16 January 2012

Conifers to brighten your winterscapes

If you aren't a fan of conifers and other evergreens yet, you're missing out on some fantastic garden plants, to say nothing of a fourth gardening season--now, the time of winter interest. 

There are more to evergreens than ever-green, I always say. I think many people swore off evergreens because of the uninspired plantings found in many subdivisions. You know the kind I mean. A couple of tall cedars, some overly pruned yews and junipers, all standing huddled against house foundations, or slowly dying from being planted in the wrong location. 

Oh, there are just so many more choices, and more plant sizes, shapes, colours...
I can cheerfully say that my ongoing fascination has been encouraged thru several friends who happen to be nursery operators: Jill Covill of Bunchberry Nurseries, Rob Baldwin of Baldwin Nurseries, and of course, our mutual late lamented friend Captain Dick Steele of Bayport Plant Farm.

There are so, so many different types of evergreens; far more than I know the names of. As it is, I do sometimes get some of them mixed up. But whether you're interested in a 'Cream Ball' dwarf chamaecyparis like those above,
Or a whole collection of evergreens in every size, shape and colour...
You'll find out they're rather like potato chips. You can't have just one. 
And as an added bonus, many of them change colour in the winter. The photo above is Juniper 'Limeglow', which during the summer is gold and green. Now, it's gold and reddish copper. Either way, it's quite fantastic. 
This winter, because it really hasn't been a winter like we normally have, most of my conifers haven't developed strong winter colour. Normally, this grouping above, which includes several pines, several thujas, a Heatherbun chamaecyparis and a dawn redwood (which drops its needles in winter), is iridescent with golds, bronze and copper in the winter. This year, the hues are more subdued.
This collection of dwarf and young conifers shows some of the more common fall and winter colours, from brilliant yellow to rich gold to deep green brushed with bronze to blue-green to...
Well, you get the point. We have plenty of choices.
Although some foliage colours are a little subdued this winter, in the freeze/thaw/hot/cold muddle of our non-winter, I suggest going out for a drive around the community to look at and photograph gardens that you like, and plantings that really work for you. Then you can go to your local nursery to purchase those plants come spring.
Remember when planning to work conifers into designs, to consider how large they will be at maturity. I bought my 'Nootka' weeping false cypress when it was about four feet tall. Now it's closer to 8 feet tall, not as big as this 15-foot beauty, but it's definitely making an impact in the garden.

One more thing to remember. If you've purchased a large, ball and burlaped tree or shrub, take time to loosen the root ball and spread the roots out into a large, generous hole when you plant it. Or else...

...you could be looking for a new mature blue spruce or weeping hemlock to plant in your yard after a big windstorm. You can see someone never bothered to loosen the rootball with this spruce...and now they will never need to. 

Addendum: As one of my commenters mentioned, and as we've been discussing on bloominganswers.com and elsewhere, there are several wonderful books on working with conifers in your garden. Adrian Bloom's Gardening with Conifers is one of those books that actually excited me into wanting to plant more conifers. The commenter also recommended 'Designing with Conifers' by Richard L. Bitner. These books are well illustrated with splendid photos, which is always important for gardeners. 


  1. Great shots of conifers!!

  2. We bought three conifers ten years ago. Fine for the first year or two and then..no so much. We were assured, just leave them in the metal baskets..they will be fine. One's gone now, the other two look pretty bad. Could have used your advice in your new book and this post years ago. We would have cut away that metal basket and loosened the soil in the root ball.

    How sad to see the last photo.

  3. Hi Jodi and thank you for this post! Sometimes plants are sold with a clay root ball. No burlap, but clay. Is it OK to plant them 'as it is'?
    Have a great 2012!

  4. I can't grow the yellow varieties here. They just look like they are chlorotic and sickly. They are best used in places that get a lot of rain and have a lot of green to set them off.

  5. It's always great to run across posts on conifers... I also enjoyed visiting the two nurseries included in your post... Larry

  6. Hi fellow gardeners, thanks for visiting and leaving comments.
    Brenda: have had similar experiences, and wondered why such advice would be given. Trees and shrubs need to spread their roots out and down, and that's pretty hard to do in a metal cage. Which won't rot away any time soon.
    Tatyana: it's best to tease roots loose somewhat from Amy sort of ball their in, just to help them spread out and settle into your soil. It will also give you a chance to make sure the plant isn't root bound, with roots winding around on themselves so they can't spread so easily.
    Susan, that's really interesting about the colour of yellow shrubs and trees looking sickly in your garden. We are finding this winter, some plants aren't showing their brightest colours because the temperatures are fluctuating sooooo much, mild to cold within a day and back to mild. It's just a weird winter.
    Larry, always glad to see fellow conifer fans. Hard to visit nurseries with a good selection and come away without the car full of new plants.

  7. Thanks for this post! Conifers are underused, in our opinion, and you have some good examples of a wide variety here. There are many, many dwarf varieties that nurseries often don't stock, but can order. Two wonderful resource books are 'Gardening with Conifers' by Adrian Bloom, and 'Designing with Conifers' by Richard L. Bitner. Both have glorious photographs, as well.

  8. Jodi, I am amazed that that blue spruce, after all those years, hadn't fought its way out of its constraints. You have done a great service for store bought evergreens everywhere. Thanks.

  9. A great post to encourage other gardeners to explore more conifers. It is a bit ironic that gardeners here long for those lovely plants that are only hardy to warmer climate like the UK and Holland, but those areas are not cold enough to get the nice bright gold conifer colours in winter like we can in Canada.

  10. A great post to encourage gardeners to explore the world of conifers. It seems a bit ironic that gardeners here long for those lovely plants that are only hardy to warmer zones like the UK and Holland, but their climate is not cold enough to get the beautiful bright gold colours on conifers in winter like we can in Canada. Yet conifers seem way under use here.

  11. Jodi, do you wrap any of your evergreens with burlap in winter? The winds are quite bad here on the island and it seems everybody wraps their shrubs. Just because they're doing it doesn't mean it's right but I wrapped my new dwarf Alberta Spruce and Mint Julep Juniper just in case.

  12. Thanks for the great suggestions! I love the Limeglow Juniper. I have to admit I totally take Conifers for granted. But without them, my garden wouldn't have much personality in winter. Great post!

  13. This is something I really need to improve in my back garden, and your photos reminded me to work on that. Hey, when you get a chance, come visit my new blog, as my old one was deleted by someone else's fraud. Grrrrr!

  14. I can't wait to get into a garden center, winter interest is something that is missing in our house to be's yard. There are 3 deformed Mugo Pines, and a bunch of Oregon Grape. Which looks great up close, but I am not about to wander through the snow to see the berries.

    So it will be Conifers, and some winter colored deciduous shrubs, oh joy!!!

    Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

  15. Thank you for reminding me of the loveliness of conifers. I so enjoy the smell of them , especially after rain. And the way ground cover conifers relax and sprawl is so lovely in a garden.

  16. I'm starting to pay more attention to conifers than I did before. As you show, there's a great big wonderful conifer world out there!

    Interesting that colors are more subdued for you, too. My red-twig dogwood isn't as red as most years this year. I'm blaming the milder winter. Frances says they don't get very red in her Tennessee garden, which Dirr noted is due to the warmer climate.

  17. I have it on my list that I MUST get to the national collection of conifers.

  18. I love conifers<3 And your plantings are very beautiful,thank you for sharing them with us. You're so right,conifers are like chips;) I have a long shopping list for the spring: junipers,blue spruce,thujas...I love your weeping false cypress.How cold does it get in Nova Scotia? I live in Finland in zone 5 and at the moment we have -25C...Probably it's too cold for poor cypress?


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