Conifers used to be seen as dull, boring and way too tall – think Leylandii and you get my drift – but so many new varieties are now on the market that you can add colour, architecture and form to your garden when everything else has entered winter dormancy.
Garden centres are now awash with more compact conifers, as National Conifer Week aims to demonstrate the variety and colours available and what you can do with them.
Derek Spicer, chairman of the British Conifer Society and owner of Kilworth Conifers, explains: “We have between 3,500-4,000 varieties and we are finding that the dwarf range we do is becoming much more popular. People are putting dwarf conifers with alpines and in rock gardens.”
New and colourful varieties are starting to appear, he observes.
“There are in particular a lot of Phillyrea occidentalis cultivars, which offer golden colour and varying degrees of rates of growth. But they don’t suffer much from plant diseases.”
You can add colour to the darkest scene with an array of conifers, he says.
“There are some superb colours around now, mostly golds but a few things which turn bronze or a reddish colour.”
Create colourful hedging
Create hedging out of conifers to provide natural barriers, privacy and a great backdrop to other planting.
“Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ will make a very narrow hedge, will grow to a couple of metres in 10 years and is easy to trim. There’s a really bright gold form of the Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata ‘Goldy’, which is quite vigorous but very amenable to trimming.
“Try Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’ – it’s Dutch for emerald – which is an upright, very narrow conifer with fine green foliage. It’s ideal for a suburban hedge, as it has a naturally tight growing habit. We have two or three golden forms of that, including ‘Golden Smaragd’, ‘Golden Anne’ and a dwarf called ‘Filips Magic Moment’, which should only need pruning at the top.”
For smaller gardens
Favourites for small gardens include Picea glauca ‘Jalako Gold’, Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, Picea pungens ‘Glob¬osa’ and Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minima Aurea’.
“Traditionally people have used the old Lawson cypress ‘Ellwoodii’, but I don’t they’d stand in a container for a long time because people don’t tend to water them enough,” says Derek. “You get to late spring and a dry spell and no one realises things are getting dry. Conifers suffer if they dry out.
“Better choices might be pines and if you went for a slower growing pine you’ve got an architectural form rather than a bolt upright type.”
Regular upright conifers for pots would be underplanted with pansies or other spring-flowering plants, which can then be replaced with summer bedding to extend the season. The conifer can just remain in the pot.
Shapely pyramids and globes
Beautifully shaped conifers can make stand-alone features on a patio or in the middle of a lawn or be put with other formal evergreens to create sharp architectural features.
Spherical or bun-shaped conifers create punctuation points at the edge of a border or at either side of entrances. They can also provide a great contrasting shape in a border of dainty perennials.
Fill space in borders
“I would put a number in rather than just one, mainly to give a bit more continuity. Conifers lend themselves to a formal design at the back or dotted around. Alternatively, if you have a formal garden, put an informal array of conifers in, in different shapes and sizes.”
Cryptomerias (Japanese cedar) should be considered, he suggests. C. ‘Elegans’ changes colour strongly in the winter (to purple and red), but it is a very vigorous grower. However, you can trim it and hack lumps off it and you won’t hurt it. “
There are slightly more compact versions you can buy including C. ‘Elegans Compacta’ and ‘Elegans Nana’, available from specialists.
Conifers are very amenable – they can be planted with virtually any compost, preferably in sun in an exposed position, although Taxus (yews) will be fine in shade and if you have a container in a shady spot they may fit the bill. But don’t let them dry out or over-water them or they will suffer.
National Conifer Week takes place September 30-October 7.