Conifer Tree Varieties for the Garden
In the broadest of terms, and for everyday purposes (though botanists would undoubtedly shoot down this rule-of-thumb description) conifers are those (mainly) green-leaved plants, trees and shrubs that provide leaf colour more or less all the year round, but are never seen in flower. Many of them will tower to thirty metres or more, and clearly are outside the scope of the ordinary gardener: they are specimens intended to take their place in a large natural ‘mural’, where the eye is invited to take in everything in sight over an area that may be a mile or more wide. For our purposes we are concentrating on plants for, not the park, and anything that grows more than about ten metres high is therefore taboo. Here, first, are three personal favourites.
Araucaria – Monkey puzzle tree
This was very popular a couple of generations ago, with its long, descending, twisting ‘tails’, and can still be seen quite frequently, which may be a tribute to its longevity. Theoretically, it can grow well above ten metres, but I cannot recall seeing one above bedroom height. It is slow-growing and, although well known and unforgettable because of its shape, comes into the category of ‘good fun’ plants. Officially, it is a tall-growing conifer, but don’t be put off by that. It is , extremely symmetrical and does not mind fairly , but is not really happy in a town (which, oddly, is where I seem to have seen most of them).
Cedrus – Cedar
You can even have a cedar in quite a small garden. Try C. deodar, the Himalayan cedar, said to be the most graceful of them all. Yes, it does grow very large, but if you plant one now and move house in ten years’ time it will have grown at most 4.5m (1 5ft) and you will have had all those years of distinction in your garden.
Ginkgo biloba – Maidenhair tree
This is one of the oldest trees in existence: fossilized remains have been found, said to be millions of years old, and there is only one type. It is of upright growth, notable for its fan-like leaves which turn yellow in autumn, and it grows almost anywhere. It is a very graceful tree, but one I had had been vandalized by a previous owner, who had cut off all the lower branches. I think he wanted it to be a focal point breaking up the line of a hedge, but it ruined the appearance of the tree.
The ginkgo is trouble-free , extremely distinctive, and will add a touch of ‘something extra’ to your garden. Although a number of nurseries stock it, it does seem to be rare in gardens. Nevertheless, it is easily obtainable. I am told that San Francisco and several other American cities plant them as roadside trees, much as London plants plane trees. They are certainly much more picturesque, and I am certain they are just as hardy.
This still leaves scores of more or less ‘everyday’ items from which to choose, and you cannot go wrong, for they all have a special beauty of their own. Virtually all are evergreen, and everything in the conifer domain is notable for the neatness of its shape, its close-knit foliage, its restful colourings in many shades of green, yellow and blue, plus, in many cases, that refreshing piney tang of the perfume. Breathe deeply and feel it is doing you good!
The lawsonianas dominate this section. Ellwoodii’ is reasonably dwarf at 3m (10ft) and is blue-grey in colour. Minima aurea is a beauty in miniature: gold, and growing to barely 60cm (2ft), and is recommended for the rockery. That bright gold foliage is a picture, providing the perfect foil to almost everything else you have growing there. Very slow-growing.
Cupressocyparis leylandii – Cypress
The fastest-growing conifer we have, fully capable of rising at least 60cm (2ft) a year. If you are worried about this, it does stop growing after about fifteen years, at around 12m (40ft), but of course it can be kept down to more manageable proportions if you wish.
The best plan is to use it as a hedge — it will be a dense one. A brand new form, Castlewellan’, which has a beautiful golden sheen, also grows quite fast, and is especially bright in the early months of the year. I think it will catch on and be very popular indeed within a few years. The old standby, privet, especially the golden privet, has its uses, but is a greedy feeder, and stops almost everything else from growing anywhere near it. This one is much more decorative.
Juniperus – Juniper
One of the largest of the conifer ‘families’, notable for its aromatic foliage and its grey-green berries. In its many forms it shows all types of growth, but the foliage is poisonous to cattle. The junipers offer a range from prostrate low-growing forms to tall columns. One of the most popular, and only moderately tall, but narrow, is y. communis hibernica, the Irish juniper, with silvery-green foliage, rising to a little over 4m (12ft). J. c. suecica, the Swedish juniper, is similar in height and form, but the branches droop gracefully at the tips.
J. c. compressa is effectively a miniature Irish juniper, for it is unlikely to rise much above 60cm (2ft) and is ideal for the. J. horizontalis — there are several forms — is exactly what it says, forming a thick mat only 30cm (1ft) or even less above the ground, and is perfect for hiding unsightly items like drains and manhole covers. The J. squamatas — again in several forms — are also low and spreading but slightly taller, up to about 1m (3ft).
Larix – Larch
This is, believe it or not, a conifer, though it is. It grows quickly and will reach 5m (16ft) in a few years, but the green and yellow foliage will be a welcome sight in the meantime.
Taxus – Yew
This is renowned for slow and steady growth. It is inevitably associated with churchyards, but I doubt whether its funereal pace has anything to do with it. Its other claim to fame is that it is toxic to cattle that try to eat it, but we assume you won’t have that problem! Of all the, I would say this is the most rewarding for a hedge-trimming expert to get his shears on: some wonderfully straight sides and edges can be achieved, mainly because of its tight, thick growth. T. baccata is the traditional English yew — no need to remind you what a wonderful hedge it makes. T. fastigiata is the Irish equivalent, growing slightly taller if allowed to.
(Sometimes spelt Thuja.) This one conforms more closely than most of the others to the conical shape from which conifers take their name. It is also surprisingly fragrant. T. plicata is notable as aplant, but this and the many other varieties will easily stand on their own as specimen plants on a lawn or in borders. Normally they reach about 3m ( I oft) but there are dwarf forms, one of the best being T. ‘Rheingold’, which forms a nicely-rounded golden-yellow bush about 5m (4ft) high — a very pleasant sight on a drab winter’s day!
This can be only a very brief resume of the best known of the hundreds of conifers available. Apart from the garden centres, which, like me, can deal with only a few, there are several specialist nurseries which it is both an education and a pleasure to visit: you will be surprised at the vast range.