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Published on January 17th, 2021 | by The Town Crier

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Garden conifers – not just for Christmas

If asked to name a conifer tree in December most people might say “Christmas Tree” and many would know that the traditional conifer decorated indoors is a Norway Spruce.  But there are very many shapes, colours and sizes of conifer tree that are rather better suited to growing in our gardens than Christmas trees or Leyland Cypress hedges.

We usually think of conifers as the archetypal, rather dull and solid evergreen providing screening or some structure in winter.  But this too is not universally true with a few conifers losing their leaves in winter: Larch, Swamp Cypress and Dawn Redwood are all deciduous (as well as being too large for most gardens).  Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’, a form of the Japanese Cedar, has finely cut, almost feathery foliage on drooping branches that turns a rich plum colour in winter before reverting to green in spring.  This makes a small tree, much more manageable for garden planting.

There are prostrate forms of the native Juniper that are useful as ground cover in sun or partial shade, spreading up to 2m over the ground at a height of 30cm.  Juniper is also one of the conifers where gold or grey-blue foliage is widespread, including ground cover, dwarf and tall, narrow varieties.

The reference to “dwarf” conifers always reminds me of long neglected rockeries incongruously dominated by a few conifers now easily 4m tall.  Of course, these were in proportion when planted 30 or more years before, but turn out to be not permanently “dwarf”, just slow growing.  And it is this sort of experience that puts many gardeners off planting new conifers, which is a pity as all you need to do is read the label and make a sensible and long-term choice.

One conifer that I love to see in a garden is Pinus mugo, sometimes called the Mountain Pine.  This carries long needles on bushy, upward pointing branches to create a rounded shrub. The species grows up to 3m but there are several varieties barely 1m tall and wide.  And if you want something really different look at the range of weeping conifers, generally not growing as tall as the upright equivalents. True, some resemble Cousin It emerging from a swamp but they can make a good specimen tree as well as a talking point!

Alison Marsden lives in Southborough providing advice to gardeners onsite and online. She teaches Adult Education gardening courses and gives talks to clubs and societies. 

There is no long term commitment – just all the advice you need an hour at a time.  Find out more at www.gardeningbydesign.co.uk or call 07803 045327


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