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Conifers - ancient treasures, yet totally on trend!

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by Colour your Life • Friday December 2, 2016

There is much more to discover about conifers than you might at first sight think. Did you know, for example, that there are at least 600 species of conifers? Think of the cypress, pine, spruce (better known perhaps as the Christmas tree) and juniper. This family of plants also has a rich history: conifers are truly ancient, having been on the earth for about 230 million years. Indeed, t his was the first group of plants on earth that propagated themselves using primitive flowers and true seeds.

Conifers are all around us in our parks, gardens and countryside so it’s easy to take them for granted. For example, conifers make a valuable contribution to the quality of the air we breathe, trapping harmful air-borne particulates before they reach our lungs.   There is also the wonderful, year-round structure and texture they bring, and the amazing variety in form and colour that they display.  Because of the wide range on offer, it is possible to choose a conifer for almost every situation.  And of course conifers are of enormous importance commercially, providing softwood for furniture and construction all around the world.  Pest and disease resistant, they need minimal maintenance and make excellent planting companions for many other garden plants, not just heathers! 

Compact but gutsy

Dwarf conifers are brilliant in smaller gardens or rock gardens.  Displaying possibly even more diversity than their larger cousins, the dwarf varieties provide colour and interest in smaller spaces when other plants are dormant.  They remain compact throughout their lives without the need for pruning. Just look at Juniperus pingii 'Loderii' – a beautiful, columnar tree that will only reach 150cm in ten years.  The blue-green Juniperus squamata 'Blue Carpet' has a prostrate habit, making it ideal for rock gardens.  Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii' is another ground covering conifer, whereas Juniperus squamata 'Holger' is perfectly suited to container growing and will work equally well on a patio or balcony.

As a point of interest to those who enjoy a tipple, Juniper berries are the primary source of flavouring in gin.  The Dutch word for juniper is ‘genevier’, which is shortened to ‘gin’ – to create the name of the drink.  Juniper berries are also highly valued in the kitchen for their role in flavouring game dishes.  Junipers work equally well as specimen plants, or in groups. Never prune junipers as the removal of a branch immediately results in an unattractive bare patch.

Cypress – so versatile

Cypress trees (Chamaecyparis) come in all types, shapes and sizes. In some cases fast growing and always long lived, they can be grown as specimen trees or together as hedges.  They respond well to clipping and crisp geometric shapes can be created.  If a tree is what you are looking for, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwood's Empire' , is a slow-growing , slender conifer , reaching only 75cms in 10 years of growth.  Foliage is gray-green in colour and trees are very hardy.  For a quick growing tree or an ‘instant’ hedge, go for the Leyland cypress.  If you plant young trees at 60cms, they will reach about 1.8m in three years.  This can deliver rapid screening or fill gaps in existing hedging (perhaps following storm damage).

A conifer with a heart

The spruces (Picea) are regarded by many gardeners as the stars of the conifer world.  As with the other families, there is a range of sizes to choose from, including dwarf varieties.  Picea 'Formanek' will reach 1.2m at maturity, while the Serbian spruce, Picea omorikagrows to 12m in 25 years, so you need to be sure you have the space to accommodate it!   The classic Christmas tree is a spruce too, with non-drop varieties such as the blue spruce (Picea pungens) becoming very popular in recent years.  Both this and the Nordman fir (Abies nordmanniana) – also a non-drop variety – provide the buyer with the benefit of wonderful sent and a slow rate of dehydration.  It is the latter point that is key to their retention of needles.

Some people love their Christmas trees so much they can’t bear to see them end up in the skip.  If you’re like this, but have been unsuccessful so far in returning your tree to nature (growing in your garden!) then the following advice may help.  Your initial selection will have a major bearing on your success.  Nordmann and Korean fir are the main contenders for ‘growing on’ your Christmas tree. 

Make sure that you choose a reasonably small, pot grown tree.  Don’t keep it inside for longer than about fourteen days and make sure you water the rootball with a pint of water everyday.  When you first move the tree outside, put it in a garage, shed or greenhouse for a few days so that it has time to adjust to the cold - remember to keep it watered during this time.  Decide where you want to grow it, then dig a hole about five times the size of the rootball, making sure that the actual tree won’t be any deeper than it was at the nursery.  Avoid frosty periods to do this and once in the ground, the tree should be watered regularly, but not during frost.

Even if you don’t want to try growing-on your tree, the branches can be cut off and used as useful mulching to protect frost-tender plants – thrifty gardeners can teach us all something about getting maximum value from every purchase!

1 comment

  • Robert J. Robert J. Conifers have become less popular in recent years in the UK. Partly due to the excessive over planting of cupressus species hedges in the 1960s and 1970s which if uncontrolled can ruin suburban gardens.The popularity of "miniature" conifers during the same period also required careful management as many grow quite large and do not regenerate after pruning which leaves us with the sight of ugly damaged trees and "christmas pudding" pruning so often seen in suburban gardens. Also the over planting of evergreen shrubs and trees in the gardens of Victorian villas in the 19th century has left us with a legacy of dark, dank overgrown gardens and exhausted soil. However there are many stunningly beautiful conifers including deciduous ancient coniferous trees such at Ginkgo biloba which produce a golden display in the autumn and Metasequoia glyptostroboides and Taxodium distichum (Swamp cypruss) which produce wonderful feathery foliage and bright autumn colours before their needles drop. We also have the rare Wollemia nobilis an ancient conifer re discovered in Australia.
    Friday December 2, 2016 at 10:38

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