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Conifers, Cone-bearing Evergreens in the Garden

Marsha Session's Conifers

Marsha Session’s Conifers

Pines, firs, junipers, spruces and others are all conifers, cone-bearing evergreen trees. Within this large family there are many sizes, from low growing groundcovers, to very tall trees, with many types of foliage and many foliage colors from green to blue-green to gold. Evergreens like pines, firs and spruces have needles, while junipers, cedars and arborvitae have scalelike foliage.

Recently I visited two friends with conifer collections. Both bought their plants locally at different nurseries so they could choose the exact plant they desired. One friend has made use of low-growing conifers for the edges of her in-town garden, while the other lives in Heath and chose large trees which she planted about 20 years ago. It seems that conifers can fulfill many garden fantasies and visions,

Weeping Nootka false cypress

Weeping Nootka false cypress

Marsha Sessions lives on a Heath hill surrounded by open fields, but she had a vision of a grove of evergreens on a rise. Her husband Norm created a hill for her; then she went shopping. For this planting she wanted evergreens that would make a statement and chose a collection of large conifers, trees and shrubs. Of course, as most of us have experienced, plants bought 20 years ago have lost their names.

The conifers have grown substantially over the years. In fact, a couple of them have grown so large that there is some crowding. One of the trickiest parts of gardening is estimating how wide and how tall our plants will grow over time, and making allowances for that growth, even if we think it looks a little skimpy at first.

Sessions has chosen different types of conifers, from dense shrubby forms to tall graceful forms. It was the tall skinny tree that I always found most fascinating as I passed by on my rounds. I believe it might be Abies alba Green Spiral, a tall silver fir tree that has a very narrow, graceful and slightly pendulous form.

On the other side of her grove is another large tree with a different form of grace. I think this tree might be a Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Pendula, a tree with scale-like foliage. This is a majestic dark green tree with horizontal branches, but drooping leaflets.

In contrast to these two trees she has a couple of shrubby gold threadleaf false cypress, another Chamaecyparis. There are several cultivars of this familiar bright evergreen available in local garden centers or nurseries. Sessions has created a brilliant collection of conifers with contrasting foliage, form and color.

It is a tribute to the hardiness of all these trees that they have thrived on an open hillside in the higher elevations of Heath for 20 winters. They get full sun, except for what shade they might throw on each other over the course of the day.

In ShelburneFalls, Maureen Moore has made use of low growing conifers in her lawn-less gardens. Marsha Sessions evergreen grove stands in majestic isolation, but Moore’s garden huddles around her in-town house, protecting it while providing a colorful delight for those who pass by.

lowgrowing conifer groundcovers

Maureen’s low-growiing conifer groundcovers

Moore told me that most of her evergreens are junipers, with a few pine and cypress. “The low ones along the walk are a combo of Nana juniper, Blue Rug juniper, Siberian cypress, and another (nameless) crawler, a very nice light green.”

It is the range of color and texture that she likes as well as their amenability to pruning, and ease of being controlled. Moore has also bought her plants locally.

Both Nana and Blue Rug are low growing junipers with blue-green foliage. They like sun and are undemanding of soil as long as it is well drained. Junipers in general are tolerant of drought and are not relished by deer.

Nana may reach a height of one foot, and spreads out to five or six feet, but Blue Rug is even lower, reaching a height of only six inches.

An All Gold juniper will only grow to a foot tall and will spread about six feet in 10 years. This is another tough plant, drought resistant in a golden shade that can really brighten the garden.

Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata) is also known as Russian arbor-vitae. You can see that some of  these plants have common names that have little to do with their proper name; this is not a proper cypress or juniper. It has bright green lacy foliage which becomes a purple-brown in the winter. It can reach a height of a foot or a little more and will spread vigorously to 10-12 feet. This makes it suitable for a slope. It is also one of the few conifers that will tolerate some shade.

I have given only hints about the richness of these two gardens, but I hope I have whetted your interest in exploring the large world of needle conifers.

While I prefer to shop locally for plants as much as I can, I also like to scroll through online plant sites because they show a full range of cultivars, and  provide so much additional information about the plants I am interested in. Two dependable online sites for information are missouribotanicalgarden.org, and greatplantpicks.org, maintained by the ElisabethC.MillerBotanical Garden in Seattle. While neither of these institutions are local, they provide good plant photographs, and a great deal of their information is valuable to us in the PioneerValley. Greenfield is listed as being in hardiness zone 5b which means temperatures down to 15 degrees below zero. This classification is not the be-all or end-all of requirements for success with a plant, but it is a good start.

Do you have conifers in your garden? Wouldn’t you like to have more?

3 comments to Conifers, Cone-bearing Evergreens in the Garden

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    I am going more and more to the evergreen conifer type plants in my garden. They give such textures and colors that I like and they are low maintenance.

  • I have wanted to add these conifers to my garden so i will be exploring more this year and you definitely got me more excited about this possibility this year.

  • Pat

    Lisa – I am looking forward to more conifers in my ‘new’ garden – when it appears.
    Donna – the world of conifers is marvelous indeed.

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