beloved conifer: my not-so-dwarf-now white pines

YOU’D THINK BIGGER WOULD NOT BE BETTER when you’re taking about a dwarf conifer, but to the contrary, I’m loving my overgrown “dwarf” white pines (Pinus strobus ‘Nana’) more each year. After 20-plus years in the ground, starting from mounded creatures maybe 3 feet across and 2 high, today they are close to 14 by 7 or 8—like giant bonsais someone hasn’t clipped lately. (That would be me.)

First, the disclaimer. I know I said the plant is specifically Pinus strobus ‘Nana,’ and that’s how mine came to me, but here’s the wrinkle: ‘Nana’ is kind of a grab-bag name for many relatively compact- or mounded-growing Eastern white pines, a long-needled species native to Eastern North America, from Canada to Georgia and out to Ohio and Illinois.

Today, you can shop for named varieties that are really compact, with distinctive and somewhat more predictable shapes, like ‘Coney Island’ or ‘Blue Shag’ (to name two cultivars selected by the late Sydney Waxman at the University of Connecticut, who had a particular passion for this species).

I could have pinched the tips of the new growth, or candles, by half each year to keep the generic plants I brought home decades ago somewhat more contained, but frankly I like that they have grown up along with me and the rest of the garden’s original plants. (Oh, and I am lazy about such things.) There is not a day in the year I am not happy to look out at them, set about 30 feet apart behind the house.

One was meant to be the right flank of a small frog pool (below) I’d dug early on, placing a Japanese umbrella pine I’d carried from my old garden on the left side, with an existing old rhododendron in the middle. Now the three have all but overrun the pool, but the fish don’t seem to mind.Neither do I.

My plants, despite their age, don’t set cones; I frankly don’t know why. They’re planted in conditions they like: moist but not soggy, slightly acidic soil, and where they get sun much of the day. White pines do well in sun or very light shade, but will be looser in lower light.

Like many conifers, the dwarf white pines (Zones 3-8) will shed its oldest needles every autumn, when the innermost foliage turns brown and then drops. Don’t panic.

Can you find a home for a dwarf white pine—whether one that promises to stay that way, or something more rebellious that will someday get as big as mine?

Or perhaps you are looking for other conifers–something weeping or blue or gold or in some other way distinctive?

  1. Julie says:

    Thanks for writing this post. I love your pines flanking your rhododendron. That’s perhaps my favorite tableau in your garden. It looks so artful in its geometry, and yet it came together naturally. It sort of reminds of the yoga pose–trikonasana. If you stare at it long enough, you can see several triangles within the whole grouping.

  2. I love white pines. We planted one a year after we moved into this house, and it is already quite a monster. The house behind ours has a very majestic white pine at the back of the lot, very close to our back fence. It looks absolutely beautiful with a light dusting of snow. Right now, it is dropping its needles and I am greedily raking up any that fall into my yard to add to the paths in my vegetable garden!

  3. virginia morningstar says:

    Another clairvoyant post! Will be installing this week my first dwarf conifer ever, an abies koreana silberlocke–am very excited. Looked far and wide for this plant and wanted to share a great conifer specialty nursery that will mailorder, specialtyornamentals.com, in Georgia. Small place, owner is very knowledgeable and patient – she put up with me after all. Check it out!

  4. maria mccune says:

    Speaking of conifers, there is one that I’ve only seen once in my life called “Cristata Cryptomeria” which looks like a giant cockscomb. Someday I will own one of these beauties, but beware, they are very expensive, but to me worth every penny!

  5. andrea verberkmoes says:

    Perfect timing, Margaret, with this post. In my attempt to reduce the endless maintenance required in my perennial gardens, I’m in the process of adding small trees and shrubs. So many beautiful choices!

  6. fern says:

    I have many huge, not-dwarf white pine on my property and i’d love to trade a few for the dwrf variety. They’re lovely look at, but the fast growing wood is quite brittle and i’ve had some major limbs break off in heavy rain or snow. There is one a little too close to the house ahnd i’m thinking of having it taken down.

  7. Rachelle says:

    Hi – I know a tree-hugging guy whose dwarf conifers (and other unusual trees) are wonderous features all around his home. Recently, at his nursery in Burlington, WI he introduced me to many varieties while we walked to the perfect gingko tree I had come to inquire about. Along the way he said that dwarf only refers to the rate of growth and most dwarf conifers will become quite large given time. How about a 70′ fastigiata that is also very narrow? When you roam his nursery one gets to see the dwarf all grown up and mature – pretty neat! Also, Margaret, he tells me that you should ammend your dirt with sulphur – pick some up by the bag load – and spread it under your conifers. You WILL have your cones back. Enjoy!

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Rachelle, for the “dwarf” conifer tips. I know they get big, but it’s startling because suddenly you realize how long you have been in a place. :) The other misleading thing is that nursery labels (and reference books) state sizes that just aren’t true — at least not after 8 or 10 years, let alone 20. I love the sulfur idea, but I am in an acidic soil here, and all my big white pines have plenty of cones. Odd, huh? Love the mysteries of the garden!

  8. Jane says:

    I’ve been thinking about planting a small conifer in my tiny garden for bird shelter. Your information is enjoyable to read, informative and inspiring. Thank you.

  9. Kelly says:

    Margaret, I have a question for you and Ken Druse (I love your podcast, thank you!). I have a new home flanked on 3 sides by woodlands, and am looking for the right type of tree to create a magical, cozy look in the one open spot I have. Do you have any recommendations for small to medium size trees that create a bonsai type look? I love the growth pattern of your dwarf white pine; I’m looking for something similar, with horizontal branches splayed out, maybe multiple trunks… it would be a plus if the trunks grew in a corkscrew or interesting way, or, if the bark had interesting interest. Either evergreen or deciduous would be OK. The dwarf white pine is going in the right direction for shape, but is a bit small for what I’m looking for. I would love at plant maturity to be able to walk or slightly crouch beneath an umbrella like canopy. Thanks for any help!
    –Kelly, Charlottesville VA, Zone 7. Clay, acid, medium to dry soil. Full to part sun/part shade spot.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kelly. We are taping our next episode this week, so good timing! I will talk to Ken and we will brew a reply for you. Stay tuned.

  10. Robert says:

    I just absolutely love your “dwarf “ white pine. I only wish mine can follow in its footsteps.
    I just purchased one last fall in Ontario Canada and it was shedding much of the lower needles . However, the information provided in your posts has lowered my worries and my tree now also seems healthier in the summer.
    I just enjoy and appreciates reading your posts. It is so informative .Thank you so much , and keep up the excellent work.

  11. Ken Barrett says:

    I planted 15 White pine in the back yard 45 years ago. They were about a foot tall & now they are about 100 feet tall. I also planted 1 dwarf white pine on the front lawn. It stayed small for many years, but now it’s 20′ tall with a 30′ spread. It looks like yours but much larger.

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