We love conifers at Portland Nursery. Tall, soft, dwarf or prickly we eagerly anticipate their arrival every fall when they fill our nurseries with bright colors and interesting textures. Deciding on the right ones can be tricky so we've compiled a guide to help you make decisions.

Conifers serve faithfully as the 'bones' of the garden, providing year-round structure and backdrop to fruits and flowers. They can also be the star of the show with so many wonderful silhouettes, colors and textures available.

Use conifers to frame an entrance, hide the neighbors, spruce up your fall and winter containers or decorate for the holidays.



Conifer: any of an order of mostly evergreen trees and shrubs having usually needle-shape or scale-like leaves and including forms (as pines) with true cones and others (as yews) with arillate fruit. Merriam-Webster


The first key to success when growing conifers is to understand their growth habits. Conifers can grow very fast or very slow and since most gardeners are working with limited space, understanding growth rates is very important.

The American Conifer Society has developed 4 categories for growth.

Classification Rate Size in 10 years
Miniature Less than 1" per year 10-12"
Dwarf 1"-6" per year 1'-6'
Semi-dwarf 6"-12" per year 6'-15'
Large More than 12" per year Over 15'

Conifers do not stop growing after 10 years, but will slow over time. Assume the 20 year size to be double the 10 year size.

Cultural conditions (sun, rain, soil compaction, fertilizer, etc…) affect the growth rate of any given plant. It is worth noting that in Portland it rains a lot and the moisture often makes plants grow on the larger side of the growth spectrum.

Shape Matters


Conifers come in all shapes; pencil, globe, cone, vase, weeping and creeping. Some grow outward rather than upward, so knowing the shape of the plant is the key to understanding how much room it will take in your yard.

Growth + shape = size

Take two dwarf separate conifers that grow three inches a year. One is a pencil shape and focuses most growth straight up. The other is a vase shape and focuses its energy outward. The pencil will reach about 30" tall x 12" wide in 10 years, but the vase will reach 12" tall x 30" wide.


A mind-boggling prospect to many. We'll attempt to simplify.

Yew and Hemlock are easiest – they have buds on old and new growth that will fill in around cut branches. Branches can be sheared or pruned individually. Prune in March before new leaves grow.

Fir, Cedar, Spruce and Douglas Fir – Buds are visible along the new season's growth and some have buds on older wood. Prune back to a bud to control size at any time. For formal shapes like topiary Alberta Spruce, prune when new growth is soft.

Pines – Buds occur at the end of the stem on the current year's growth. To keep a pine at its current size or make it bushier, remove buds (called candles) whenthey elongate in spring. Next year's buds will form below that spot.

Removing larger branches will alter the shape forever, so plan cuts carefully. Larger branches can be removed during winter.

Arborvitae, Juniper and Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis) – Buds are present only where there are living leaves, so a branch cut below the area where leaves are present will not grow new foliage. This is why you see arborvitae hedges with big brown spots in the sides.

Cuts should be made above areas where green growth exists on stems. Any shearing should be done with great care.

Pruning advice gleaned from The American Conifer Society Website

Selecting Conifers for Your Garden

Here are some straightforward guidelines for selecting healthy plants that will thrive for years to come:

Check the plant for overall color. Conifers come in a rainbow of hues from deepest green to creamy yellow and from cool blue to warm gold. Whatever color you choose it should be vivid and uniform, not washed-out or spotty.

Examine the branch structure. Specimens with a rounded or spreading habit should be balanced and evenly spaced. Those with a pyearamidal or columnar habit are strongest if they have a single, central leader.

Look at the roots. Healthy plants should have a vigorous root system. Root tips should be creamy or reddish in color, not black or soggy. They should anchor it firmly in place, without being loose or wobbly.

Bigger is not necessarily better. Smaller specimens are frequently more adaptable and vigorous. After a year or two the smaller plants will often catch up to or even surpass the larger version.

Find the best Trees for your Garden

We carry a wide variety of trees year-round. These represent only a fraction of what you will find and are some of our favorites. Note: Viewing a Native Plant will take you into our Native Plant section.