How conifers can transform your year-round garden – The Middle-Sized Garden

January 12th, 2020 Posted In: Garden trends & design

Conifers have had a bad reputation in the past.

When Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter told a group of Garden Media Guild journalists that he planned to use more conifers in the garden, a quiet shudder of alarm rippled through the room.

That was three years ago. Yesterday I published a video on How Conifers Can Transform Your Garden. In terms of its first 24 hours, it’s my most successful video yet! Although it’s early days, it has double the views of most of my other videos in that time frame.

Somehow the most unpopular plant in Britain is turning into something of a superstar.

I went to Lime Cross Nursery & Cafe, one of the UK’s leading conifer growers, to talk to Vicky Tate about how today’s conifers add structure and texture to the garden all year round, and why we’re finally recovering from being over-shadowed by giant, brown-tinged Leylandii.

Lime Cross Nurseries

Lime Cross Nurseries in Herstmonceaux in Sussex specialise in growing this formerly unpopular plant.

Why were they so unpopular?

Vicky thinks that people didn’t know how to look after the rows of overgrown and neglected Leylandii cypress hedges, planted in the 1970s. ‘And the island bed with a Lawson cypress as a focal point was also popular around that time. The trees got too big, took up too much space and light, with dying branches.’

And it was hard to find the smaller and more unusual conifers that are now proving so versatile in gardens.

Korean Fir 'Silver Pearl'

Grafted like topiary, this Korean Fir (Abies Koreana) ‘Silver Pearl’ is a stunning and unusual plant for a pot.

Now there is a huge range of conifers, many of them dwarf varieties, which offer texture and structure to the garden all year round.

Conifers are a wide-ranging family of plants – they cover pines, firs, cypresses, spruce, cryptomeria, podocarpus, junipers, yew and more. There are even some deciduous conifers as well as distant relations, such as Gingko biloba.

What do you need to bear in mind when buy conifers?

Vicky advises you to check how fast a conifer grows and what its eventual height will be. Many only grow a few centimetres a year. And dwarf varieties will remain dwarf.

Conifers are generally easy care, but they prefer acid or neutral soil.

Fergus Garrett told us that he had started experimenting by using conifers in pots, mainly outside the front door of Great Dixter. So if your soil is very alkaline, you can put the conifers in pots with ericaceous compost.

Conifers in pots at Great Dixter

I think I counted five different species of conifer in this grouping of pots at Great Dixter, although they’re not all in this photograph.

Best ways to use conifers in a garden

Vicky thinks that one good way to use a conifer in the garden is as a focal point. There are some excellent upright and cone shapes which will keep their structural qualities with very little pruning.

Conifers in the Lime Cross Nurseries garden

A sunny afternoon in the winter at Lime Cross Nurseries. They have a small conifer garden which shows off the amazing range of shapes and contrasting textures you can find in today’s conifers.

Lime Cross Nurseries

With this amount of colour and contrast, it’s almost impossible to believe that this is a garden in the depths of winter. At the Lime Cross Nurseries.

Conifers also work well in the mix if you have an exotic garden theme. They’re planted alongside palms and other tropical-looking plants in the exotic garden at both Great Dixter and RHS Wisley.

Conifer in the exotic garden at Great Dixter

A conifer in the exotic garden at Great Dixter

Some can also do the job that topiary does. Some have naturally sharp, sculptural shapes. And others can be trimmed like topiary.

The RHS has recommended Podocarpus ‘Chocolate Box’ as a substitute for box. It has small chocolate-brown leaves and can be clipped into shape so it could replace any box topiary hit by box blight or box tree caterpillar.

Podocarpus 'Chocolate Box.'

Podocarpus laurentii ‘Chocolate Box’ doesn’t look like a conifer…but I am beginning to query what a ‘conifer looks like.’

Best conifers for small gardens

All the dwarf varieties will work well in pots and small gardens, says Vicky. We looked at a number of small pines, particularly Pinus mugo (Dwarf mountain pine) and Strobus pines.

Dwarf mountain pine 'Ophir'

This dwarf mountain pine (Pinus mugo) ‘Ophir’ will stay small and its golden colour adds to the winter garden.

Conifers for pots and small gardens

Two good small plants for pots or small gardens. On the left is Pinus heldreichii Schmidtii and on the left is Juniper ‘Blue Star’, which is low growing and would look good in a border, says Vicky.

Will conifers grow in the shade?

Vicky told me that conifers are mainly mountain plants so they prefer a light situation. They’re not going to be happy against a North-facing wall and the side of the conifer that faces the wall may well go brown.

We have a large cypress on a North-facing wall, but it has grown much higher than the wall so it gets light from all sides.

Do conifers grow indoors?

Conifers are no good as house plants. You may be tempted by some of the pretty dwarf varieties, but Vicky says that houses don’t have enough light for conifers in pots. They will not be happy. And we all know how unattractive an unhappy conifer is!

Why do they go brown suddenly?

Vicky says that the number 1 reason for conifers suddenly going brown on a number of branches is lack of light. There are also some diseases, but the chances are that you haven’t planted your conifer in a light enough part of the garden.

What about pruning?

Anyone who’s ever pruned an overgrown Leylandii hedge knows that pruning conifers can be a disaster. However, Vicky says that they vary: ‘The pines, cedars and cryptomerias are all easy to prune and shape because they grow back well. You have to be more careful about pruning cypresses, firs and spruce.’

If you have an overgrown cypress Leylandii hedge, you won’t be able to cut it back to a more reasonable shape and size because it won’t regrow from old wood. However, Vicky points out that Thuja occidentalis looks very similar and will re-grow if you cut it back too far. So there is almost always an alternative.

Can conifers be moved?

Like most mature trees and shrubs, a conifer won’t want to be moved once it’s got its roots into the ground. There’s generally very little point in trying to move a tree or shrub if it’s been growing in one place for a few years. It’s better to buy a new, younger plant.

Some more inspiring new varieties

Abies Koreana 'Icebreaker'

Another striking Korean Fir – Abies koreana ‘Icebreaker’ will stay dwarf and has amazing blue needles.

Pinus mugo Dezember Gold

Another dwarf mountain pine – Pinus mugo ‘Dezember Gold’

unknown pine

This pine could certainly replace topiary in the garden!

See more of the Lime Cross Nurseries in video

There are more views of Lime Cross Nurseries and their wide range of different conifers, as well as the garden, shop, cafe and wild swimming lake in this video:

You can also find Lime Cross Nursery at some of the plant fairs, such as the twice a year Great Dixter Plant Fair.

Shop my favourite gardening books, tools and products

I’m often asked for my recommendations so I’ve put together lists of the garden books, tools and products on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, which means I may get a small fee if you buy, but I’ll only recommend things I use myself or think you will really like.

For example, here is a list of my favourite gardening books.

Pin to remember unusual conifers

And do join us every Sunday morning on the Middlesized Garden blog!

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