The Dwarf and Rare Conifer Garden, a designated Conifer Reference Garden by the American Conifer Society, provides year-round interest and a place to showcase the Garden's renowned conifer collection. The wide variety of cone-bearing plants suitable for culture in the Southeast are displayed in front of the Fuqua Conservatory. It is a great place for urban gardeners to get ideas for how to use conifers in small spaces. The Conifer Garden was planted in the spring of 1994 on the east side of the front Conservatory terrace and expanded to the island across from the Rock Garden in 1998. It was then renovated in 2010 and 2013.
The garden has several purposes:
- Demonstrate the diversity in the group of conifers (cone-bearing plants),
- Demonstrate to southeastern gardeners the best way to cultivate and grow dwarf conifers,
- Evaluate new taxa of conifers for suitability of cultivation in the southeastern U.S. (i.e., cold hardiness, heat tolerance, growth rates, etc.).
In terms of diversity, there are more than 180 different taxa in the collection and over 30 different conifer genera represented. While many of these conifers are considered to be "dwarfs" by the nursery trade, "dwarf" is a relative term – a conifer which only grows to 31 in 10 years in the northwestern U.S. could grow 51 in five years in the southeastern U.S.
One purpose of this garden is to observe growth rates of these so-called "dwarf" conifers. While the genera are mixed throughout the garden to form pleasing color, size and textural combinations, the berm – a large, raised mound – directly in front of the Special Collections Area contains primarily conifers in the genus Cryptomeria. This enables visitors to observe the variation within the conifer groups as well as the tremendous diversity within one genus.
Planting in berms allows for good drainage, which is critical in the southeastern U.S. Most conifers do not like to be planted directly into unamended clay soils. The conifers have a wide-ranging diversity. The Totaras, Podocarpus acutifolius, nivalis, and totara are from New Zealand; and the Momi Fir, Abies firma, is from Japan.
A 2018 renovation made possible by significant support from the Fraser-Parker Foundation afforded the planting of 90 conifers, 26 new conifer species, four new conifer genera and companion plants.