How to grow conifers

By Val Bourne, Wednesday 28 November 2012

Every garden needs winter structure once the leaves have fallen, so December is when evergreens really come into their own.
John Massey's private garden at Ashwood Nursery in winterJohn Massey's private garden at Ashwood Nursery in winter

Gardeners have embraced fashionable box, yew and holly in their droves, however most are extremely reluctant to plant a conifer. Perhaps it’s the forty-foot high leylandii hedges that sprang up all over Britain in the 1960s, which now mostly look like brown scruffs. But there are many well-behaved conifers that will shine, so try to put those light-blocking trees out of your mind.

Instead conjure up the delights of a miniature needled pine with golden bottlebrushes that glisten in winter sun like gold. Or imagine a tight grey-blue juniper with jagged edges that catches the frost. Or you could plant one with foliage that cascades downwards like a graceful waterfall, or one with a stooped back that leans. They are all plant sculptures in their own right especially when seen in winter light.

The trouble is there are so many on offer and they are very diverse in habit. Some will suit a small rockery, while others could rise above the roof. Most are evergreen, but not all. Some have bright cones and others only colour up to gold when temperatures plummet.

The trick (as with all plants) is to choose wisely and this is a good moment in time because the RHS have just published two heavy tomes entitled the Encylcopedia of Conifers by Aris G. Auders and Derek Spicer. The 5000 pictures are superb and it contains 8000 different conifers. Perhaps the most usefully reassuring part is a size guide after ten years. It may seem expensive at £149.00, but then a choice conifer costs on average at least £20.00 or more for a small specimen. This is money wasted, should you plant the wrong one, and this book will help you choose the correct plant for your situation - whether it be rock garden, border or lawn. Derek Spicer, co-author, owns Kilworth Conifer Nursery in Leicestershire and he is deliberately trying to raise then profile of conifers with this book. The HTA also  hold a National Conifer Week every autumn, although apparently a third of gardens do already have a conifer in their garden.

Derek Spicer’s top five conifers for a small garden

Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’
A slow-growing columnar golden yew that retains its colour all year - showing off the red arils (1m x 025 after 10 years).

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’
A dark-green Hinoki cypress that is very slow-growing forming shell-like crests of foliage (0.7 - 1.5m after 10 years).

Picea glauca ‘J.W. Daisy’s White’
A very slow-growing conical white spruce that has new growth that changes from white to yellow to green (60 x 30 cm after 10 years).

Picea pungens ‘Globosa’
Sickle-shaped needles that form fat, blue fingers on thsi extremely slow-growing Colorado spruce (70 x 80 cm after 10 years).

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minima Aurea’
A dwarf golden-yellow Lawson’s cypress with flat leaves held in an upright position (50-80cm x 35-50cm after 10 years).

Where to see a masterclass

John Massey's private garden at Ashwood Nursery in winterJohn Massey’s private garden, pictured right, at Ashwood Nurseries (www.ashwoodnurseries.com) in the West Midlands has a back bone of conifers on a large rock garden with small paths and scree slopes. He mixes the textures and forms and carefully manages their size. When he opens the gardens for snowdrop and cyclamen days his conifer collection is much admired too. John sells a range by mail order and has done for some forty years, despite their unfashionable profile, and conifers are popular in his area of the West Midlands. Nearby in Worcester, a specialist nursery called Owen Brothers, one of the finest conifer specialists, welcomes visiting customers. However there is no mail order or website. Ring first to make sure a specialist is on hand (01905 451215). Sadly, they no longer attend the shows. Kenwith Conifer Nurseries specialise in dwarf and miniature conifers.

Why so many conifer varieties?

Conifer species produce mutations naturally, a process known as sporting. Sharp-eyed nurserymen and collection owners remove and propagate them and this has being going on for hundreds of years in countries like Japan, America and Germany. 

Where to grow conifers

Rocky landscapes, gravel gardens and screes

All three suit dwarf conifers and their scale mixes well with alpines, small shrubs like daphnes and miniature bulbs. Their foliage offers year-round colour, texture and form. 

Dwarf conifers need to be pruned rather like shrubs. Once established, most will produce candles of new spring growth and this is cut back by half to keep them compact. Then the whole tree is shaped in August with the idea of creating 'transparency' so the sky can pick up the shape of individual branches. This is similar to the technique used in Japanese gardens. This regime will manage the shape and restrict the growth.

Larger conifers can be treated in the same way or left to develop depending on their growth habit and space available. Slow-growing conifers are expensive purely because they grow slowly - so if it’s cheap and it says it’s a miniature - steer clear.

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