Colour me green: October is conifer month


Conifer - Credit: Archant

Don’t dismiss conifers as sub-standard garden fodder. They’re year-round heroes.

Some of us will only really come into contact with a conifer in the form of a miniature type which we use to gain height in our summer or winter containers, surrounded by much more colourful bedding or shrubs to fill the pot. Yet the conifer has a much wider use than the fill-in specimen. It is also invaluable in beds and borders, providing structure, texture and colour when everything else has died down; and it looks stunning in winter when its foliage is whitened with frost or dusted with snow.

Conifers can work as a backdrop, standalone, or in a border with other plants, from making effective screening to creating the perfect background for flower borders or accents in rock gardens. They are extremely versatile, coming in an amazingly diverse range of shades, textures, shapes and sizes. The Horticultural Trades Association has even named the conifer its plant of the month for October.

They are low-maintenance, suit contemporary and traditional settings and provide all-year-round interest. They come into their own in the winter and early spring, when they are unchallenged by the deciduous shrubs and perennials, and come in shades of green, gold and silver.

Of course, the size of your garden will determine your choice of conifer. Generally, most look best planted where their individual shape and colour can be enjoyed without competition from other show-stopping plants. Good plant partners include heathers, grasses, phormiums and dwarf hebes.

In formal settings, they can boast stunning architectural value - common box can easily be trimmed into balls and cones, Laurus nobilis (sweet bay) looks great used as a standard, while Taxus baccata (yew) is perfect for topiary. Buxus sempervirens (common box) is often used to create hedges around formal beds. Some conifers that are columnar in shape are really useful in narrow spaces, creating an evergreen feature which rises out of lower planting. The dark green Irish yew, Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’, is perfect for creating an exclamation mark in planting because of its slender nature, rising out of ground cover such as ivy or periwinkle. Red fruits stud the plant in the latter part of the year, while the column becomes broader with age.

As winters have become milder, so Cupressus sempervirens has bloomed, its narrow structure conveying a Mediterranean atmosphere, ideally paired with silver-leaved plants in sunny, drier gardens. It also produces heavy cones which weigh down the branches, creating a more open, feathery appearance.

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Large gardens can make the most of coniferous evergreen trees such as pines, with their spiky needles, or spruces, with bristling branches. The Austrian pine, Pinus nigra, is one of the most widely grown for landscape purposes, its large dense head of dark green foliage making a brilliant windbreak. It’s also a great choice for inhospitable sites as it grows on almost any soil.

Conifers are low-maintenance. They need little pruning except for where green branches appear in trees with variegated or coloured foliage. The biggest problem they have is that they can grow too large for their site. If you buy a dwarf conifer, be aware that in many cases it won’t be dwarf but will be slow-growing. You may be able to keep it under control by trimming. If you can’t, you may have to dig it out and start again.

A few conifers such as yew can be pruned hard and will regrow, but most won’t if you make the mistake of cutting back into old wood. Yet you can trim the foliage as you would a hedge, from spring to late summer, to leave a mossy green finish.

More on the plant of the month can be read here.