In recent years conifers have suffered a lot of negative publicity as a result of xCupressocyparis leylandii (The Leyland Cypress, also known as ‘The Scourge of Suburbia’). The Leyland Cypress is not itself a bad choice as a hedging plant- it grows quickly, provides a thick soundproof barrier, and is actually a home to various insects and an ideal place for birds to nest! The real problem is that the Leyland needs attention and that is not compatible with increasingly busy lifestyles. Anyway, you know the issues surrounding the Leyland Cypress, but what about other conifers?
To be entirely honest I doubt very much that the old traditional garden rockery is still thriving. Alpine enthusiasts keep their rock gardens and scree beds for their high altitude treasures, but the ordinary rockery has been swept away in many cases in favour of patios and more modern planting schemes. This is fine- a garden has to be suitable for it’s owner/maintainer, and rockeries weren’t all that easy to maintain, but the loss of the rockery from British gardens has meant that the garden habitat of the dwarf conifer has largely disappeared. This is a crying shame, because the development of new conifers ideal for a rock/alpine garden has continued regardless, and now gardeners are missing out on some really good plants.
Take, for example, the dwarf Abies koreana cultivars. Typically Abies koreana (Korean Fir) grows to be a sizeable tree (although if you have a bit of space it’s worth growing- more on that later) but there is an increasing number of small, slow growing varieties. As far as I know they all have to be grafted, so that pushes the price up a bit, but if you buy the right variety for you it’s money well spent.Take, for example, this Abies koreana ‘Silverperle’ (above). The one shown is typical of the size you will see in a nursery on sale, and will this will only grow around 2 1/2″ (6cm) a year, so won’t grow out of hand. Other varieties will grow at different rates, so check the label carefully, and if in doubt ask at the nursery- if the one you’re looking at isn’t ideal they will often recommend something more suitable. Below is Picea abies ‘Parsonii’ which certainly seemed more compact than the Abies above! Not sure on the rate of growth on this, but almost certainly slower!
So what about the Chamaecyparis? Most people would recognise the Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) as an alternative to the Leyland Cypress for hedging, and the cultivars as a ‘fluffy thing’ grown mainly because they are reasonably fast and there are many forms which provide good colour and shape. Chamaecyparis obtusa cultivars have been a recognisable feature of the rockery for years; the right form will be a small and colourful plant with a nice shape, the wrong one will make a sizeable tree so check those labels! There are a few Chamaecyparis lawsoniana cultivars which would perform well with the smaller dwarf Ch. obtusas, the most interesting of which is a new variety called ‘Rimpelaar’. Growing to a projected 10 year height and spread of 6″ (15cm) (it is a new variety remember!) the most striking thing I can see about it is that it’s a rather nice blue! I’m sure conifer experts could dig out the name of a dwarf blue Ch. lawsoniana or Ch. obtusa, but this is to my knowledge the only one.
So far I’ve covered upright plants, but you may well want a good plant to tumble over a rock. I was rather pleased to see recently a small number of flat growing larch (Larix) varieties. Below is Larix kaempferi ‘Grey Pearl’, a rather nice slightly contorted form with a lovely blue sheen to the needles. Larches are deciduous, so expect good autumn colour.
The other prostrate larch that caught my eye was L. k. , a form with green needles and straight branches going off in every direction (except vertically!). This one is a lot more rigid looking than the previous, but I felt it deserved a place in my garden!
There are also forms of Taxus (yew) that will tumble, but I haven’t taken photos of the ones in my garden yet! If space isn’t a major issue there may be bigger conifers which will suit you. Think about a pine, Pinus parviflora ‘Glauca’ being the first that comes to my mind- a classy blue needled pine which grows at a tolerable rate, ultimately making a decent sized tree but being a good garden feature as it grows. Other pines to try are Pinus wallichiana (Bhutan Pine) with it’s long blue/grey needles and quite fast (at first) growth, Pinus thunbergii (Japanese Black Pine) with it’s stiff green needles and suitability for poor sandy soils and coastal aspects, or go for something a little bushier like the classic Pinus mugo. The ‘Mugo Pine’ also boasts some smaller forms which would also do on the rockery! Really nice is P. mugo ‘Mops Midget’ which won’t grow very slowly, but will only make about 17″ (45cm) height by 2ft (60cm) width. P. mugo ‘Carsten’s Wintergold’ is a small 2ft 6″(75cm) tree with a striking gold winter colour. I should at this point mention that the measurements I have just given you are growth after 10 years! I was quite taken by Pinus monticola strobicola. This light coloured tree has long needles and massive cones which hang down. The tree is quite noticeable from some distance when it’s big, and would make a very good pine to go with other large trees.
This is just one pine that grabbed my attention, and I’m not saying it’s the best of them all! If you want a large growing pine there are two reasons why you should choose carefully: 1) to make sure the pine is suitable, 2) to make sure that you’re not missing out! After all, there’s no point buying something ordinary when you could get something extra special! Check the pines available in UK nurseries either on the web or in the plantfinder. And one more thing, there are a lot of new pine species coming into UK cultivation, but little is known about how big they will get outside their native environment. Some may grow bigger, others smaller, so if picking a big pine be flexible! I was quite suprised to find out recently that pines can be pruned. When they are covered in the upright new growth ‘candles’ in spring you can take a pair of shears over them to keep the plant compact. The pine will then send out new growth later in the year, but I must emphasise a LIGHT pruning!
I mentioned earlier dwarf forms of Korean Fir, Abies koreana. Abies koreana itself is a very attractive tree with a strong conical shape to an ultimate height of about 30ft (10m). Particularly good about this conifer is that it produces upward facing dark purple cones from a young age. When you have an older tree the sheer number of these cones looks rather impressive.
Abies koreana in it’s glory! Sorry, I looked but couldn’t find any cones. For a real feature in the garden with a good winter colour I would strongly suggest you look at Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’. Initially you start off with a rather flat golden plant with a strong lean! Never fear! At some point the plant will then put out a strong upward ‘leader’ which will then branch to make another layer. As the plant meanders it’s way upwards it develops into an extremely attractive conical tree, as seen below.
Don’t forget of course upright (fastigiate) forms of conifers! There are good upright growers like Thuja ‘Smaragd’ (also known by the more sensible ‘Emerald’) which makes a good green alternative to Cuppressus (Cypress- prone to ‘Cypress Canker’ and just generally not all that good in the damp climate of the UK) if you want the same upright column effect. There’s a fastigiate form of our native Scott’s Pine, called Pinus sylvestris ‘Fastigiata’ which is very attractive; a fastigiate larch, Larix kaempferi ‘Jacobsen’s Pyramid’ which will do something like 16ft (5m) in 10 years straight up, but will remain columnar in habit; and an old favourite, Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’, a golden fastigiate form of yew.