Bird’s Nest Spruce Care: How To Grow Bird’s Nest Spruce Shrubs

Bird’s Nest Spruce Care: How To Grow Bird’s Nest Spruce Shrubs

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Dwarf Norway spruce is one of the best small evergreen shrubs for the landscape. It produces a perfect small mounding form that compliments any bed, foundation planting, container, or pathway edge. The plant is also known as bird’s nest spruce (Picea abies “Nidiformis”). What is a bird’s nest spruce? This is a marvelous foliage plant well suited for USDA plant hardiness zones 3 to 7. Learn how to grow bird’s nest spruce for a spectacular year-round display of greenery.

What is a Bird’s Nest Spruce?

The small depression in the center of the shrub is the genesis of the name, bird’s nest spruce. It is a Norwegian shrub that gets only 2 feet (0.5 m.) tall and about 4 feet (1 m.) wide. The evergreen needles are short and grayish-green except when young. The new growth is a brilliant greenish-yellow and suspended in clusters at the tips of the stems, adding interest to the plant.

Bird’s nest spruce’s form is flat on top with a concave center and densely needled stems. Dwarf Norway spruce branches are produced in horizontal layers, which grow thickly on the shrub. This little guy is slow-growing and may take 10 years or more to reach its mature size.

How to Grow Bird’s Nest Spruce

The little shrub prefers a sunny location but it can tolerate partial shade. The soil must be well-draining and acidic to moderately alkaline. It will thrive in rocky soil, clay, or even sand.

Bird’s nest spruce has the best growth when it is kept moist, but once the mature plant is established it can handle periods of drought. Bird’s nest spruce care is average with very little maintenance. The spruce is not bothered by rabbits or deer and has few pest or disease problems.

Bird’s Nest Spruce Care

Remove any diseased, broken, or damaged limbs any time of the year. If you wish to keep the plant in a diminutive habit, trimming bird’s nest spruce is best done in late winter to early spring in the second year. The shrub is extremely slow-growing, however, and trimming bird’s nest spruce is not generally required.

Container plants need to be re-potted every two to three years in a good potting soil.

Feed the plant in spring with an all-purpose fertilizer applied just as new green growth appears.

Water the plant weekly in summer for both in-ground and potted plants.

Try planting this shrub in a rockery, along a path, or in a container with annual plants. The shrub is fragrant when needles are crushed and also useful on sloping ground and exposed, windy hillsides.

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Norway Spruce Varieties

The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the most widely grown landscape spruce. It is commonly used as a street tree, Christmas tree and a windbreak. This is due to its disease resistance, adaptability to different climates and fast growth. The Norway spruce is native to Europe, but is widely grown in North America and Canada. There are different sizes and forms of Norway spruce trees. There are a number of dwarf shrub varieties, which are naturally-occurring mutations.


The Best Small or Dwarf Evergreen Shrubs

Some of the best small or dwarf evergreen shrubs include:

  • Dwarf boxwood (Buxus)— Low maintenance, evergreen shrub with a rounded growth that is suitable for growing as a specimen plant in the front yard or low hedge.
  • Small juniper shrub (Juniperus)—Fast growing dwarf evergreen that can have a low-spreading growth habit and is excellent as ground cover plant, short hedge, or border shrub.
  • Compact holly shrub (Ilex)—A dwarf thorny evergreen shrub with berries.
  • Little arborvitae shrub-like tree (Thuja)—Dwarf evergreen arborvitae shrub with soft, feathery foliage with dense growth. Some compact cultivars have rounded growth, and others have a natural conical shape.
  • Dwarf rhododendron bushes (Rhododendron)— Flowering evergreen shrubs that can act as a natural privacy screen in your backyard.
  • Compact pine shrubs (Pinus) – Small evergreen tree like shrubs.

Place small evergreen shrubs in the front of house to increase the curb appeal or as a decorative element in your backyard


This tree can be propagated by 6-inch-long branch cuttings taken in late summer or early fall. Strip the needles from the lower two-thirds of the shoot, then plant them deep into sandy loam soil. Keep the soil moist until roots form, then transplant into a pots or a landscape location.

Dwarf Alberta spruce trees are used as specimens in landscape design. As one of the most recognizable shrub/tree types in North American landscaping, you'll often see them used in pairs to flank the entryway to a house for a formal look that strives for balance. Because dwarf Alberta spruce trees will remain relatively small for a number of years, people sometimes treat them (at least initially) as container plants. They are sometimes trimmed into topiary forms when grown in containers.

However, be aware that these specimens will eventually outgrow a small space. It is best to avoid planting this tree in a spot that cannot comfortably accommodate what may eventually become a 10- to 13-foot tree.


Dwarf Norway Spruce

Dwarf Norway Spruce is a miniature evergreen shrub. This compact evergreen attracts birds and is deer resistant. This shrub naturally grows in a globe form. Mainly installed as a stand-alone plant, Dwarf Norway Spruce can also be installed as a low-lying hedge. The shrub grows about four feet wide and tall when it is mature. Since it is a slow grower, it may take quite a few years to reach maturity.

This evergreen shrub naturally grows in a globe form. This shrub also prefers areas that are partly shaded to part sun. Pruning is not necessary unless you are removing dead or damaged sections of the plant. Formal trimming takes away from the natural look of the evergreen. Similar in appearance to Bird’s Nest Spruce, this evergreen is just as hearty.

Dwarf Norway is not salt tolerant, meaning salt will damage this plant. Salt damage is irreversible since this is not a deciduous shrub. Make sure that you are installing this plant in an area that will not see salt. If you are looking for a well-rounded evergreen to add to your landscape, consider adding Dwarf Norway Spruce to your project. Evergreen plants always give your project eye appeal in the winter when deciduous plants are defoliated.


Bird's Nest Spruce

The Norway spruce, of which this plant is a variety, can attain heights of 150 feet, hardly a rock garden plant. The bird's nest spruce, however, is completely different. Even after nearly three decades, it rarely reaches more than 3 feet in height. It may attain 6 feet or more in spread.

Description of bird's nest spruce: Bird's nest spruce is a low-growing, rounded conifer with a distinctly flat top. It bears dark green needles that are much shorter and daintier than those of the typical species. As the plant ages, the outer section often grows higher than the middle, giving the plant its characteristic central depression: the "bird's nest" shape from which it derives both its botanical and common names. Ease of care: Easy.

Growing bird's nest spruce: Plant in full sun to light shade in soil that remains moderately moist. This plant grows better in cool summer areas than in warm ones.

Propagating bird's nest spruce: By grafting.

Uses for bird's nest spruce: The bird's nest spruce is a solid, easy-to-grow dwarf conifer. It works well in rock gardens and as foundation plantings or specimen plantings. Its main advantage, unlike so many other "dwarf" conifers, is that it never outgrows its space.

Bird's nest spruce related varieties: There are several dwarf spruces that can be used in rock gardens. Where some elevation is required in the rock garden, dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca Conica), with its densely conical form, is a popular choice. Its new growth is an attractive light green. Dwarf Alberta spruce will eventually reach 10 to 12 feet in height, but only after 30 years or so. Other conifers offering slow-growing varieties of similar appearance to dwarf spruces include firs (Abies) and hemlock (Tsuga).

Scientific name of bird's nest spruce:Picea abies Nidiformis


It can serve some special uses

I have had a few readers ask me about possible plants for planting at a cemetery. The bird spruce provides enduring evergreen foliage that can be symbolic of feelings for a loved one that has passed. That with the ability to be kept small, makes it a possible plant for that use.

Although I think an even slower growing version of this plant, like Picea abies ‘Little Gem’® may be even better if planting space is limited or you never want it to need pruning.

After a birds nest spruce has been growing for a bit, it can be a great plant to prune out in a Japanese garden style to reveal its branching.

Branch detail of a birds nest spruce that was thinned heavily

If you would like more info on this dwarf spruce, see this American Conifer Society’s webpage.

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Jim work's as a Landscape Designer in the far northwest suburbs of Chicago. He's also been a horticulturist and aesthetic pruner at a top quality Japanese Garden, as well as a freelance garden consultant, Risk Management Consultant, Insurance Safety inspector and head banging Ice Cream Truck driver (yeah that was me cranking "And Justice for All") among other things.

Comments

My birds nest is needles are turning black in the middle, I originally thought it was from my dog urinating on it, but I have had a fence blocking it off for 3 weeks now. I should I cut away the damage, or leave it be? Could it be something else? The rest of the bush looks great, just the middle is blackened, not browned

I just purchased one this Spring, hoping that I could leave it in its original pot and it would survive the winter months in my urn. Do you think it will be ok in Zone 4, being left outside in its pot?

Jim says

It is hardy down to zone 3, so it might be iffy as I usual consider plants in pots to be two zones colder then the zone they are in. So a zone 3 hardy plant would be OK in a pot down to zone 5.

Planted 4 Nest Spruces (about 3 gallon size) in May and they are quickly turning brown. Would watering be the problem -too much or too little? How often is appropriate? Thank you.

I’ve relied on Birds Nest Soruces for over 35yrs. Beautiful low shrub getting to 8-10 feet in diameter. Last year was the 1st year the deer ate them. This winter (’15-2016) I sprayed & fenced them off with 6 Foot wire fence.

The County up here just outlawed all yews with the towns to soon follow suit due to several elk deaths over this last winter. We range from zone 2-4 depending on location in the valley. I’m looking for a suitable evergreen replacement for area’s with little to no sun. Will the Birds Nest Spruce survive under these conditions. The yew’s I will be replacing on our clients properties are primarily Tauntons Spreading Yew.

Jim says

Zone 3 is the usual hardiness zone most sources give. Is there snow cover most years. If they are reliably under a few feet of snow, they should be fine. Sounds like a plant to try in protected spots near foundations, etc. As far as the low light levels. They need at least some light, they are definitely not like yews in their tolerance for full shade.

I have some birds nest spruce that are doing well on the north side of my home and have grown slowly as promised. They recieve some sun since they are spaced a few feet away from the foundation (and bay window), my problem is that the tall hostas that used to grow behind the spruces and in front of the house all died at once. Last year I filled in with some overly tall autumn joy sedums, but I’m looking for a suggestion for something that will grow in that really shady spot. And additionally, can I prune the spruces for height? Can I upload a picture?

Jim says

Yes you can prune them, just start lightly and see how they respond. Then next year you can prune them a bit more to bring them in a bit more.

As far as plants for the shady spot, you might want to try some ferns. I would avoid Ostrich and Hay scented ferns as they can spread a bit to way too much. Christmas ferns are some of my favorites that can handle dry shade and stay put where you plant them but Rhett are lots of other ones that are nice.

Thanks very helpful but you didn’t mention the size. How long to reach maturity would also be helpful. I am looking for an evergreen shrub that only reaches 3′ tall, in full sun for zone 7

Any help will greatly be appreciated,

Jim says

Thanks for pointing that out. I did fix the article, but I would say this is a good one for you as it will take decades to grow larger the 3′ tall.

For the 1st time in 35 years the deer fed on 1/2 of one bird next spruces. Can I prune it back ? And how far ? They also ate a low growing juniper they hadn’t touched before. Can I prune it back too? Thanks

Jim says

You can but don’t expect it to grow from old wood much. I would leave it or just tidy it up a bit and see if it flushes any new growth from wood.

I have had these for years and are great plants. My biggest problem is rabbits in the winter. They love to live under them and since they grow low to the ground, the rabbits chew access holes in the plant.

Jim says

They also can get spider mites in some years. Easy to take care of with a little insecticidal soap as long as you keep an eye out for them in spring and fall.

Your comments about the Bird’s Nest evergreen was very helpful. I’m thinking of buying 3 of them to place in front of a double window in the front of my house. The windows are tall and only about 2 feet off the ground. I don’t want to block my view so the Bird’s Nest evergreen sounds like it might be a good solution. The low growing juniper that is there now seems to be dying. They are about 30 years old and has seen better days. Thank you, I look forward to more helpful information. I will be pruning my blueberries soon and will be doing research on that.

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