Great Conifers for Fall Containers

'Louie' eastern white pine takes center stage in this artistic arrangement. Photo and design credit Alyson Ross-Markley

Are your coleus collapsing and your petunias in a funk? Then it’s time to rethink those container gardens and freshen them up for fall.

The question I am asked most frequently is “What can I add for fall and winter that will be evergreen?” Well I could write a book answering that question – so let’s just focus on one group of plants that will always perform – conifers.

Tall ones, fat ones, fluffy ones and spreading ones – there’s a conifer for every situation and every design need. Want something colorful? Not a problem! There are selections in shades of green, blue, gold, russet and even variegated forms. Here are a few of my favorites.

'Louie' is as huggable as a golden teddy bear!

‘Louie’ eastern white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Louie’ )

If ever I had conifer lust I have it now.  This fluffy golden teddy bear of a conifer calls my name from across the nursery and like a child in the toy store I just have to go and give it a hug. This wonderful slow growing pine changes from a soft yellow-green in summer to vivid golden yellow in mid-winter. Obviously this would be stunning in the landscape but planting a young one in a container by your front door would really welcome friends with winter cheer. This needs full or part sun to thrive and will eventually grow to 10’ tall and 8’ wide.

I wouldn’t plant anything else in the pot with this beauty. If you would like additional fanfare add a couple of accent pots and fill those with interesting foliage and seasonal color spots such as the bolder leaved coral bells (Heuchera) but be sure to repeat the gold somewhere to tie the group together. Zones 4-9.

Jean's Dilly spruce has a tight columnar shape. Photo credit; Iseli Nursery

‘Jean’s Dilly’ spruce (Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’) – a slender version of the popular Alberta spruce, this has a tight conical form which lends itself well to more formal or traditional designs. It would work well as a centerpiece in an urn surrounded by mounding or trailing companions, or in a wide bowl shaped container accompanied by bright pansies and golden foliage such as the grass-like golden sweet flag  (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’). This needs full sun and is hardy in zones 3-7 where it will grow to 4’ tall and 2’ wide.

Four years ago this plum yew was added to the container. Seasonal accents come and go but this is the mainstay



Upright Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Fastigiata'). Yew (Taxus) is often recommended for shade containers or those which receive only limited morning un. Plum yew is even more shade tolerant and its dark green needles make a wonderful starting point to a container design. Pair it with bright chartreuse coral bells, hellebores, bishop's hat (Epimedium)  and trailing vinca for a show-stopping combination.

Blue Star juniper has a remarkable steel blue color which pairs beautifully with burgundy tones.



Blue star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’)– the bright steel-blue color of this prostrate conifer looks fabulous with burgundy making it a favorite of mine with red leaved Japanese maples. In fall this color scheme can be continued by using a young  ‘Red Beauty’ holly with its glossy evergreen foliage and abundant red berries. This conifer needs to be at the edge of a container, with other plants providing the height. Take a look at the cover of my new book for a stunning example. Full sun. Hardy in zones 4-8

'Forever Goldie' takes on orange tints in winter but is otherwise golden year round

‘Forever Goldie’ arborvitae, but may also listed as western red cedar (Thuja plicata ‘Forever Goldie’) – another huggable, golden conifer but unlike the pine this one won’t shed  needles in spring!

'Forever Goldie' is more golden in summer

Although this will eventually become BIG its early years can be spent in a medium sized pot. The foliage on this conifer has a sculptural quality to it and in winter it takes on a beautiful orange cast. Partner this with rich purple and blue for a serious color punch on a chilly autumnal day. Scorch resistant even in full sun. Hardy to zones 3-7

The delicate Cole's prostrate Canadian hemlock is popular for miniature gardening, container gardening and landscape design.

‘Cole's Prostrate’ Canadian hemlock  (Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate')  In summer we rely on edging plants such as million bells or trailing geraniums. What can we use in the colder months? Low growing or prostrate forms of conifers work well in this situation. Just because the label tells you that in 10 years’ time it will be 3’ wide doesn’t need to prevent you from enjoying it for a season or two while it is smaller. Just transplant it to a bigger container or the garden when it gets too big for the space. I love the hemlock foliage – it has a wonderful casual look. Look closely and you’ll notice that each needle is a different length and set at a different angle giving it a “rufty-tufty” look – or at least that’s how I describe it! Others might just call it scruffy; I say it has personality! Try this dwarf, prostrate form which is hardy in zones 3-7

What conifers do you like to use in your containers?



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  1. Henk Rozendaal on September 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    dear Karen.

    What a beauty and someone sees the beauty of bluestar juniperus, thuja 4 ever goldy etc in gardening and planters again.
    enjoy your ideas and your information.

  2. debsgarden on September 20, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Some of these I would never have thought to grow in a pot! All are gorgeous. I have three dwarf Alberta Spruce trees growing in pots; that is the only way they will survive here! I also have a 'Boulevard' blue cypress in a pot. I am going to try the bonsai technique to keep it small so I can keep it there. Wish me luck!

    • Karen Chapman on September 21, 2012 at 8:22 am

      Boulevard cypress is a beauty Deb and I find they stay small in containers anyway. baby Blue is an especially pretty cultivar.

  3. Stacy on September 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Karen, I really love what you do with mixed shrubs/perennials in containers and am mulling them over as I look at my one pot of pansies & Johnny-jump-ups. Do you maintain containers of mixed plantings from year to year, or are they meant to last only for a season or two?

    • Karen Chapman on September 21, 2012 at 8:23 am

      My mixed planters vary. Some are year round for several years but more often I'll switch out a few things each season for interest. Several plants go dizzy from being transplanted from pot to ground and back again!

  4. Similar but Different – the art of observation. on September 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    […] were sent to me by Qualitree, a grower in British Columbia after they read my recent article on Great Conifers for Fall Containers. When I say 'several'  I mean lots. And lots. Beautiful conifers, colorful heathers, […]

  5. […] golden pines e.g. Louie and Winter […]