Choosing Conifers

Conifers comprise a wide group of mostly evergreen trees and shrubs that provide welcome color and structure all year round. Although some have a bad name, growing into ungainly monsters, many make elegant additions to small gardens.

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Photo By: DK - How to Grow Practically Everything © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

Size Matters

The blue Colorado spruce, Picea pungens ‘Koster’, is a slow-growing conifer that reaches a height of 8 ft (2 m) and width of 4 ft (1.2 m) but may, after many years, grow even larger. “Slow-growing” conifers are not necessarily small, they simply grow slowly, putting on 6–12 in (15–30 cm) of growth per year. “Dwarf” types remain compact, and grow between 1–6 in (2–15 cm) per year, while “Miniatures” are tiny and will only grow to about 10 in (25 cm) after ten years and, ultimately, no more than 3 ft (90 cm).

This Hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Opaal’, is a dwarf conifer reaching 3 ft (1 m) high and 30 in(75 cm) wide when mature.

The dwarf mountain pine, Pinus aristata ‘Sherwood Compact’, with its decorative candlelike cones, is tiny and reaches just 24 in (60 cm) when mature.

This elegant small garden mixes well-behaved conifers, including a blue-leaved weeping Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’, Chamaecyparis obtusa trained into a tiny lollipop, and a pretty pine, together with grasses and bamboos to create a stylish modern design.

Creative Effects

Conifers are excellent design tools, offering a wealth of colors and shapes. You can use them en masse for a mosaic effect, choose just one striking example for a focal point in a border or lawn, or plant tiny types in pots and containers. Use cone-shaped conifers, such as Thuja occidentalis (left) ‘Smaragd’ to form a screen of sentrylike specimens.

The vivid golden foliage of Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’ makes a striking statement plant; the foliage is even brighter in winter.

The unusual purple cones of the slow-growing Korean fir, Abies koreana, are spectacular; buy one with cones to ensure that it will perform.

Options for Small Gardens

Conifers are quite easy-going and adapt to a range of conditions, but most thrive in a sunny site in moist soil that drains freely, although junipers will cope with drier conditions. Check labels for width as well as height, as some need space to spread.
Lawson cypress, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Minima Aurea’; H18 in (45 cm) s12 in (30 cm)

Juniper, Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’; H12 in (30 cm) s4 ft (1.2 m)

Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Nana’; E2ft (60 cm)

White cedar, Thuja occidentalis ‘Caespitosa’; H12 in (30 cm) s16 in (40 cm)