Skinny Conifers for Tight Spaces

The columnar habit of this Japanese plum yew (front right) does not obstruct entry into this small courtyard.

The columnar habit of this Japanese plum yew (front right) does not obstruct entry into this small courtyard.

Narrow side gardens are the reality for many suburban homes but die hard gardeners don’t need to sacrifice height and beauty just because their footprint is small. Look for trees, shrubs  and perennials that have a columnar shape without growing too wide. Even in larger gardens there is a need for ‘punctuation’ points and these skinny but interesting conifers might be just the answer (and the perfect excuse to visit the nursery).

'The huggable 'Wissel's Saguaro' false cypress

‘The huggable ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’ false cypress doesn’t block a path


Wissel’s Saguaro’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’) is a conifer with attitude! Blue-green ‘arms’ beg for a hug and it certainly deserves a little extra love for the way it adds structure, height, color and living sculpture to the narrowest of spaces. Enjoy a young plant in a container for a few years before transplanting it to a well-drained spot in the garden. In full sun it will grow~ 8′  in 10 years with an ultimate height of 18-20′ but just 2′ wide. Hardy in zones 6-8




'Blue Arrow' juniper. Photo credit; Monrovia

‘Blue Arrow’ juniper. Photo credit; Monrovia

Blue Arrow’ juniper (Juniperus virginiana ‘Blue Arrow’).  The dusky blue shade of this juniper makes it a colorful, evergreen addition to any garden – perfect for narrow screens or as garden accents. Use it where you’d love an Italian cypress but don’t have the climate. It grows to 12-15’ tall and 2’wide (although truthfully I’ve seen specimens a little wider than 3’). Deer resistant  and drought tolerant once established, this is hardy in zones 4-9.


‘Empire’ false cypress has a subtle yellow variegation


Empire’ false cypress,  (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Empire’). A dwarf, columnar  conifer with a subtle yellow variegation; a beauty in containers or rock gardens. Typical height is just 4’ tall and 18” wide. Prefers full sun and is hardy in zones 4-9

'Snow White' Port Orchard cedar has white spring growth which matures to blue green (Left on photo)

‘Snow White’ Port Orchard cedar has white spring growth which matures to blue green (Left on photo)

 ‘Snow White’ Port Orford cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Snow White’) has a natural teardrop shape with soft blue-green foliage which still retains a whisper of the creamy white spring growth in fall! This species is particularly susceptible to root rot and the fungus Phytophthora  if not in well-drained soil so look for those grafted onto disease resistant root stock e.g. Monrovia’s Guardian series. ‘Snow White’ grows to 6’ tall and 18” wide in 10 years, loves full sun and is hardy in zones 6-9

Thuja DeGroot's Spire arborvitae. Photo credit; Longfellow Garden Center

DeGroot’s Spire arborvitae. Photo credit; Longfellow Garden Center



‘DeGroot’s Spire’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘DeGroot’s Spire) is an improvement on the typical arborvitae of the ‘landscaper’s special’ variety. The rich dark green foliage takes on a purple cast in winter and has nicely twisted foliage which will tolerate light shearing making it a good hedging plant. It copes with wet soils, will grow in part shade or full sun and grows slowly to 20’ tall and 4’ wide. Cold hardy to zone 3 and happy to zone 8.

Columnar Scotch pine

Columnar Scotch pine adds a columnar focal point in a small garden

Columnar Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Fastigiata’) is a narrow form of the beautifully soft and fluffy Scotch pine. The twisted blue green needles make a beautiful backdrop for shades of silver or purple leaved plants. This is hardy in zones  3-7 (possibly zone 2) where it will grow 25-30’ tall but just 6-8’ wide (the species is 25-30’ wide). Part or full sun.

Japanese plum yew looks fabulous in a container

Japanese plum yew looks fabulous in a container

Columnar Japanese plum yew (Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata’) is one of the few conifers which thrives in part or even full shade. Its dark blue-green needles are longer that yew (Taxus sp.). I use it in shady containers where it slowly grows to about 4’ tall and 18” wide. In the landscape it is more likely to be 6’ tall and up to 4’ wide.. Hardy in zones 6-9

Recommended Reading

Want more? You may also enjoy my post on Skinny Shrubs for Tight Spaces

One of my most-thumbed books on conifers is Gardening with Conifers by Adrian Bloom (Firefly). It is an excellent reference book with high quality photographs throughout. Lots of information on specific cultivars, tips on pruning, combination ideas for the landscape and more. Highly recommended. Save a few $$ and take advantage of my affiliate link:

FREE Resource you NEED!

You may also enjoy my Top 10 Skinny Trees for Tight Spaces PDF that is available to all newsletter subscribers for FREE! This new resource includes a few of the trees above but digs deeper to suggest deciduous trees, flowering trees and covers zones 2-11! You can sign up for my newsletter and get your FREE copy today by clicking HERE



  1. Heike Perry on February 12, 2013 at 6:19 am

    Karen, I love the look of the Japanese Plum Yew, I was looking for a typical yew in your first picture, but only found what I thought looked like some sort of Euphorbia. I have never seen it before, I wonder, if it is grown in the UK

    • Karen Chapman on February 12, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      The plum yew is the one that really does look like a yew in the far right. You can see the same plant/pot in the last photo. It would be fine in the UK so I’m sure you could find it. Maybe ask Hilliers?

  2. Christina Salwitz on February 12, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    You hit some great highlights there for sure! 🙂

  3. Karen Chapman on February 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    There are so many more though – so hard to restrain myself to not writing another book!

  4. Nancy Wallace on February 13, 2013 at 7:11 am

    I LOVE that ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’ false cypress!

    • Karen Chapman on February 13, 2013 at 9:32 am

      I know Nancy – got to love a plant that gives you a hug!

  5. Carolyn @ Carolyns Shade Gardens on February 17, 2013 at 10:43 am

    A very useful post for designers. I have sent a link to two local designers and recommended your blog and book.

    • Karen Chapman on February 17, 2013 at 7:46 pm

      Thank you so much Carolyn!

  6. Diane on February 21, 2013 at 3:56 pm

    Hi Karen,
    Just Beautiful!
    I love, love, love your work. I never fails to amaze, inspire and makes me to want to buy land.
    What recommendations for skinny conifers do you have to do well in both shade and full sun have for Strathmore Alberta

    • Karen Chapman on February 23, 2013 at 7:52 am

      Diane, I’m going to send you a few ideas by email next week – we’re in the middle of the Northwest Flower & Garden Show right now 🙂

  7. debsgarden on February 25, 2013 at 8:20 pm

    Hi Karen, not long ago I was searching for an upright evergreen that would tolerate shade. Thanks for the reminder about upright yew! The Japanese plum yew could be just right.

    • Karen Chapman on February 27, 2013 at 4:01 pm

      I think it would look perfectly at home in your garden Deb