Branching Out: A Guide to Conifers
Learn how to incorporate these evergreens into your landscape and browse beautiful conifer varieties through the lens of Jan LeCocq.
As the name suggests, conifers are plants with seed-bearing cones. Most are evergreen trees and shrubs with needle-like or scale-like foliage. Some conifers, such as pines, have great economic value in the timber and paper industries. Firs, spruce trees, and others play a role in our holiday celebrations, when they’re decorated as Christmas trees for homes and offices.
Of course, conifers are also versatile and attractive additions to the landscape. Many popular selections are cold hardy to USDA zone 4, providing color and structure long after seasonal flowers fade and deciduous plants lose their leaves. When they’re blanketed by snow, these plants also lend interest and beauty to the winter garden.
Look for conifers in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some have a low, mounding growth habit, while others form pyramids, narrow columns, or globes. You’ll find them in a range of colors, too, from green to olive-gray; pale yellow to gold; silvery-blue to blue-green; and many shades in between. Some conifers undergo a beautiful color change in autumn, becoming bronze, reddish, or plum-purple when the mercury dips.
Dwarf or miniature conifers are especially useful for tucking into flowerbeds and rock gardens, accenting entranceways, or planting in troughs and other containers. Most are easy to maintain because they grow very slowly.
Writer Sara Malone and photographer Jan LeCocq blog about conifers and other woody foliage plants at Form and Foliage and recommend them for low-maintenance, year-round garden interest.
Malone says, “One key aspect to using conifers in most gardens is that people choose dwarf or miniature varieties. If one plants an adorable little textured specimen, and it ends up growing 14 inches a year, you can see how it will quickly outgrow its spot and indeed get way too large for almost any suburban landscape.”
Although conifers can be pruned for size, “They never stop growing,” Malone adds. “The key to success (in your garden design) is knowing your materials.”
The American Conifer Society classifies conifers as miniature, dwarf, intermediate, and large-growing plants. Although membership is required to access some content, the ACS also offers information to the public on using, maintaining, and designing with conifers.
For success, choose a conifer that needs the conditions you can provide in your garden spot or landscape. Pines, firs and spruce trees are some of the most commonly grown conifers, along with cedars, cypresses, hemlocks, yews and junipers.
Most need well-drained, slightly acidic soil and full sun. Gardeners in southern climates, where the summer sun is hot and intense, should give their plants some afternoon shade.
The United States National Arboretum does not recommend amending your soil when planting conifers, as this discourages their roots from growing deep and spreading out. Autumn is the best time to plant, when strong root systems have a chance to form in cool weather. Mulch well after planting, and water deeply, but not too often. It’s fine for the surface soil to go partially dry between waterings, as long as deeper soil stays moist.
According to the Arboretum, junipers, pines and true cedars can tolerate dry conditions, while hemlocks, dawn redwoods, bald cypress and Atlantic white cedars prefer moister soil.
If you live in a climate where the winters are cold, the Arboretum suggests growing black spruce, balsam fir or Siberian cypress. If you’re in a warm climate, try Arizona cypress, deodar cedar and Japanese cedar.
A Sampler of Conifers
- Cypress – Many homeowners use cypress trees as privacy screens. Most are hardy to USDA zones 6 to 10; some are exceptionally long-lived.
- Juniper– These plants tolerate acidic or alkaline soil, as long as it drains easily. Give them full sun, and keep them watered regularly for the first year after planting. Many junipers are available as low, spreading shrubs, so try them as groundcovers, for weed control and to help prevent soil from eroding.
- Fir – With their soft needles and rich fragrance, fir trees are desirable landscape plants as well as sought-after Christmas trees. Grow them in full sun in zones 2 to 7. Most require little care, and seldom need pruning, although they should be kept watered during dry periods.
- Pine – Fast-growing, softwood pine trees thrive in acidic or sandy soils and need good drainage. The seeds in their cones attract birds and squirrels; fallen pine needles make excellent mulch.
- Spruce – Native to Europe and North America, cold-hardy spruce trees grow even in poor soils. The Colorado blue spruce, a popular spruce known for its blue-grey needles, prefers moist, fertile soil and full sun, and does best in USDA zones 2 to 8. Another popular choice, the Norway spruce, likes cool, moist climates and can take full to partial sun in zones 3 to 7.
- Cedar – Fragrant, easy to grow cedars thrive in zones 6 to 9. While birds find them attractive, deer usually leave them alone. Give them sun to part sun; depending on the type of cedar you’re growing, your tree may mature from 10 to 120 feet tall.
- Hemlock – Native to North America and Asia, hemlocks are pyramidal-shaped trees with red-brown bark. The Eastern hemlock, also called Canada hemlock or hemlock spruce, has short needles and likes fertile, slightly acidic, well-drained soil.
- Yew – Used as hedges, ground covers, and topiaries, yews have fine needles and grow best in zones 4 to 7. Plant them in sun to partial sun or even shade; they’re tough enough to tolerate dry conditions. Like cedars, they attract birds, which are drawn to the red berries produced on female varieties, but are seldom bothered by deer.
Special thanks to photographer Jan LeCocq and writer Sara Malone for their assistance with this article.