My Craze for Conifers

By Paul James

A conifer is simply a plant that produces cones. That’s it. They can be deciduous or evergreen, but the vast majority are evergreen. What I love about conifers is the way in which the incredible range of sizes, colors, and textures can be used to enhance the look and feel of any garden, not to mention provide color in the dead of winter plus nesting sites and food sources for birds.

Nearly all conifers prefer at least six hours of sun a day and soil that drains well and is fairly rich in organic matter, but they don’t necessarily require those conditions. There are conifers that grow well in shade (yews, for example) and there are those that do fine in heavy soil (loblolly pine). Bald cypress and certain Arborvitae will even grow in wet soil.

So the truth is conifers can be fairly forgiving, which means there’s a conifer for every spot in any garden. The only question is, Which one (or more) is right for you?

Cedrus: There are only three species in the true cedar family – the Atlantic cedar, the Deodar cedar, and the cedar of Lebanon. And you can’t go wrong with any of them. Sizes range from three feet to over 100 feet at maturity. Colors include green, blue, and yellow-gold. And there are upright and weeping varieties available.

Chamaecyparis: Also known as false cypress, this genus includes dozens of great choices, although my favorites are the Hinoki cypresses. They‘re available in upright and shrub forms, as well as true dwarfs. They do best when grown in a spot that gets afternoon shade.

Cryptomeria: Sometimes called Japanese cedar, this is the most revered tree in Japan, where you’ll find it planted near shrines and temples, as well as in huge swaths of forest. ‘Black Dragon’ is an outstanding upright form with soft green foliage and produces hundreds of small cones. It too does best when given some afternoon shade.

Juniperus: The list of junipers worth growing is a long one, ranging from groundcovers to shrubs to upright and often columnar forms. Most prefer full sun, and junipers are among the most drought tolerant of all conifers. They aren’t as picky about soil type either, but they can’t handle wet soil.

Picea: The spruce family is vast, and includes upright, globe, and weeping forms. While many gardeners are familiar with the blue forms, I’m actually partial to the green ones, especially the weepers. Spruces are tough, love the sun, and are extremely heat tolerant, making them an excellent choice for area gardens.

Pinus: It’s hard to beat pines, whether you’re in the market for a stately upright grower, a shrub form, or a dramatic weeper. Generally speaking, pines prefer full sun, but a bit of afternoon shade won’t hurt. Pines are easy to grow, and the Mugo pines in particular are tough as nails.

Taxus: Yews aren’t often thought of as conifers, but they are. And they’re the best choice for shade, even dense shade. They tend to prefer evenly moist soil, but there’s a beautiful six-footer in my backyard that I’ve never watered. And it’s also growing in full sun. Go figure!

Thuja: Better known as Arborvitae, this group of conifers features soft, scale-like foliage as opposed to needles. And like so many of their conifer cousins, they’re available in a broad range of sizes. The severe heat and drought of 2010 and 2011 wiped out a number of them, but that’s not a reason to avoid planting them. In fact, I think it’s a reason to plant more.

By the way, the three deciduous conifers grown in our neck of the woods are bald cypress, Gingko, and dawn redwood, and they’re all great choices.

Happy planting, ya’ll.