Designing with Conifers

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Designing with Conifers

For many gardeners conifers are an afterthought. But these cone bearing beauties, both evergreen and deciduous types, come in all sizes, shapes and colors.

Typically they are evergreen and their foliage comes in shades of green, blue and gold, too. Of the deciduous types, weeping selections of bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, or dawn redwood, Metesequoia gylptostroboides (don’t let the name scare you, this plant is adaptable and easy to grow) provide interesting forms once they drop their needles in late fall. In the winter garden especially, conifers provide texture, color and form. Often they are segregated and planted in groups only with other conifers;  no wonder they don’t inspire! But, with some thought and planning, they can play an integral role in your garden throughout the year. For the best effect combine them with shrubs, trees, perennials, annuals and even bulbs.

In my garden I have a large Chameacyparis obtusa ‘Aurea’ that  provides an evergreen anchor at the back of my mixed border. It also makes a nice foil for the humongous Joe Pye weed growing next to it. I also like the way it contrasts with the anise, Illicium parviflorum, growing next to it.

Designing-with-Conifers-Chameacyparis-obtusa-

For soft evergreen texture, Hinoiki cypress, Chameacyparis obtusa is one of my favorites.  There are numerous selections that get quite large but there are also varieties for those that are “space challenged.”  I recommend using your hand pruners (like the Fiskars Quantum™ Pruner with the comfortable cork handles) to selectively remove any errant branches.

Designing-with-Conifers-pruning-Hinoki-cypress

For years I grew a dark green selection in a large container. When you cultivate them in containers, leave room for seasonal annuals. For an entrance or a focal point, one large conifer paired with select perennials like Japanese iris, Iris sibirica, makes a dramatic statement.

Another favorite of mine is a selection of Monterey cypress called Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest.’   While the species can get quite large over time, 30-50 feet, ‘Goldcrest’ is a narrow upright selection with bright golden yellow foliage.  I have grown it in containers and in the garden with perennials and annuals.    

Designing-with-Conifers-Cupressus-and-pansies

For screening or an evergreen backdrop, Japanese cryptomeria, Cryptomeria japonica, has long been popular and in the Southeast it offers a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous Leyland cypress

The cultivar called ‘Yoshino’ will get to be a large tree in on time.  The selection ‘Little Diamond’ is ideal for a container, reported to grow only 1 ½ to 3’ high and wide.

Designing-with-Conifers-Cryptomeria-japonica-'Little-Diamond'

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden I have admired the combination that features a knockout rose (not my favorite, I like roses that smell good), a Japanese black pine, pink muhly grass and elephant ears.  

Designing-with-Conifers-Knockout-rose,-Pinus-thunbergii-'Thunderhead'-Abelia-grandilfora-'John-Creech'

In my neighborhood, not far from my house, is a planting that illustrates how creative one can be with conifers.  The homeowners have combined edible and ornamental plants, using Italian cypress, Cupressus sempervirens, with figs, ornamental grasses and rosemary.  The overall effect is lovely and the garden is also productive.

While most conifers prefer full sun, there are types that thrive in shade including Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ; the prostrate forms make great foundation plants. For a contrast I like to pair this dark green needled shrub with Autumn fern, Dryopteris erythrosora.   

Next time you need an evergreen plant for your garden, consider using a conifer.