Glorious Conifers

There has been a resurgence in the popularity of conifers and heathers as garden plants in recent years. The renowned Norfolk plantsman Adrian Bloom popularised them in the early 1980s by highlighting the variety of colours and forms available and their ability provide a valuable and fascinating addition to modern gardens.

Unfortunately conifers often disappoint because many gardeners have little or no idea as to how and where they should be used to create the best effect. You only have to drive through some of our modern suburban housing estates to realise how little imagination is generally used.

There is a great range in size and rates of growth within the conifer family which makes planning essential when choosing which varieties will suit individual areas. This is particularly important when planting out a new garden or border, with special care been taken over spacing. So often what initially seems to be a well laid out conifer bed will have to be spaced or even re-planted a few years later as the conifers grow into each other and the foliage dies through lack of light.

The combination of shapes, colours and forms of conifers can provide all year round colour to any garden, whatever the size, with the added advantage of requiring very little aftercare once established.

Mr Bloom developed the idea of an island bed for conifers and heathers and these have become increasingly popular, especially in the smaller suburban garden. Generally it is advisable to plant only the dwarf and slow growing conifers as otherwise they will soon look out of proportion. A grouping of three to five of one variety adds interest, as does a mix of upright and semi-prostrate types with the bushy and prostrate. Use these forms together with variations of colour and you should be able to create an island bed of continual interest for many years to come.

Conifers are nearly all evergreens and that, of course, is why so many of them are useful for hedges and screens. For a fast growing hedge within a large garden the infamous Cupressocyparis leylandii is an ideal choice, but if you want a more compact and slower growing form you cannot beat the golden “Castlewellan Gold”. Thuya plicata (Western Red Cedar) and its improved form “Atrovirens” also make an outstanding large hedge, are much hardier and thrive in heavier soils. They also have the advantage of making new growth from bare wood.

Soil type and conditions have a bearing on the way conifers perform and some varieties such as Chamaecyparis pisifera “Boulevard” are adversely affected by dry conditions. They are prone to turn brown in patches and unless given ample water and trimmed will be unlikely to improve.

Several insect pests attack conifers and the Red Spider Mite will probably be encountered by most who have a reasonable selection of dwarf conifers. This minute creature is particularly fond of Picea abies and Picea glauca “Albertiana Conica” and its effect, while seldom causing death, can be quite marked. It sucks the sap from young shoots which eventually drop off, leaving the plant looking unsightly. To control, spray twice within a fortnight with a systemic insecticide in early summer.

With regard to pruning, free standing conifers require pruning once a year to maintain shape. They lend themselves nicely to been topiaried into spirals, balls and pyramids. Chamaecyparis varieties and English yew (Taxus baccata) are especially adaptable to this specialist form of pruning. Heathers, being generally low growing and covering a flowering period of 10 to 11 months, provide a perfect addition within a conifer border or island bed. Both Callunas and Ericas will also provide a patchwork of coloured foliage throughout the year.

It is usually more effective to have large groupings of heathers interspaced with various single specimens of conifers to provide all year round foliage and flower interest.

Pruning should take place on summerflowering heathers (callunas) while the winter flowering types are still in flower, that is late March/early April. Wait until new shoots appear on last year’s stems. If heathers are regularly pruned they can be cut fairly hard back but care should be taken not to go too far into the old wood as new shoots may not regenerate. Winter flowering heathers (Ericas) will seldom, if ever, need pruning unless they have to be kept within bounds or become untidy. Immediately after flowering in April or early May is when this should be carried out.

Article courtesy of The Inverness Courier