Passionate About Plants
Paul writes in praise of his beloved conifers
The Conifer Comeback
In the late 70's early 80's conifers were all the rage, due mainly to Adrian Bloom promoting them so that no garden was complete without its conifer bed. As a student I was lucky to work for Adrian Bloom at Bressingham on my year out, gaining practical experience as I studied at Writtle Agricultural College (now part of Essex University). I spent the whole year studying and growing conifers. It was at this time that I discovered and fell in love with the wide diversification of all the species that make up the conifer family. It was no surprise that Quaymount Nurseries should start its life as a Nursery specialising in conifers. The main demand was for so called 'dwarf conifers'. As my knowledge and experience grew it became very apparent that there are very few true dwarfs many are slow growing and given time can reach large proportions. The famous plant collector Maurice Mason had an amazing collection of plants growing at Larchwood Beachamwell of which many were conifers. It was here you could see rare and unusual conifers both quick and slow growing forms.
It was when herbaceous perennials became all the rage in the 90's that conifers fell out of favour, due in part to the sudden realization that dwarf conifers just keep growing, but mainly due to the resurgence of the herbaceous borders. It was at this time that the garden became an extra room to the house, a place to eat and relax and as such garden makeovers used varying colours and themes more suited to flowering plants, grasses and architectural plants.
I have always maintained that conifers can be mixed with other garden plants to give a different colour and form during winter and spring. In recent months I have witnessed an increase in conifer sales from the Nursery. Ornamental conifers have a wide range of uses in the garden. Many are low growing ground cover forms which can hug the ground or cascade over rocks. The upright growing forms known as fastigiate make excellent specimen plants. There is of course the main use of conifers as hedging plants, not only fast growing forms e.g. Leylandii but slower growing forms such as Thuja cultivars which can make excellent manageable hedges.
It comes as a surprise to many people when I tell them there are hundreds of different conifers (we used to grow over 350 different varieties of dwarf and slow growing conifers).
The following is a short list of the more common genera which have a species of garden merit:
This is an important genus comprising of about 40 species, although admittedly the difference between some is very slight they are collectively known as the 'silver firs'. They generally have their cones growing upwards from their branches. Although they are mainly grown as forest trees there are some good slow growing forms. One of which is Koreana, this Korean fir can reach 20m high but because of it neat habit and attractive foliage together with the fact that the tree at a young age, bears freely a crop of long violet purple cones, makes it a useul garden specimen.
The cedars tend to be large growing conifers typified by atlantica glauca the atlantic cedar which eventually gets to 40m, a few slow growing forms can be found.
Known as the false cypress there are several species with hundreds of cultivars most of which are slow growing and very suitable as garden plants. Too many to list here.
Several of the cypress species are not suitable for growing in our climate. The Mediterranean Cyprus (sempervirems) has several cultivars which form tight pillars used in the garden as architectural plants.
This is a most important genus embracing nearly 50 species and a number have provided an interesting range of highly ornamental garden forms. Nearly all species and their cultivars are very hardy, and further more are noted for their ability to tolerate heat and severe drought. So not only do junipers give us great garden plants they also give us gin! (bottoms up!)
Picea and Pinus
There are some very interesting new introductions of slow growing cultivars which merit more in-depth discussion than we have time for here.
The Yew is well known as a hedging conifer; however, there are some very ornamental cultivars from slow growing silver forms to fastigate golden forms.
This conifer has 3 main ornamental species which produce a huge array of forms and colours. They vary in rate of growth from very slow to forms suitable for large hedges.
There are some important questions to ask a nurseryman before purchasing an ornamental conifer:
How big will it grow?
How long will it take to get to that size?
What is its spread?
What kind of soil is best?
Can it stand wet conditions?
Does is need full sun or semi-shade?
Armed with these questions you should get a conifer that will be a joy for many years in your garden.