Dwarf hemlock (or other conifers)


I had an area that is very shady however, the soil is moist as I have been adding compost and triple mix soil to the area. I am looking for a narrow dwarf conifer to plant. If you have a list of options that would be helpful. Thanks.


Thank-you for contacting Toronto Master Gardeners with your question.

Many conifers are sun-lovers and most become very large trees at maturity. Thankfully, there are some varieties that do well in (or even prefer) shade. Dwarf selections are readily available; some with interesting colours or variegated foliage.

Keep in mind that few plants perform well in dense shade. High shade, light shade or filtered shade from taller trees can be tolerated, but not constant, dense shade (from buildings, for instance). With this in mind, some good native North American options are cultivars of Canada (Eastern) hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), also known as Eastern White Cedar. Some attractive smaller varieties are:

  • Tsuga canadensis ‘Gentsche white’ is a lovely hemlock with white new growth. Its maximum size is about 4 feet tall and wide.
  • Tsuga canadensis ‘Bennett’ forms a spreading mound of about 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide, with graceful drooping branches.
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Little Giant’, a globe-form shrub of 4 feet tall and wide at maturity.
  • Thuja occidentalis ‘Skinner’s Dwarf’, a slow growing upright, pyramidal variety that grows to about 6 to 7 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide.

Yews (Taxus spp.) are some of the most reliable conifers for shade, even fairly dense shade. The native species, Taxus canadensis is well suited to woodland situations and grows to about 5 feet. The hybrid Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’ (Hick’s yew) is widely available and can be pruned to keep its size in bounds. Both of these yews have dark green needles with bright green new growth. T. cuspidata ‘Emerald Spreader’ is a non-native dwarf variety with bright green foliage. An important consideration in planting yews is that all parts of the plant are poisonous.

The following article descibes some lovely options for dwarf shade-tolerant conifers. These are special varieties of (mostly Asian origin) plants, often with variegation or unusual colours. The white, yellow or silvery foliage can relieve an otherwise dark, shady situation. Make sure to pay attention to the gardening zones listed for each plant, keeping in mind that they conform to the USDA system so Toronto would be Zone 5 (rather than Zone 6a in the Canadian system).


The following link is to a previous Toronto Master Gardener’s suggestions for shade-tolerant conifers (though the gardener in this case was looking for a faster-growing, larger plant than you have specified):


Best of luck in selecting your conifers!