Gardening: Count on conifers for year-round greenery

A Coniferous Forest. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

A Coniferous Forest. PA Photo/thinkstockphotos - Credit: Archant

Gardeners who love a riot of colour throughout the seasons may dismiss conifers as dull, boring specimens which add little to the glory of the garden.

Indeed, some of us will only really come into contact with a conifer in the form of a miniature type which we use to gain height in our summer or winter containers, surrounded by much more colourful bedding or shrubs to fill the pot.

Yet the conifer has a much wider use than the fill-in specimen in containers. It is also invaluable in beds and borders, providing structure, texture and colour when everything else has died down and looks stunning in winter when its foliage is whitened with frost or dusted with snow.

Conifers can work as a backdrop, standalone, or in a border with other plants, from making effective screening to creating the perfect background for flower borders or accents in rock gardens. They are extremely versatile, coming in an amazingly diverse range of shades, textures, shapes and sizes, says the Horticultural Trades Association, which has named the conifer its plant of the month for October.

Retailers will be creating inspiring displays of conifers during National Conifer Week (Sept 26-Oct 3), organised by the British Conifer Group, to encourage gardeners to make the most of these unsung year-round garden heroes.

They are low-maintenance, suit contemporary and traditional settings and provide all-year-round interest. They come into their own in the winter and early spring, when they are unchallenged by the green of deciduous shrubs and perennials, and come in shades of green, gold and brown.

Of course, the size of your garden will determine your choice of conifer. Generally, most conifers look best planted where their individual shape and colour can be enjoyed without competition from other show-stopping plants. Good plant partners include heathers, grasses, phormiums and dwarf hebes.

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In formal settings, they can boast stunning architectural value - common box can easily be trimmed into balls and cones, Laurus nobilis (sweet bay) looks great used as a standard, while Taxus baccata (yew) is perfect for topiary. Buxus sempervirens (common box) is often used to create hedges around formal beds.

Some conifers that are columnar in shape are really useful in narrow spaces, creating an evergreen feature which rises out of lower planting. The dark green Irish yew, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, is perfect for creating an exclamation mark in planting because of its slender nature, rising out of ground cover such as ivy or periwinkle. Red fruits stud the plant in the latter part of the year, while the column becomes broader with age.

As winters have become milder, so Cupressus sempervirens has bloomed, its narrow structure conveying a Mediterranean atmosphere, ideally paired with silver-leaved plants in sunny, drier gardens. It also produces heavy cones which weigh down the branches, creating a more open, feathery appearance.

Large gardens can make the most of coniferous evergreen trees such as pines, with their spiky needles, or spruces, with bristling branches. The Austrian pine, Pinus nigra, is one of the most widely grown for landscape purposes, its large dense head of dark green foliage making a brilliant windbreak. It’s also a great choice for inhospitable sites as it grows on almost any soil.

Conifers are low-maintenance. They need little pruning except for where green branches appear in trees with variegated or coloured foliage.

The biggest problem is that they can grow too large for their site. If you buy a dwarf conifer, be aware that in many cases it won’t be dwarf but will be slow-growing. However, in time it will outgrow its space, although to some extent you may be able to keep it under control by trimming. If you can’t, you may have to dig it out and start again.

A few conifers such as yew can be pruned hard and will regrow, but most won’t regrow if you make the mistake of cutting back into old wood. Yet you can trim the foliage as you would a hedge, from spring to late summer, to leave a mossy green finish.

:: National Conifer Week runs from September 26 to October 3. For more information, visit