Now that spring has finally settled in with its dazzling display of flashy bulbs and early blooming perennials, we gardeners are quick to forget how we suffered the blahs of winter just a few short weeks ago. But next year rather than wallow in the winter doldrums, dedicate some space in your garden right now for a collection of conifers, those evergreens that bear cones. Although they provide a colorful display all year round, the conifers really shine in winter when the rest of the garden is sound asleep.
Since these evergreens are so different in their colors, textures, shapes and sizes, the garden that showcases those differences delivers the greatest visual interest. The only hard and fast rule of any conifer design is to site the garden where it will get the most sun, at least six hours a day. Although some conifers can take partial or even full shade, their numbers are limited, so if you are stuck with woodland conditions read no further, but check out the blog post Putting Pizazz in the Winter Garden for other ideas.
One of the only needled evergreens that can tolerate deep shade, Cephalotaxus harringtonia, or Japanese Plum Yew, is generally grown as a sprawling shrub, but for a more formal look choose the variety ‘Fastigiata’ a great selection for a narrow hedge in a shady area.
In summer it produces an edible plum-like fruit, and for those who garden in the South, Cephalotaxus will tolerate your hot humid summers, (it is hardy in USDA Zones 6-9) and deer won’t touch it; take note you gardeners plagued by browsing Bambis. A close relative, Taxus cuspidata, the Japanese Yew, less tolerant of hot humid summers but happy in Northern winters (USDA Zones 4-7), prefers part shade and even moisture, but must have good drainage, so go easy on the mulch. Instead of cones this yew produces fat red berries, a feast for migrating birds.
A good choice for the urban garden Japanese yews can be spreading or upright, and for admirers of the work of Edward Scissorhands this evergreen can be shaped, carved into an elephant or hippo, say, if that’s your thing.
For a totally different look, Abies koreana, or Korean fir,
sports fragrant silvery blue needles that support upright purple cones, a real show stopper in the winter.
Like its brethren the yews, the Korean fir also tolerates partial shade, and although it can reach up to 20’ tall, it is slow growing so it takes a long time before it hogs the garden. Preferring cool summers (USDA Zones 5-7), it demands good drainage and despises heavy clay soil.
The False Cypress group, Chamaecyparis in botanical lingo, can also stand some shade, but it must be stressed that with the exception of Cephalotaxus family, the more sun you can give any conifer the more vibrant its color and the more robust its growth rate. One specimen that merits a place in any garden, Chamaecyparis obtusa, or Hinoki Cypress, can grow to 50 feet in USDA Zones 4-8, typically too large for most home gardens. A daintier version, ‘Nana Gracilis’
is a fine choice for the front of the conifer garden, topping out at about 4 feet. Its graceful branches resemble deep green ruffled cups and call out to all who pass, “Look at me!” Another False Cypress choice, Chamaecyparis pisifera, has thread-like branches, and a variety that tolerates part shade, ‘Golden Charm’, is a slow growing yellow haystack that only gets to about 5 feet at maturity.
To round out the color palette, add a blue choice to the yellow and green selections and make some room for Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, or Port Orford Cedar (actually not a cedar at all).
Although this West Coast native (USDA Zones 5-8) is the tallest of the False Cypresses reaching upwards of 100 feet, fortunately for our home gardens nurserymen have developed smaller cultivars; one handsome specimen ‘Blue Surprise’ gets no taller than 6 feet. This beauty sports silver blue needles that take on a purple tinge as the temperatures drop, a big wow factor in a winter garden. Like all the conifers C. lawsoniana needs good drainage.
Now for those conifer gardens sited in full sun, 6 to 8 hours a day, we turn to a discussion of the spruces, pines, cedars and junipers. One lover of winter thriving in USDA Zones 4-7, Picea orientalis has small dark green shiny needles on branches that sweep the ground.
In addition to full sun the Oriental Spruce likes even moisture but will not do well in coastal or urban gardens. A delicate medium size cultivar ‘Gowdy’ tops out at about 10 feet, but a shorter variety ‘Gracilis Nana’ gets only 4 feet tall at maturity. If you are looking for a yellow version of the Oriental Spruce choose ‘Aurea’ whose new growth emerges yellow before turning green. Since this spruce can get to be 25 feet tall, site it toward the back of the garden if you have the space to include it.
Another lover of winter’s cold Korean Pine, or Pinus koraiensis,
is hardy to USDA Zone 3 which spans the northernmost part of the country. But if you garden in any USDA Zone greater than 7 this pine is not for you; Korean Pines languish in hot humid summers.
Noted for its large cones that contain edible pine nuts (think, pesto), its graceful green branches swoop almost to the ground. Two notable pyramidal cultivars of this pine, ‘Silveray’ introduced in 1979 has silvery blue needles with a metallic tinge and grows to about 8 feet tall and ‘Morris Blue’ introduced by the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia has soft powdery blue needles and tops out at 12 feet.
Although they seem to have fallen out of gardening favor of late, the Junipers deserve a spot in any conifer garden because of their sheer adaptability, tolerating a wide range of conditions in USDA Zones 4-9, and this is especially true of Juniperus chinensis.
To add a formal touch to the sunny conifer garden choose the variety ‘Blue Point’ a stately 12 foot blue-green specimen equally at home flanking a formal entrance or screening an ugly outbuilding. Like all Junipers this is one tough plant, as happy in a city environment as in a seaside garden battered by salt spray and wind. For a more informal look ‘Iowa’ is a good choice whose loose branches are covered with prickly blue-green needles, a stunning backdrop for the silvery blue waxy berries produced in late fall.
No discussion of a sunny conifer garden is complete without mentioning the cedars, and the lead off choice is the national tree of Japan, Cryptomeria japonica, or Japanese Cedar, also a favorite among bonsai enthusiasts. Despite its common name, it is not a true cedar but shares many of the characteristics of the Cedrus family including blue-green needles that are faintly fragrant and red-brown bark. Two outstanding cultivars selected because of their different uses in the landscape are ‘Black Dragon’ with black-green needles forming a dense pyramid that will be about 6 feet at maturity
and ‘Tansu’ a 3-5’ round dumpling equally at home in a rock garden or at the front of the conifer garden. Both varieties grow well in USDA Zones 5-9, and require little maintenance.
Now for the true Cedar family, a perennial favorite is Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’, or Blue Atlas Cedar,
native to the High Atlas Mountains of North Africa (Hardy in USDA Zones 6-9 in this country). Although it grows slowly it can reach 40 feet so it needs a large open space to display its airy branches of blue-green needles. If your garden is not suited for such a large specimen, but maybe you have a rock wall whose austere stones need softening choose a Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar, a specimen that can be trained to grow horizontally. No wall, you say? Well, how about a little spot in the front of your garden for an 18 inch delicate beauty called ‘Sapphire Nymph’ whose powder blue needles grow on fine short sprays?
The final choice for the sunny conifer garden is also a cedar, Cedrus deodara, or Deodar Cedar,
which gets its name from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘timber of the gods’. This cedar, the national tree of Pakistan, is hardy in USDA Zones 7-11 and also gets to be about 40 feet so it may not be suitable for your conifer garden. But if you have a large lawn that cries out for a punctuation mark do consider a Deodar Cedar with its graceful drooping blue-green branches and loose pyramidal shape. Two varieties that can take the winters in Zone 6 are ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Shalimar’, but if you simply have no room for such a large specimen consider planting ‘Devinely Blue’ which gets no taller than 2 feet. Named for a Maryland propagator it sports the bluish needles and upright cones characteristics of all Deodar Cedars.
The three key words to a dynamic conifer garden are: Mix It Up – by color – greens, yellows and blues – by size – dwarf, medium and tall – by texture – soft needles, prickly needles, short and long needles – and by shape – sprawling, columnar, or pyramidal. Give your conifer garden as much sun as possible, good drainage, then plant your choices and enjoy the view all year long, but especially in winter.