Pacific Northwest | January 18, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 18, home
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Winter Clothing
Shapely, colorful conifers dress up even the dreariest days
The color and shape of Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' form a dramatic focal point in the landscape. The little tree grows into such a perfect, tight column that it looks as if its brilliant golden foliage has been meticulously sheared into shape.
THE LONGER WE garden, the more we come to rely on lasting foliage over fleeting flower. So why aren't conifers all the rage?

Is it because we're jaded by the looming presence of cedars and Douglas firs? Perhaps our idea of conifers is clouded by all the juniper-enshrouded rockeries or lumped in with the green blobs of mugho pine in so many older gardens. If you went to grade school in Seattle, yearly field trips to the Museum of History & Industry probably linger in your memory along with the many dioramas featuring beaches backed by shadowy, dark conifer forests. (The way I remember it, nearly every scene showed the Denny party landing on the shores of Alki).

At the other end of the spectrum is the image of conifers as fussy alpines grown in trough gardens. Luckily, a great many colorful conifers lie between the rarified little bumps sought by collectors and the dense shade cast by80-foot cedars.

Conifers have many virtues; they're easy to care for, clothe the garden in winter and look their best with shaggy needles wet and glistening in fog, mist or rain. Many stay quite small (look for "nana" or "dwarf" on the plant tag), take well to container culture, don't spread and don't require much pruning (if your taste is toward naturalistic rather than topiary).
Illustration Now In Bloom
The bright yellow or burgundy stems of shrubby dogwoods bring intense color to the winter garden, particularly when planted in masses. Redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba) grows to 10 feet and has flat clusters of white flowers in spring, dark-green summer leaves that turn flame-colored in autumn, and glowing-red winter stems and branches. C. alba 'Aurea' has yellow leaves; the foliage of 'Spaethii' is trimmed in warm cream. C. sericea 'Flaviramea' has bright-yellow winter stems. The shrubby dogwoods prefer damp soil and tend to sucker. Their twig color stays most vivid when cut down to the ground every couple of years.
They come in shapes from cylindrically upright to pendulous or even sprawling along the ground, so they can serve as ground cover, accent, hedging or windscreens. They work well in rockeries or as well-mannered border companions. Conifers suit any style of garden from traditionally clipped yews to modern. Think stainless-steel boxes sprouting a row of narrow, pointed Italian cypresses. Conifers are drought-tolerant once established, and don't need much fertilizer. Sun and well-drained soil are all you need to grow most of them successfully.

I never appreciated all the possibilities of textures and hues until I saw the hillside of conifers at Kubota Garden in South Seattle. The slope undulates with sleekly growing pines, yews and cypress in shades from steely blue to rich gold and every color of green from celadon to nearly black. Add the varying twists and thicknesses of foliage, plus the rough and peeling bark, and you end up with a vibrant tapestry. The Japanese garden at the Washington Park Arboretum offers a fine contrast in its use of conifers, for here the trees and shrubs are meticulously shaped and sited, each one a distinct gem frequently paired with a mossy boulder or stone lantern.

In our often gloomy weather, the warmth of golden-toned conifers is especially welcome. Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' grows slowly into a tight column that takes on bronze tints as temperatures cool. The little hinoki cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gold Fern' works beautifully in containers where its fluffy, tawny-tipped branches can be admired close up. All the hinokis bring movement to the garden, for their branches appear to be gracefully swirling about even on a perfectly still day. Glaucous tones and needle-like textures meld to make dramatic focal points; the blue Spanish fir Abies pinsapo 'Glauca' is a head-turner. Every white-tipped branch of the little hemlock Tsuga canadensis 'Gentsch's White' appears dipped in powdered sugar.

I warn you: Read Adrian Bloom's "Gardening With Conifers" (Firefly Books, $24.95) at your own risk. He's a persuasive conifer lover with a six-acre garden full of them in Norfolk, England. The photos make it hard to resist beauties like the arching, blue-gray hemlock Tsuga mertensiana 'Elizabeth,' the fluffy little Pinus wallichiana 'Nana' with fetching cones and soft, petable needles, or the deeply textural Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' that turns coppery-orange in winter. Bloom's conifers mostly mingle comfortably with deciduous shrubs, ornamental grasses, perennials and even roses. There's an inspiring chapter on conifers in containers, where they show well all by themselves or combined with grasses or bulbs for contrast and seasonal change.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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