Get Spruced Up

Get Spruced Up

by Flo Whitaker

Don’t believe the myth – conifers aren’t boring! Easy to grow, architectural, they have much to offer your garden, says Flo Whitaker

Most shrubs will survive an injudicious pruning attack. Like a bad haircut, they’ll eventually ‘grow out of it’ but when it comes to conifers, put those secateurs down! Most conifers do not take kindly to pruning. They don’t usually regenerate from old wood so choose the site for new plantings carefully, or be prepared to remove a plant if it outgrows its allotted space. Conifers come in every colour, size and shape; adding much to the garden but asking for little in return. Keep them well irrigated in their first year, give them a feed every spring and they’ll probably last for donkey’s years.

Don’t be fooled by plant labels that read dwarf conifer. Few conifers are ‘dwarf’ in habit – it’s more accurate to say that some are very slow-growing indeed and take a long time to reach full size.

Many Juniper varieties are ideal for rockeries or gravel gardens. Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’ is a perfect evergreen ground cover plant that reaches the dizzying height of 30cms. Well-behaved Juniper compressa grows approximately 3cms per year and will eventually makes a neat and slender shrub 60-90cms high.

Calocedrus decurrens, the ‘Incense Cedar’ is a huge forest tree. The wood is used to make pencils – that’s why they have that distinctive aroma when you sharpen them. There are several garden-suitable varieties of Calocedrus, including ‘Berrima Gold’, whose bright golden foliage takes on additional fiery orange hues during the winter. Berrima Gold will eventually reach 3 metres in height, but takes 20 years or more to do so; a good example of ‘slow’, not ‘dwarf’. The mature bark often becomes golden in colour too, making it a real show-stopper for a winter border.

Pinus mugo used to be called ‘The Mountain Pine’. Nowadays it should probably be re-named ‘The Car Park Pine’, such is its prevalence in dreary urban landscaping. It has stiff bottlebrush-type branches, grows 2-3 metres tall and, along with the seemingly indestructible yew, is one of the few conifers you can successfully prune. It is unbelievably tough; copes with boiling sunshine, snow, rubbishy soil, road salt and survives where nothing else will. It should be better appreciated.

The fabulously architectural Korean fir, (Abies koreana) eventually attains 10 metres, but takes ages getting there, so don’t rule it out. It bears upright cones in astonishing shades of inky purple and violet. Abies ‘Silberlocke’ is even slower and may be content to reach 2 metres in height. Imagine a Korean fir, festooned with cones and planted in a large terracotta pot in a wintery garden setting. What an irresistible idea! It’s enough to make you grab your coat and credit card and head for your favourite garden centre. I’ll see you there!