Double-Duty Conifers

Needled evergreens come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Check out the conifers that are suitable for your site.
By: Susan Hamilton

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Chamaecyparis obtusa ~Verdonii~ (02) Habit

Chamaecyparis obtusa ~Verdonii~ (02) Habit

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdonii'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdonii'

Conifers, especially those with needle-like or scale-like leaves, are one of the best groups of plants to use in the landscape. Their varied shapes, sizes, colors and year-round interest make them ideal plants for every garden. They also are some of the most durable and tolerant plants you can use in the landscape, even in difficult sites. Pick a difficult landscape situation and see which conifers can do double-duty — tolerate the site and provide beauty. 

Damp, wet site

For a poorly drained or constantly moist soil, you can't go wrong using arborvitae (Thuja, hardy to USDA Zones 2-8). One of the most durable and tolerant conifers to use in the landscape, it can tolerate a range of soil conditions from extremely dry to boggy wet. An assortment of shapes, sizes and colors are available to suit any landscape situation. 

  • One of my favorites for bright yellow foliage color is T. orientalis 'Morgan'. It grows to six feet tall in 10 years, forming an upright column of golden sprays that turn orange in winter.
  • For a tall, fast-growing upright form, with a tightly pyramidal growth habit, I recommend the hybrid 'Green Giant'. Its foliage is rich glossy green. With a mature height of 60 feet tall by eight feet wide, it's a great alternative to the overused Leyland cypress and much more cold-hardy.
  • T. occidentalis 'DeGroot's Spire' is another favorite upright selection, growing to just eight feet tall x two feet wide at maturity. The foliage grows as twisted and spiraling fans, a unique feature.
  • For a dwarf globe form, try T. occidentalis 'Hetz Midget' or 'Tiny Tim'. Both top out at one foot tall and 16 inches wide. The foliage on these finely branched shrubs is a light green that bronzes in the winter.
  • For a quite unusual arborvitae, try T. plicata 'Whipcord'. This dwarf selection has thread-like branches and an arching habit. It grows to only two feet tall by three feet wide in 10 years.
  • The white false cypress (Chamaecyparis thyoides, hardy to USDA Zones 5 to 9), is a conifer that prefers a damp, boggy site.
  • 'Rubicon' is an upright dense form with star-like foliage turning purple in winter, six feet tall and two feet wide.
  • 'Heatherbun' is a compact, globe-shaped form with plum winter color; six to eight feet tall.

Shade to partial shade 

There are several conifers that are great for a shady location.

  • Hemlocks (Tsuga, hardy to USDA Zones 3-8), come in a variety of forms and colors providing lots of choices. Many do well in sun with moist soils but most tolerate shade extremely well. One of my favorites is 'Jeddeloh', a dwarf and prostrate types growing three feet tall by five feet wide with a subtle depression like a bird's nest in the center. The irregular, upright form of 'Jervis' make it a distinctive selection that, after 30 years, may only be 2-1/2 feet tall. New growth tips are often twisted and grow at odd angles, giving the plant an unusual texture.
  • Many selections of Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa, hardy to USDA Zones 4 to 8) thrive in the sun but adapt readily to partial shade. Distinctive are its swirling fans of deep green foliage and distinctive silver undersides.
  • 'Verdonii' is a loose, broadly conical form that features golden foliage for great year-round interest. It is slow-growing, typically reaching three to five tall in 10 years.
  • 'Nana' has dark green foliage in a tight miniature bun that becomes irregular in shape with age. It grows less than a foot in 10 years.
  • 'Elf' is a dense, round form with dark green foliage. A slight point at the top distinguishes this cultivar. It grows to only 12 to 18 inches tall after 10 years.
  • 'Mariesii' is a variegated selection that has creamy-white foliage tips. Grows a foot tall and wide in 10 years.
  • Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica, hardy to USDA Zones 6 to 9), also likes the sun but can do well in the shade too.
  • 'Black Dragon', a dwarf compact form that makes a dark pyramid, is a great contrast for brighter colors. The new foliage begins as a light green but then darkens to a black-green as it ages.
  • 'Elegans Nana' is a dense, spreading cultivar that forms an asymmetrical mound, turns a beautiful plum in winter. It grows only one foot tall by three feet wide.
  • 'Pygmaea' has bright green leaves which turn bronze in winter. The form can be a round ball or cone. Grows to three feet in height and wide in 10 years.

Sunny, hot, dry site

For sun and heat, you can't go wrong using juniper (Juniperus, hardy to USDA Zones 4 to 9), spruce (Picea, hardy to USDA Zones 2 to 7) and cypress (Cupressus, hardy to USDA Zones 7 to 10). All offer selections with varied growth habits and foliage colors. They will thrive in a moist but well-drained soil but are quite adaptable to dry sites.

  • A great vertical and slender juniper for the hot sun is J. communis 'Gold Cone'. It has striking bright-golden-yellow foliage in spring and summer and grows to just three to four feet tall by 12 inches wide in 10 years. 'Compressa' is also a wonderful dwarf selection (18 inches tall by six inches wide) with light green foliage. 'Berkshire' is a true miniature, growing to just eight inches tall by a foot wide. It forms a dense, bun-shaped mound growing green in the summer and turning bronze in the winter.
  • J. procumbens 'Nana' is an outstanding groundcover type juniper growing 8 inches tall by five feet wide. It forms a spreading mat of bright, apple green foliage which turns slightly purple in the winter.
  • J. horizontalis 'Mother Lode' also has a prostrate, creeping habit but is vibrant in the landscape with its bright gold foliage. It grows four inches high by four feet wide in 10 years.
  • J. x pfitzeriana 'Gold Coast' is among the best of the semi-prostrate selections. It has bright gold foliage and grows three feet tall by five feet wide.
  • For outstanding blue color, the Colorado blue spruce is hard to beat. An outstanding selection with a conical shape is P. pungens 'Fat Albert', which grows 10 to 15 feet tall by seven to 10 feet wide in 10 years. 'Hoopsii' is a little shorter and more slender growing to eight feet tall and three feet wide. 'Globosa' is a great round, dwarf form growing three feet square.
  • The Norway spruce offers great selections in form. You can't beat the striking form of P. abies 'Pendula'. It becomes a living sculpture with its weeping and contorted growth reaching 10 to 15 feet tall. 'Nidiformis', or bird's nest spruce, is a great dwarf, prostrate selection growing to just three feet tall and wide in 10 years.
  • 'Blue Ice' cypress is touted as being one of the most blue conifers available. It can take the heat but isn't very cold-tolerant. This striking vertical plant can quickly reach 16 feet tall by five feet wide.

Mild or warm climates

If you live in warmer regions of the country, you have a limited number of conifers to select for your garden. Many conifers like spruce and fir need the cold, winter temperatures to thrive.

  • A standout choice for the mild climate and a range of soils is cedar (Cedrus, USDA Zones 6 to 9). A variety of colors, forms and sizes provide lots of choices. One of my favorites for form and color is C. atlantica 'Glauca Pendula'. This Atlas cedar has brilliant silver-blue foliage and a weeping, cascading form which can be quite striking. It can be easily trained to various heights then allowed to weep into distinct forms.
  • For a soft, vertical form, you can't go wrong with C. deodara. The deodar cedar has a graceful and elegant look with blue gray foliage. 'Aurea' is a noteworthy bright yellow-gold selection. I also love the soft texture, blue color and prostrate form of 'Feelin Blue'. Only growing to 18 inches tall by four feet wide, this is a nice compact cedar. 'Snow Sprite' has the same form and size but has unique creamy-white foliage.
  • The Italian or Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens, USDA Zones 8 to 10) is another good choice for the temperate climate. The narrow, vertical, pencil-like form makes an imposing and dramatic accent in the gardens. 'Swane's Gold' has striking yellow foliage which holds its color well through the winter. It grows 10 feet tall by a foot wide.

Sunny, moderately moist sites

  • Mugo pine (Pinus mugo) has become the workhorse of many mixed shrub gardens through some of its more compact cultivars. 'Mops' grows to three feet high and usually five or six feet wide. The subvariety mugo is often found in the nursery trade; its size is more massive--six to eight feet tall and twice as wide. Hardy to USDA Zones (2)3 to 7.
  • Often used in coastal plantings because of its tolerance to salt, the Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii) prefers moist soils but tolerate some dryness. It averages 20 to 40 feet tall and has a somewhat irregular but picturesque habit. 'Thunderhead' has dark green foliage and whitish candles. USDA Zones (5) 6 to 8.
  • Sawara or Japanese falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera) and its many cultivars make great accent plants, offering a variety of foliage forms and variegations. 'Filifera' has pendulous, stringlike foliage on a plant that can get quite large (10 to 50 feet). 'Filifera Nana' has the same foliage but is much smaller. USDA Zones 4 to 8.

-- Sue Hamilton is an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and director of the UT Gardens at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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