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Landscaping with Conifers

Conifers have become a favourite of landscapers and gardeners alike due to the huge range of varieties that are available for ornamental purposes. All sorts of shapes, sizes, foliage textures and colours have been cultivated in order to provide design solutions for the innovative garden designer. The use of conifers as feature elements of a garden is a strategy that is often used very successfully.

They can be effectively incorporated into many differing styles of garden including the english traditional (sometimes consisting almost entirely of conifers), rockeries (dwarf and ground covers), to Japanese symbolic style gardens where a ragged and worn looking cupressus is in stark contrast to the serene and ordered nature of the garden. Conifers could also be incorporated effectively in informal or native bush gardens, depending on the species/cultivars chosen. There is a conifer for just about any situation in your garden.

Conifers come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes ranging from large trees to small prostrate ground covers, from rounded forms to upright conical shapes to sprawling types. The height of conifers varies from only 20cm or so for some of the creeping types to the giant Californian Redwoods, hundreds of feet tall.

Although conifers are not renowned for their vast array of colourful flowers, their foliage does come in a large range of colour shades and textures; and the great thing is that these can be used for affect all year round (unlike plants that flower for only a short time and then become another obscure green mass of leaf). Most conifers are cool climate plants and generally have a characteristic resinous fragrance. The majority are evergreens. The foliage of conifers can be short and spiky, or long and needle like. Colour variations range from greens, blue‑greys, golds & yellows, to purplish‑bronze and more. Colour may also vary according to the season, for example, new spring growth may be light green or golden yellow which turns darker with age, or the foliage of some might turn purplish or bronzish in colour during the cooler months.

A well planned conifer bed can provide colour all year round. One trick is to use a variety of different coloured foliage plants and different shapes planted together so that they contrast one with another.

Using Conifers

Common uses for conifers in a park or garden include:

♣ for hedging (both low and tall);

♣ as topiary specimens;

♣ stand alone specimen trees;

♣ as part of a shrubbery, often as a contrast plant;

♣ low growing or prostrate shrubs as groundcovers or cascading down a slope, over rocks or a wall;

♣ windbreaks – but be careful with planting distances as many conifers have a tendency to self prune (dropping their lower branches) if planted to close together, which makes them ineffective as a windbreak, as the wind gets funnelled beneath the plants near ground level;

♣ as specimens in containers;

♣ as ‘Christmas Trees’ with suitable varieties kept in containers and bought indoors for a short time during the christmas period;

♣ dwarf varieties can be used as low borders along a pathway or to delineate a garden bed;

♣ to frame a building or attractive view.

Other Uses for Conifers

Conifers can also be used in a landscape design:

♣ As a windbreak.

♣ As a visual barrier or screen.

♣ To reduce noise (ie: on the edge of freeways, or if you have noisy neighbours);

♣ To provide shade.

♣ To provide shelter for animals (e.g. stock on farms).

♣ To stabilise the soil (ie: prevent erosion, landslips, etc.).

♣ To provide timber – many conifers are highly valued for this purpose.

♣ To control weed growth (eg. needles dropped by pines will discourage other plant growth: this can be a way of creating a low maintenance area – but be careful not to place such trees near buildings where the foliage could block guttering).

♣ A combination of two or more of these reasons.

Growing Conifers

Most conifers are easy to grow once established. They generally prefer cooler climates, though there are some which grow in warmer areas. The most important requirement for the majority of conifers is a suitable soil. Rich loams, high in organic content, preferably acidic, and moist, but reasonably well drained (few conifers will take waterlogged soils, even for a short time) are generally preferred. This is often best achieved in a raised bed which is either made as a rockery (where roots can get under the rocks to remain cool and moist), or a well mulched bed.

The height to which a particular species will grow can vary greatly depending on the conditions under which it is grown…climate, soil type and position.  Many conifers are slow growing and reduced watering and fertility can slow the young plant even more, producing an almost dwarfed compact plant. Ideally always water conifers from underneath…wet foliage and direct sun can sometimes result in burning.

The foliage of many conifers contains toxins which impair the growth of other plants underneath them (even weeds). The root system is usually shallow, fibrous and spreading. Some of the larger conifers will have larger roots appear at ground level, making it difficult to mow (although grass will rarely grow there), or people could trip over them. Soils around conifers can be rapidly depleted of nutrients and moisture, again making it difficult for other plants to grow beneath a conifer’s canopy.

The lifespan of most conifers is usually long…often hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years.