By Jason HolmesMany of my family vacations growing up were spent in central New York and traveling the northeastern U.S. As a gardener, I always enjoyed seeing the wonderful array of evergreen conifers that grow in the Northeast, such as the iconic blue spruce.
Conifers by definition are any gymnospermous trees or shrubs bearing cones. Now that you have a broad definition, here are a few examples: ginkgo, fir, pine, cedar, spruce, and arborvitae. This article will refer to evergreen conifers. These plants can serve multiple uses in the garden with textural contrast, color, architectural form and year-round interest.
Many of the conifers that we choose as gardeners give us great textural contrast when surrounded by deciduous shrubs and perennials. Most are finely textured because of their thin, needle or scale-like leaves. Such plants include the billowy dwarf Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’) and the thread-like foliage of the thread-branch false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera’). This texture contrasts really well with bold foliage and makes for a stunning scene in the garden. In fact, many conifers are being added to annual planting beds to help create this effect.
Color, one of my favorite characteristics of these plants, can add a totally new dimension to the garden. Evergreen conifers can range in color from yellow to bright gold, light green to dark green, and shades of blue-green to blue-gray. Many of the cultivated Chinese junipers have these variations of color, from ‘Angelica Blue’ to ‘Saybrook Gold’, and when used in the landscape, they give a welcome splash of color. One of my favorites for its color change is the Red Star Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Red Star’), which changes color throughout the season, turning almost purple-gray during the short days of winter.
The architectural form can really be the best attribute of all. Conifer form can be dwarf, weeping, tall and narrow, irregular and formal. In fact, I bet there is a conifer for every type of garden situation. Each unique form can help define a space and the very feel of the garden where it is placed. Some, such as Weeping Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’), fit well as a single specimen trailing over structures in the garden, while Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’) make a great dense hedge. Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is very narrow and extremely upright, lending itself to a more formal look. The Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) has a more irregular habit and works well in a very informal setting.
Year-round interest is so important for the garden, especially here where we live. Conifers can be added to containers and to create a great winter display. Once you combine all of the desirable qualities of conifers, you will have eye-catching interest in your garden through every season.
If you’d like to learn more about conifers, consider signing up for Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ Conifer Trek on March 2 from 1 to 3 p.m., or the class “Conifers in the Garden: Adding Structure & Emphasis” from 7 to 9 p.m. the same day. Both will be led by Flo Chaffin, owner of Specialty Ornamentals Nursery in Georgia. For information, call 668-1707 or write to email@example.com.
Jason Holmes is curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens.