Once the summer flowers are over, conifers come into their own, both as a contrast to the colors of deciduous trees and shrubs, and later as welcome green features through the winter. There is a conifer for every size garden; they vary from neat, mounded dwarf forms, slow-growing, slim-line vertical trees which eventually reach 3m (10ft) high, to others with beautiful grey-blue foliage to monsters which grow 30m (100ft) high.
They can be used to provide a wide range of effects including windbreaks on the garden boundary, ornamentals for their shape and colored foliage, and architectural features adding extra interest from fall to spring. They can be very effective in formal Italian or Eastern-style gardens.
Swamp cypresses are among the most elegant of all conifers. Unfortunately, their eventual size rules them out for all but the largest gardens. They like moist or wet, preferably acid soil in full or partial shade. T. distichum is a large, deciduous conifer that comes from the south-eastern United States. It forms a tall cone shape that becomes untidy as it matures. The needle-like leaves, which redden in the fall producing an excellent display, are carried in two ranks. Mature plants produce the best color. Purple male cones hang down and are a feature in winter; the female cones are inconspicuous. Near water it produces special breathing roots, which look like knees emerging from the ground around the trunk.
Despite the common name, Japanese cedar, this monotypic genus is found in China as well as Japan, albeit in two distinct forms. Japanese cedars will tolerate pruning and can even be coppiced or trained. They look good in Eastern or Japanese-style gardens, especially when they are grown to develop a gnarled trunk, Japanese cedars are among the most beautiful of all the conifers.
C. japonica can reach a height of 25m (80ft) and is roughly columnar in shape. There are a huge number of cultivars available, suitable either as specimens or for use in rock gardens. All are hardy. Bandai-Sugi is a slow-growing rounded dwarf form with blue-green foliage that bronzes well in cold winters.
The intriguing Sekka-Sugi has leaves that are curiously fused together, so that they resemble coral. ‘Elegans’ is potentially large and will form a broad obelisk; the trunk is often attractively curved. The wedge-shaped leaves are soft and bluish-green when young, turning a rich, glowing bronze in fall. ‘Lobbii’ makes a handsome specimen in a large garden, forming a tall, slender, conical tree. The needle-like leaves are arranged in spirals. On mature specimens the thick, fibrous bark peels away. The cones age to brown. Rich, fertile soil is best, though they also grow on chalk.
Winter cones of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’
Yews are a valuable genus of conifers for the garden, with a range of foliage color and habit. It grows in any well-drained, fertile soil, in sun or deep shade. Yew is widely used for hedging and topiary work, since, unlike most other conifers, it tolerates pruning and even seems to thrive on it. Even mature specimens will recover well if cut back hard.These conifers produce fleshy, red berries rather than woody cones, which helps to brighten up fall and winter gardens. All part are toxic; in some areas, there are restrictions on planting, particularly where cattle are being grazed.
T. baccata is a long-lived conifer, widely found in Europe and also in North Africa and Iran. Typically, it has blackish-green leaves, carried in a comb-like arrangement on the stems. Male and female flowers are produced on separate plants, with berries, each containing a single seed, following on the females. T. baccata ‘Lutea’ has yellow berries. ‘Fastigiata’ (Irish yew), a female selection, is a familiar graveyard tree, forming an obelisk, pointed at the crown, but spreading with age. It can be kept within bounds by pruning and can also be wired into a narrower, more formal shape. It is an excellent choice for the small garden due to its limited size. It makes a good container plant. Yew also makes an excellent clean-cut hedge with nicely clipped sides, and various topiary shapes.
Taxus baccata ‘Lutea’
These excellent conifers are similar to Chamaecyparis and often mistaken for them, a distinction being that Thuja has aromatic foliage. They are just as good for hedging. Varieties include a number of colored foliage forms. They like deep, moist, well-drained soil in full sun, and need shelter from very cold winds.
Thuja orientalis ‘Aurea Nana’ (left), Thuja occidentalis (right)