden near winter and a rounded form.  At ten years maturity it will reach 4 feet.  Hardy to zone 3.
  • ‘Paul’s Dwarf’ Pinus mugo has very short 1 inch needles that are medium green.  It will grow 2 to 3 inches per year and reach 2 or 3 feet at 10 years maturity.  Hardy to zone 2.
  • ‘Pot O’ Gold’ or ‘Amber Gold’ Pinus mugo is a slow growing mounded dwarf that turns bright golden yellow to orange in winter.

Abies, Fir

The Balsam fir are wonderful for containers with their pleasant “Christmas Tree” scent.  They are slow growing If you are trying to keep a living Christmas Tree alive in a container, But it will probably decline in health quickly after about a year. These are just too large to thrive in a container.  There are several varieties in the fir family that have suitable selections, but in particular the Korean Firs are very well suited to containers with many small and dwarf cultivars.  Firs prefer moist soil but well drained, and many of them tolerate or even prefer part shade.

  • ‘Nana’ Abies balsamea only grows about 1 to 3 inches per year.  The dark green foliage forms a neat and compact mound.  At 10 years maturity it reaches 3 feet tall and wide.  ‘Nana’ likes part shade and is hardy to zone 3 so it is easily over wintered outside to zone 5.
  • Piccolo’ Dwarf Abies balsamea is a miniature even smaller than ‘Nana’, reaching 2 to 3 feet in 10 years..  Roughly globe shaped, the branches are nearly vertical.  Excellent choice for a container and hardy to zone 3.
  • ‘Piccolo’ Dwarf Abies koreana is a very low growing, almost mat forming mound.  The branches spread and are reflexed, almost weeping.  At ten years maturity it will be 1 foot high and 4 feet wide.  It likes full sun and is hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Blue Cloak’ Abies concolor is a weeping form of White Fir.  The needles are a beautiful powdery blue.  It will grow 9 to 12 inches per year and reach 3 or 4 feet at 10 years maturity.  Ultimately it can grow as tall as 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide.
  • Meyers Dwarf’ Abies cephalonica is an attention getter with bright green needles in summer.  It will grow 3 to 6 inches per year, but in ideal conditions perhaps as much as 6 to 12 inches per year in a prostrate form, so it will spill over the edges of your container.  At 10 years maturity it will reach 18” high and 2 to 3 feet wide, it is hardy to zone 5.
  • ‘Blauer Eskimo’ Dwarf Abies koreana is a blue green miniature Korean Fir.  It grows slowly and develops a pyramid form of about 1 foot high.
  • ‘Cis’ Dwyarf Abies koreana is a minature with a very nice compact globe form  It grows very slowly, reaching 2 to 3 feet at 10 years maturity.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Silberkugel’ Miniature Abies koreana has unusual needles for a very interesting container plant.  The needles twis just slightly to expose a bit of silver underside.  it grows an inch or less per year and should remain under 10 inches by 15 inches.  The ‘Silberperle’ produces purple cones in fall and the ‘Silberlocke’ is pyramid form and only a foot or two tall.
  • ‘Golden Spreader’ Dwarf Abies normanniana is an unusual dwarf with golden yellow foliage.  The leaves curve to show a paler underside.  ‘Golden Spreader’ does not like hot sun and should be protected from direct sunlight midday.  A shrubby form grows slowly, only an inch or two per year and reaches a foot or two high.
  • Also:

  • ‘Holden Arboretume’ Dwarf Abies alba
  • ‘Spreading Star’ Dwarf Abies amabilis
  • ‘Jamy’ Miniature Abies balsamea
  • ‘Blauer Pfiff’ Abies koreana
  • Fliegender Untertass’ Dwarf Abies koreana
  • ‘Green Carpet’ Dwarf Abies koreana
  • ‘Kristall Kugel’ Miniature Abies koreana
  • ‘Starker’s Dwarf’ Abies koreana
  • ‘Duflon’ Dwarf Abies lasiocarpa
  • ‘Heddergott’ Dwarf Abies veitchii

Picea, Spruce

Spruce are not as slow growing as other species but the dwarf selections are a bit slower and will be suitable for large containers.  Spruce do not typically care for heat, they love cool climates where they can take full sun without heat.  In a container spruce must have regular moisture.  Many of the spruce are hardy to zone 3, allowing easy over wintering to zone 5.

  • Dwarf Alberta Spruce Picea glauca ‘Conica’ is very commonly grown in containers for its compact conical form that rarely needs pruning.  It can put up with short dry spells, grows quite slowly and has very dense foliage.  At 10 years maturity the Dwarf Alberta remains a nice size for containers, but by 25 or 30 years it can grow to 10 feet tall and 3 or 4 feet wide.  If you keep it healthy that long you may need a larger container.  Hardy to zone 2 so it is easily over wintered to zone 4.  ‘Jean’s Dilly’ dwarf Alberta Spruce has slow dense growth that will only reach about 4 feet tall in 20 years.
  • ‘Globosa’ Picea pungens is a dwarf blue spruce with a globe shape that grows to about 3 or 4 feet at 10 years maturity, but can easily reach 5 feet.  This is a great slection with blue needles that is bluest midseason.  Hardy to zone 2 so ist is easily overwintered to zone 4.
  • ‘R.H. Montgomery’ Picea pungens Dwarf Blue Colorado Spruce grows slowly to about 5 feet high and wide in ten years.  The compact and rounded shrub grows 2 to 4 inches per year.  Spring growth is a bright light blue and mature needles darken.
  • ‘Pendula’ Picea abies is a lovely weeping tree with blue gray foliage.  the graceful branches can be allowed to trail down the side of your container and can eventually trail along the ground.  It will grow 6 to 12 inches per year, so prepare to give it some space and a large container.  It will reach about 4 foot in height but the spread can be up to 15 feet.  Hardy to zone 3 so it will overwinter to zone 5.
  • ‘Minima’ Picea abies is a very slow growing and compact spruce.  The globe form will reach about 18” high and 2 feet wide at 10 years maturity.  It is hardy to zone 3.
  • ‘Bird’s Nest Spruce’ Picea abies nidiformis is a well known cultivar.  Although this selection is often recommended for containers, it can spread as much as 6 feet wide.  It remains quite small for 10 years but beyond that, pruning may deform the unusual bird’s nest look.
  • ‘Girard’s Dwarf Blue’ Picea pungens is a nice small variety of the Colorado Blue Spruce.  It grows 1 to 6 inches per year.  Initially the form is rounded but it matures to a dense broad pyramid that reaches 3 to 6 feet high and wide at 10 years.  Full sun in a cool climate will produce strongly blue needles.
  • Also:

  • Albertiniana Globe’ Picea glauca
  • ‘Elf’ Picea glauca
  • ‘Pixie’ Picea glauca
  • ‘Daisies White’ Picea glauca

Thuja, Arborvitae

Arborvitae are a relatively fast growing conifer so it is essential that a small variety is selected.  Although they shear well with no adverse effects to maintain size, you need to be very consistent.  A very large container is suggested to accommodate these evergreens if allowed to grow large, at least 20 gallons.  Arborvitae like full sun but do quite well in part shade.  Full sun may encourage larger growth so part shade will help you maintain a smaller size.  In zone 6 or warmer most arborvitae will over winter quite well, the colder zones will have some difficulty.  Some gardeners have had good luck storing arborvitae in a garage or shed.  If you try, don’t store it until it is well below freezing and take it out when temps approach the freezing mark again.

  • ‘Little Giant’ Dwarf Thuja occidentalis is a dwarf arborvitae with a globe shape that only grows to about 4 feet when mature at 10 years.  It takes well to pruning so a small size can be maintained easily.  Hardy to zone 3 so overwinters easily to zone 5.
  • ‘Hetz Midget’ Dwarf Thuja occidentalis is very popular for container planting.  It maintains a compact globe with rich green foliage.  At 10 years maturity it will be 3 to 4 feet high and 4 to 5 feet wide.  It is very adaptable and tough, hardy to zone 2.  Excellent container selection for zones 4 and warmer.
  • ‘Teddy’ Miniature Thuja occidentalis has foliage not quite typical of arborvitae.  The fine feathery sprays grow in very dense clusters of blue green forming a mounded globe.  The foliage turns bronzed in winter.  This cultivar can only take very gentle shearing to lightly shape and is very susceptible to winter burn.  Cover with burlap for winter or store in shade.  Grows 2 to 4 inches per year reaching only 16” tall and 12” wide in ten years.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Danica’ Thuja occidentalis is even smaller than ‘Hetz Midget’ reaching about 2 feet in 10 years.  At its ultimate size it still will only be about 3 feet high and 4 to 5 feet wide.  The bright emerald foliage is not fond of strong winter winds.  Hardy to zone 3 so it will easily over winter to zone 5. 
  • ‘Sherwood Frost’ Thuja occidentalis is a slow growing semi dwarf with an upright form.  New growth at the tips is creamy white creating a little spring drama.  At ten years maturity it will reach 5 to 6 feet tall and 3 yo 4 feet wide.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Linesville’ or ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’ Thuga occidentalis has bright sage green foliage with a fine texture similar to ‘Rhinegold’.  At ten years it will only be about 2 or 3 feet high and wide.  Hardy to zone 3.
  • ‘Golden Globe’ Thuja occidentals has a dense globe form with golden yellow new growth.  It requires regular watering, so don’t let the container dry out.  Full sun is preferred but it will tolerate a little shade.  At ten years it will be 2 to 3 feet tall and wide and can ultimately reach 5 to 8 feet.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Grune Kugel’ Thuja plicata is a Western Red Cedar that forms a nice little mound only 30” at 10 years.  Hardy to zone 5.

Taxus, Yew

Yew are a tough and hardy staple of northern gardens.  Deep green foliage holds its color all year long, resists winter burn and prunes well.  The female plants produce red berry like fruit instead of cones that are a bright contrast to the deep green foliage in fall.

  • ‘Hicks’ Taxus x media is an upright narrow column with upright branching.  ‘Hicks’ is avaialable as male or female, if you want berries make sure you get a female.  At ten years maturity it will be 9 to 12 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide at most, but after 20 years can reach up to 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide.  Shears well to maintain size.  Hardy to zone 7
  • ‘Fastigiata’ Cephalotaxu harringtonia is actually a Japanese Plum Yew that does best in southern gardens, up to zone 6 in the midwest.  It forms a loose upright column that will reach 10 feet high and 6 feet wide in 10 years.  It does take to shearing well like the Taxus and will tolerate heat and shade well.
  • ‘Adams Columnar’ Taxus cuspidata is a Japanese Yew that grows slowly to 12 to 15 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide at 10 years maturity.  The narrow columnar form is nice as the centerpiece of a large container.  Shears well to maintain size.  Hardy to zone 5.
  • ‘Densiformis’ Taxus x media is a semi dwarf with a spreading habit that is somewhat mounded.  At 10 years it will be 3 to 4 feet high and 4 to 6 feet wide.  This is a female culitvar so it will produce berries.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Fastigiata Aurea’ Taxus baccata is a Golden foliaged English Yew, but sometimes called an Irish Yew.  It is a slow grower with a compact upright form.  This is a beautiful selection for bright and elegant upright where you would like height.  It seems to be a common plant in Canada, but I’m not sure if can be easily found in the U.S.
  • ‘Smokestack’ Taxus x media is a slow growing narrow columnar with upright branches.  At 10 years maturity it will reach 6 to 12 feet tall and only 2 to 4 feet wide.  ‘Smokestack’ is a male plant, so no berries.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Capitata’ Taxus cuspidata is the best evergreen for shady spots.  This Japanese yew grows in a roughly pyramid form, some pruning will be required to maintain good form.  At 10 years maturity it will grow to 10 feet high and up to 5 feet wide and can ultimately reach 25 feet high and 10 feet wide.  A shady site will limit the growth and density and it shears well to maintain size and encourage a more dense foliage.  Hardy to zone 4.

Chamaecypraris, False Cypress

False cypress do not like to be exposed to strong wind, so make sure your container is in a protected site.  And many of the false cypress do not perform well in excessive heat, so southern regions may not be successful with false cypress , especially in containers.  The Hinoki False Cypress seem to do very well in containers.

  • ‘Golden Sprite’ Chameacyparis obtusa is one of the very slow growing Hinokis at only 1 inch per year.  Only a foot tall and a foot or two wide at 10 years.  The dense foliage is globe shaped with golden yellow tips and an amber color in winter.  Hardy to zone 5.
  • ‘Nana Gracilis’ Chameacyparis obtusa is compact mounded pyramid with dark green foliage.  The fans of foliage are wavy, creating wonderful texture.  At 10 years maturity it will be 3 to 5 feet tall and wide.  Hardy to zone 4
  • ‘Nana Lutea’ Chamecyparis obtusa is a golden Hinoki with a globe shape when young, maturing to a broad upright.  18” to 3 feet tall and wide.  Hardy to zone 5.
  • ‘Aurea’ Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera is a Gold Thread False Cypress with a loosly mounded mophead form.  The feather like foliage is a bright yellow green.  4 to 6 feet tall and wide at 10 years maturity.
  • ‘Aureovariegata’ Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera is a beautifully colored Threadleaf with creamy yellow and green foliage.  The mounded form reaches 3 to 5 feet high and wide.  Be sure to protect this one from strong wind and sun in the heat of the day.  Hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Curly Tops’ Chamaecyparis pisifera is a stunning Sawara False Cypress.  The bright powdery blue foliage is curly creating a truly unique effect.  It grows in a broad pyramid form and will do well with as little as 4 hours of sun.  Protect from wind.  Grows to 4 to 6 feet high and 3 to 5 feet wide and is hardy to zone 4.
  • ‘Ellwood’s Pillar’ Chamaecyparis lawsonia is a tall and very thin Lawson Cypress excellent for the centerpiece of a large container.  It can get 7 feet high but remains only a foot wide.  The green foliage is tinged blue.  Hardy to zone 5.
  • ‘Pygmaea Argentea’ Chamaecyparis lawsoniana is a dwarf upright with a roughly pyramid form.  The blue green foliage has creamy white tips.  Grows to 2 or 3 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide in 10 years.  This one likes full sun and is hardy to zone 5.
  • Also:

  • ‘Mariesii’ Chamaecyparis obtusa Variegated Hinoki
  • ‘Tsatsumi Gold’ Chameacyparis obtusa Golden Hinoki
  • ‘Aurea Nana’ Chameacyparis pisifera Dwarf Threadleaf Sawara
  • ‘Tama-himuro’ Chameacyparis pisifera Miniature Threadleaf Sawara
  • ‘Ellwood’s Gold’ Chameacyparis lawsoniana
  • ‘Ellwood’s Gold Pillar’ Chameacyparis lawsoniana
  • ‘Green Globe’ Chameacyparis lawsoniana
  • ‘Minima Aurea’ Chamaecyparis lawsoniana
  • ‘Karamachiba’ Chamaecyparis obtusa

Cryptomeria, Japonica

Japanese Cedar are pyramid shaped conifers that typically grow quite large.  There are, of course, dwarf selections that are appropriate for container gardening.  They will need plenty of moisture and may need an acid fertilizer on occasion.  And they must be protected from high winds.  Japonica are pretty adaptable and love temperate climates but will not tolerate salt spray.  Japonica are not particularly cold hardy but some are hardy to zone 6, where they will need winter protection.

  • ‘Compressa’ Cryptomeria japonica is a popular dwarf with a globe form.  The blue green ofliage turns a deep red bronze in winter.  It grows very slowly, about one inch per year and will be about 18” high and wide in 10 years.  Hardy to zone 6.
  • ‘Golden Promise’ Cryptomeria japonica is a mounded miniature with short light yellow foliage.  The foliage fades to nearly white in high heat and prefers sun to part shade.  At 10 years maturity ‘Golden Promise’ will only be a foot tall and wide.  Hardy to zone 6.
  • ‘Vilmoriniana’ Cryptomeria japonica is a dwarf Japanese Cedar that grows slowly to a 1 o 2 foot globe.  They bright gray green foliage appears soft and fluffy and turns bronze going into winter.  Hardy to zone 6

Cupressus, Cypress

There are only a few Cypress small enough to grow in containers and they are not cold hardy.  But for gardeners in warmer regions searching for container evergreens I will mention a couple.

  • ‘Wilma Goldcrest’ Cupressus macrocarpa is a dwarf columnar Cypress with golden yellow foliage that is fragrant.  It grows slowly to 6 feet tall and only a foot or two wide in 10 years.  Sadly it is only hardy to zone 7.
  • ‘Tiny Tower’ Cupressus sempervirens is an exceptional very narrow columnar Italian Cypress with dense blue green foliage.   This one will need a very large container, in 10 years it will be 8 feet tall and ultimately can reach 25 feet tall and 3 feet wide.  This Cypress is also only hardy to zone 7.

As mentioned the varieties of small, dwarf and miniature evergreens and conifers is growing constantly.  Garden Centers and Nurseries select those that perform best in there region.  So shop around and see what’s new for your container gardens!

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