Conifers in the winter garden are an important point in garden designing, because they create a strong shape and structure. It is easy to pack a garden with summer-flowering plants, but a one-season wonder is no good whatsoever. Carefully selected and sited conifers in the winter garden are essential ingredients of the well-planned garden.
The best conifers add shapes and definitions whether you want a formal or informal scheme. With heights ranging from 1m (3ft) for a dwarf conifer, such as Picea pungens ‘Globosa’, to the 90m (300ft) high Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant redwood), there is a conifer for most situations.
Conifers are best appreciated in winter, when the rest of the garden is relatively quiet. Many have decorative cones. Those of Abies koreana (Korean fir) are a striking violet-blue, while those of Pinus peuce (Macedonian pine) exude white resin. Pinus bungeana has decorative bark, richly deserving its common name, the lacebark pine. The bark flakes off to reveal creamy patches that darken to purplish grey-green.
Some cultivars of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar) that retain their juvenile foliage redden dramatically in winter. And the blue-green leaved conifers are a boon to winter gardens because they develop their most intense leaf color in cold, frosty weather.
Weeping Alaska cedar
If you have a medium-to-large sized garden, plant tall conifers at the boundary edge. When they are planted within a garden they can take up a huge amount of space and cast considerable shadows behind them.
In a small winter garden you could create a miniature pinetum using dwarf conifers, including Pinus mugo ‘Corley’s Mat’, Thuja plicata ‘Irish Gold’ and Tsuga canadensis ‘Jeddeloh’. Alternatively, space them around the garden to create a variety of midwinter shapes. Concentrate on extremes, including the round and columnar, especially those like the 5m (15ft) high Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’.
Where space permits, try combining and contrasting a number of different shapes. For example, the columnar Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Green Pillar’ goes well with the prostrate junipers Juniperus procumbens or Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’. Others are best as specimen trees in grass or gravel.
In a large garden Cedrus libani (cedar of Lebanon) is an automatic first choice for its sensational shape with wide-spreading branches. Cedrus atlantica (Atlas cedar) has attractive, fissured bark and a giant height of 40m (130ft). The bark is silver-grey, and the leaves are dark green to greenish-blue.
Picea breweriana (Brewer spruce) and Picea omorika (Serbian spruce) are also very good choices. The latter has brown dark that cracks into square shapes and leaves tinged with blue.
Avenues and dwarf conifers
Many conifers have special uses. The upright Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’ (Irish yew), 5m (15ft) high and 1m (3ft) wide, makes traditional sentry-like shapes to either side of an avenue, framing a vista. You can also try planting dwarf conifers close together so that they grow into each other, assuming a sculptural air. Many dwarf conifers are ideal candidates for rock gardens.
Some conifers make excellent windbreaks. Rapid growers such as x Cupressocyparis leylandii grow at 1m (3ft) a year for 20 years, then at 60cm (2ft) a year. Give them space or prune them regularly. Stop them at hedge height, trimming them twice a year, slowing them down and keeping them at about 2m (7ft) high.
Pinus mugo (rock garden)
Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’