You will read in many places that no garden is complete without at least a few conifers to provide evergreen background planting and structure to the garden. This is certainly true, however, it is both to ignore the amazing range of shapes and colours that conifers offer to the 21st century gardener, and also to fail to see how beautiful Rare conifers can be when growing at their best in natural landscapes.
So what I am going to suggest here is that you think about using conifers in your garden in one of two different ways. To introduce these two ways we need to begin by thinking about how conifers grow in the wild. Putting it very basically there are two types of natural landscapes in which conifers play a major role. Alpine landscapes and forests.
Alpine landscapes are windswept rocky places, usually in mountainous terrain but also on seashores. These are places where soil fertility is low, soil depth is usually shallow and the soil itself is full of stones. The wind plays a major factor in keeping plants low growing, and the plant populations tend to be naturally reduced or miniature species. There are usually no large trees or vigorous herbaceous plants to crowd out the more interesting species.
Alpine Gardens usually try to replicate this kind of terrain, or at least to suggest its effect, by being placed well away from shrubberies or trees, partly to ensure good light levels but also to prevent autumn leaves falling on the plants and stifling them. Attention is also given to making the soil poorly nourished and free-draining.
In terms of conifers, the representatives of this group that typically grow in wild alpine landscapes are mainly low-growing or shrubby junipers. Because of the strength of the wind and low soil fertility such conifers take on both neat and fantastical forms which can be exceedingly beautiful and fascinating to the eye.
In the alpine garden the wonderful range of colourful and spiky junipers may be supplemented with dwarf spruces (Picea species and cultivars), miniature firs (Abies species and cultivars), miniature pines (Pinus) and similar forms. The intention here is to recreate a high-altitude Alpine terrain effect.
The other main natural landscapes in which Conifer species play a leading role is the forest. In a garden it is probably unlikely that many will want to recreate a conifer forest, however by selecting slow growing but upright varieties which exhibit a range of appealing foliage texture and colour this is certainly possible. Vertically-growing firs and spruces would be applicable here, as well as Lawson Cyprus cultivars (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), Thujas, deciduous larches and so on. One or two colourful-barked birchs will lighten any heavy effect created by the conifers.
However a more likely and varied use of conifers that suggest forest forms to the eye would be to see the garden as an edge of woodland situation, the fringes of the forest where young conifer trees vie with dwarf shrubs and natural herbaceous plants for space and light. Many if not most modern suburban gardens would probably fall within this category in any case, but to understand that this is actually the case enables the home garden designer to have a clearer goal and so to achieve a better effect.
Visits to conifer forests and attention paid in particular to their margins and fringes, can result when applied to the home garden in a much more natural looking effect. Natural-looking is good because it is both more beautiful and more relaxing than a garden created using a mishmash approach, filling spaces with any available plants, for example, with little or no thought to planning or overall effect.
Likewise, visits to upland hills and seashores will give the home gardener the opportunity to see how plants grow and interact with each other in a different kind of wild situation. Notes should be made and photographs taken; lessons can then be learned and applied to the home garden. To supplements such visits, images and information about wild landscapes is widely available on the Internet and may give insights into places which one cannot actually visit.
With such an approach, conifers may take on a much more natural looking role in the garden that replicates to an extent their role in the world’s wild landscapes.