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Plant Conifers for Year-Round Beauty

These evergreens provide elegant, low-maintenance splendor in the grass and snow

By Leslie Land | December 13, 2012

Leslie Land, longtime “Garden Q+A” columnist for The New York Times, is a journalist, chef, garden consultant, the author of two cookbooks, co-writer of two garden books and founder of the food, garden and foraging blog In Kitchen and Garden.

There’s an old English yew next to our house, dominating the view from a couple of the living room windows. In summer, it’s a smooth counterpoint to the twirling Dutchman’s pipe vine screening the porch behind it; in winter, it’s a comforting green presence against the snow (or the bare ground). And in December — until this year — it’s been our outdoor Christmas tree.
This season, however, it has lost out to youth and beauty. Last spring I bought a whole bunch of new conifers, including a dwarf blue Japanese white pine, its bare branches punctuated by poufs of curving needles, that is looking extremely spiffy dressed in solar lights.
In addition to the pine, I’ve planted five new falsecypress, a weeping Alaskan cedar and an assortment of dwarf junipers, none of the lot over five feet tall. And I’m not done yet, although I’m going to have to wait a little while to finish up.
Fall is the best time to plant conifers, but it isn’t the best time to shop for them. By the end of the summer, there isn’t much selection. So I’ll be looking early next spring for the few more I need to complete the renovation of our side yard garden, a small rectangle that slopes from a path under the kitchen windows down to a strip of lawn.
The garden is bracketed by a pair of huge old junipers and bounded on three sides by low stone walls, and for more years than I like to confess I used it for a changing array of herbs and roses and perennials. As a result, every winter we looked out at brown stalks, dried seed heads and old straw mulch — except in the years when garden care slipped off the list, leaving us a wintertime view of a sea of withered weeds.
No more. Now we are well on the way to elegant, year-round simplicity. The garden will be a collection of needled evergreens, for want of a better term, arranged as living sculptures on a neutral background of wood chips.

(MORE: Wintertime at the National Arboretum)
The term “needled evergreens” does a good job of distinguishing evergreen conifers from such broadleaf evergreens as rhododendrons and from deciduous conifers like larches. But the term gives no hint of the foliage textures available, from almost threadlike fronds to fans as flat and wavy as the ruffles on a party dress. It also says nothing about color range, which, in addition to many shades of green, includes golds and blues and ghostly, radiant silver.
More shopping remains; the arrangement needs a couple of something small and deep green (I have a too-soft spot for blue) and a narrow weeper — maybe a Dwarf Alaskan spruce.
But that’s probably it. Crowding would spoil the serene effect. And the more shopping I do, the greater the temptation to buy something that flouts the basic rules.
Basic Rules of Conifers
They can be almost entirely self-sufficient, if these four needs are met.

  1. They are fully hardy in your zone.
  2. They get the sun and good drainage they need.
  3. They receive water according to their individual needs; some are far more drought-resistant than others.
  4. They are varieties that will not outgrow their locations.
You do need to maintain a good thick layer of shredded bark or wood chip mulch to keep down weeds and conserve moisture, but no fertilizing is required. Pests are seldom a problem, though there are a few notable exceptions, like wooly adelgids, a spreading scourge of hemlocks.
How to Plan for Growth
It’s not at all uncommon to see older houses with ground-floor windows that have disappeared behind the foundation plantings or whose entrances have been narrowed by gigantic bracketing sentinels. To avoid “overgrown evergreen syndrome,” take careful note of two things: the projected size of the plant (duh) and, much more important, its expected growth rate.
All plants grow; if they didn’t at least replace old foliage, they’d die. Dwarf varieties are simply those with short likely eventual heights that are willing to be very slow about getting there. My new three-foot-tall Golden Whorl falsecypress, for instance, is in an ideal spot as far as the rules are concerned. But it will grow only a few inches a year before topping out at about six feet. After having achieved its full height, it will, with equal or greater slowness, start getting wide (rather like me, come to think of it).
With falsecypress, which includes a large number of tempting varieties, knowing the expected growth rate is vital because they are difficult to prune correctly. Branches cut too far back will never recover, so all mistakes are permanent. Yews and hemlocks, on the other hand, can be whacked at mercilessly, which makes them favorite subjects for hedges and topiary. Pines are in the middle. I can keep my new baby at pretty much whatever height I want with a bit of judicious pinching back in spring.
But I don’t want to have to pinch it. What I want is to have less garden work as I age. That’s why I’m hoping the conifers are like me — or more accurately, that I’m like them: destined by nature to grow older slowly and gracefully, with a rock-bottom minimum of extra fussing over.