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Garden uses of Conifers

Conifers in nature and in the garden II.



Conifers have a large number of garden uses, but three stand out as most common in practice. Use as specimen trees predominates in parks and larger gardens, but even small gardens frequently sport a conifer on the front lawn in temperate climates. Many conifers have a regular, rhythmic pattern of growth that yields a pleasant symmetrical, conical shape while young and for many additional years. Typically slower growing than hardwoods, they adopt the more irregular, character-laden habits of maturity much more slowly as well. Their enormous potential longevity, much greater on average than that of hardwoods, and their great potential stature give specimen conifers a long-lasting impact in the landscape. Such trees require little pruning, either in youth or old age, and develop their characteristic forms with minimal encouragement. There are a variety of statures, mature shapes, bark patterns, foliage textures, and colors to choose from when selecting conifers as specimen trees. This use of conifers employs the greatest proportion of unselected, seed-grown individuals, although there are certainly many cultivars available as well.

Use of dwarf conifers as accents in beds, borders, and rock gardens is similar to their use as specimen trees in showcasing them as individual plants. This use is where cultivars play their greatest role, there being few unselected conifers compact enough for these sites. The dwarf conifers used in these ways provide a variety of informal and more geometric shapes to choose from, including spheres, half spheres, broad to narrow cones, slender spires, broad and flat-topped cylinders, low disks, and rock huggers. The full range of foliage colors is found here as well, from the golds and ice blues that sparkle from a distance or glow at close range, to bright or somber greens that harmonize with many other colors, to bronzes and purples (along with reassuring greens) that emerge among the winter snows when perennials are hidden out of sight. The panorama of effects that can be achieved with dwarf conifers has made them a major component of garden design in general and a focal point in many gardens. For some enthusiasts, they are the whole point. Indeed, the broad scope of available cultivars make dwarf conifers one of the more understandable entries in the rarified category of “collector’s plants”.

The remaining common garden uses are much more prosaic and treat the plants as mass rather as individual specimens. This, of course, refers to their use in hedges, shelterbelts, foundation plantings, and sidewalk planters near urban centers. In these applications, in contrast to specimen plantings, pruning is commonplace and often essential for maintaining the desired effect and mass. This means that only those conifers that can tolerate heavy pruning can be used, so these applications are dominated by yews (especially Taxus baccata, Taxus cuspidate, and their hybrid, Taxus x media), by various cupressaceous cedars (like Thuja occidentalis, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, and Cupressus x leylandii), by mugo pine (Pinus mugo subsp. mugo), and by wealth of junipers (especially the Pfitzer junipers, Juniperus x pfitzeriana). The same plants are the chief conifer contributors to living, green topiary statuary, garden features that combine the emphasis on individuality of specimen planting with the methodical pruning maintenance regimen of hedges. In all these applications, deep green is the predominant color, although it is possible to find some hedges made up of yellow or blue (or sometimes variegated) cultivars, or even by a mixture of different foliage hues. Here, as with specimen dwarf conifers and unlike landscape trees, foliage is most of the story. Bark of trunks and branching structure are essentially hidden in these applications and play little part in the landscape effect, so they are not ordinarily a consideration.

In addition to focusing on shape, color, and other aspects of the appearance of the plant when selecting conifers for the garden, it is essential to consider site factors. These include potential neighbors, available space, proximity to structures, amount and timing of sunlight, drainage, and soil chemistry (with emphasis on acidity or predominance of calcium). With due attention to these selection criteria, conifers can be found that will be suitable for any site in the garden.


  Written by James E. Eckenwalder


  • Eckenwalder, J.E. (2009) Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference. Timber Press, Portland.
  • Copyright © James E. Eckenwalder, Conifers Garden. All rights reserved.