We like to think of fir trees at this time of year, romantically (and probably only in our imagination) going into the snowy forest to cut one down for our Christmas tree. Are any silver fir trees suitable for a small garden? Yes! Read on.

Why are they called silver fir trees?

Silver fir trees look gorgeous in the garden, especially when frost outlines all the leaves. Yes, they are leaves rather than needles! Look closely and you’ll see that the leaves are flat with a groove in the top surface, so not like a needle at all. They are also attached to the twig with a kind of sucker arrangement. Now you can tell the difference between a fir and other conifer trees.

They are called silver fir trees because the underside of most silver firs' leaves have two silvery stripes. These are the tiny pores through which the plant breathes. Some varieties have silvery stripes on top as well. When you’ve looked closely at the leaves, the name ‘silver fir’ suddenly seems very appropriate!

Silver firs produce attractive hard, woody cones which remain pointing upwards on the tree’s branches until they eventually break up with age, spreading their seeds.

There are about 50 species of silver fir (botanical name: Abies), all members of the Pine family. Many of them grow into large forest trees but some are more suitable for a small garden, particularly if you have acid soil.

Silver firs suitable for a smaller garden

Dwarf balsam fir (Abies balsamea ‘Hudsonia’)

This silver fir has been known since 1829. It has aromatic leaves, deep green above and blue-white lined beneath. It's a compact, dense and rounded shape with a flattened top. It is slow growing, reaching about 30cm/1ft after 10 years and perhaps 1m/3ft in time. Old specimens are much wider than they are high, spreading out to reach about 1.5m/5ft. It's good in a rock garden.

Compact corkbark fir (Abies arizonica ‘Compacta’)

This tree has a dense conical shape, dark green leaves with a silver-blue cast and soft, corky bark. It occasionally bears purple cones. Slow growing, it reaches 60cm/2ft after 10 years, and just over 2m/7ft when fully grown. Happy as a specimen in the lawn and rockery or in the shrub border, it can also be grown in a large container.

Korean fir (Abies koreana)

The Korean fir is broadly conical but has an irregular growth habit which gives it an interesting shape. The leaves are dark green above and silvery-white below. Contrasting nicely with the leaves, the large cones are violet-purple in colour and are produced from an early age, flowers starting to appear when the tree is about 1m/3ft tall.

The Korean fir grows well in moist but well-drained soils in a sunny position. It's another slow-growing tree: in good conditions it will reach 1-2m/3-6ft after 10 yrs and 3m/9ft after 20 years.

Christmas firs

We've talked before about buying a container-grown Christmas tree. You can use it and enjoy it again and again. With some TLC, a container-grown silver fir tree can live in a good-sized pot for some years (coming indoors at Christmas and then going out again). You could plant your Christmas fir out in the garden if you have acid soil, but it might be worth considering its future size.

The Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), currently the most popular Christmas tree in Britain, and the noble fir (Abies procera) grow to 8m/24ft in 10 years and 15m/45ft in 20 years. The Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is closely related to the balsam fir and grows to 10-15m/30-50ft.

Enjoy silver firs in frost this winter, and all through the year for their silvery beauty.