Conifers – much maligned and in current thinking, unloved? Is this true? It certainly shouldn’t be when there is such a range of form, shape, texture and colour to be had – and from many that will sit happily in the smaller garden without ever outgrowing their welcome. Some of the names might be unfamiliar and tongue-twisting – but the same might be true of almost all botanical latin; something to be learned, associations made.
And there is the spectre of the Leylandii to overcome! (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1310011/Hedge-wars—evergreen-battles-make-good-neighbours-turn-nasty.html)
Yet I seem to have paid these plants quite a bit of close attention. I’ve pretty much catalogued the beautiful conifer garden at the Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, where they certainly are the stars – and at Nymans come to think of it – the lawns at RHS Wisley have some striking and mature specimens – and their Pineturm and more at Kew have had my attention for hours (though these showcase many far larger specimens) – where else now? So maybe I’m wrong in thinking they are undervalued and underused and it is just a spurious prejudice of mine. I’m not a hater, I’m happy to declare myself a proper conifer lover.
I’ve loved the low, architectural and slow growing Pinus mugo cultivars (Mops being my favourite, which I planted in a mixed perennial bed last Autumn to provide some evergreen interest in the winter and a cool, calm greenness amongst the wilder mix of flowers in spring and summer). From the collection above, I’m particularly taken with the intense golds and yellows – and the contrasting blues and greys. The compact forms we might be more comfortable in planting will add a different texture to a garden space; permanence (welcome especially in winter); contrasting colour – in the many greens as well as the glaucous blues and greys and of course the golds, russets and ambers; that these colours change through the seasons too – they don’t have to be static little sentinels in the borders – many will flame and flare as autumn and winter turn; an anchor to wilder floral evanescence; vertical structure; spikiness; softness; fragrance …
The dwarf forms especially, as long as they are correctly labelled, should never become so vertiginous as to pit neighbour against neighbour in an embattled hedge-war …
All in all I think I shall be paying more attention to conifers in the future and I am not alone – this article from The Telegraph makes the case too – more links also below.
Looking out on the winter garden, it’s the evergreens that take centre stage. In my case, it’s the bay hedges, Viburnum tinus, box and ivy that are the garden’s skeleton, but recently I’ve felt my garden needs more bones – it needs conifers.
I never thought I’d utter those words. For years, since the Seventies, with the exception of yew, conifers have been firmly out of fashion, but I’ve noted the odd structural plant sculpture, the occasional specimen tree and even a few dwarf conifers creeping into scree gardens, in sinks and in containers. I like to imagine these plants frosted, their silhouettes standing out against a snowy background, and their dense foliage offering winter shelter for garden birds.
Ashwood Nurseries has specialized in conifers – particularly dwarf and slow-growing varieties – for the last half century. Nurseryman Robert Williamson says there has been an increase in interest, especially in grafted dwarf conifers such as bestselling Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’ and the mound-like Picea abies ‘Little Gem’ to display in pots and containers, and in taller columnar varieties to grow in mixed borders among grasses. And rumour has it, Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter, is increasingly planting conifers in his famous borders.
I asked Will Dyson, curator of Great Comp gardens near Sevenoaks, which are his abiding favourites among the many conifers that date from the garden’s inception in the Sixties – the conifers’ heyday. He told me many of the original plants had outgrown their place: a Sequoia sempervirens ‘Cantab’ sold with a 10ft height had now reached 60ft, but of those that still fitted the landscape, he loved Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan Sugi’ with almost white leaves in winter; Picea breweriana, the slender and drooping weeping spruce; and Macrobiota decussata, a prostrate that turns chocolate brown in winter and looks fabulous next to something golden, such as Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’. Credit: Vivian Russell
Dyson mulches his conifers with mature woodchip compost and admires their coloured foliage ranging from blue to gold, rust to all shades of green. He loves their scent – many conifers have smells that take you right back to childhood. Their furry, spiky and frothy textures – especially on new growth – and their various cones, complete a picture that is far from the usual complaint that conifers look the same all year round.
When Kevin Tooher, horticultural lecturer from Hadlow College, came to talk on conifers at our horticultural society, a show of hands revealed only three conifer fans among us. His inevitable technical problems with the slide projector that afflict all our speakers were almost greeted with relief – but eventually his enthusiasm and knowledge may well have won over a few hearts and minds.
Tooher grows over 50 varieties in his average-sized town garden on clay. He’s on a mission to dispel the bad vibes conifers have attracted since the Seventies, probably owing to the problems surrounding the infamous Leyland cypress that grows like a rocket propelled three foot a year.
He likes to see sculptural plants in mixed settings, but is especially fond of specimen trees on lawns, such as Gingko biloba, Taxodium distichum and metasequoia – all deciduous conifers with good autumn colour. But his favourites are mostly dwarfs to grow in containers – Norfolk Island pine, Abies koreana with its lovely cones and Calocedrus decurrens – the incense cedar. He also collects junipers, though they prefer to grow without competition. The British native juniper is under threat in the wild.
Adrian Bloom recently won the Garden Media Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Savoy. Despite his nursery Bressingham having introduced over 200 perennial cultivars, including Geranium ‘Rozanne’ the RHS Perennial Plant of the Century, it’s the kidney-shaped island beds packed with conifers and surrounded by heathers that spring to mind at the mention of his name. It’s time for gardeners to give conifers a new lease of life.
Great places for a Boxing Day walk
- Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent, home to the National Collection of Conifers with 1,800 different species, open every day except Christmas Day (bedgeburypinetum.org.uk)
The arboretum at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh contains a pinetum (rbge.org.uk) Wisley Pinetum (turn right at the entrance), open every day except Christmas (rhs.org.uk) Pinetum Park, St Austell, Cornwall, open everyday (pinetumpark.com) Both Kew in London and Wakehurst in Sussex have Pinetums (kew.org)
Recommended conifers for your garden
- Chamae-cyparis ‘Filifera Aurea’ – tall, graceful column with fine needles (8-12m)
- Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’ – bright yellow growth and purple cones (3-10m)
- Pinus coulteri – large tree with cones weighing up to 2 kilos (12m plus)
- Pinus montezumae – fast-growing with branch tips like sparklers (35m)
- Cupressus macrocarpus ‘Wilma’ – small, upright, citrus-scented and Christmassy (3m)
- Pinus nigra ‘Marie Bregeon’ – domed; perfect in a large container (1m)
- Thuja occidentalis ‘Sunkist’ – a pyramid of flat sprays of orange yellow (1.5m)
- Juniperus chinensis ‘Pyramidalis’ – a slow-growing, grey-green column (1m)