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by Lynn Kirk, Public Relations Writer, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

The Margaret Johanna Streb Conifer Garden blends textures and foliage colors to create year-round interest at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Silvery undersides of Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid.’ Photo by Grace Chapman.

The Margaret Johanna Streb Conifer Garden blends textures and foliage colors to create year-round interest at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Streb Conifer Garden blends textures and foliage colors to create year-round interest at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Photo by Grace Chapman.

Winter weather may be drab, but the landscape doesn’t have to be. Cone-bearing trees and shrubs, known as conifers, can transform outdoor settings from ordinary to extraordinary through their attractive array of sizes, shapes and textures. They also can add drama through their wide spectrum of colors.

“Conifers give us a design element that other plants and deciduous shrubs often cannot match,” said Scott Burrell, horticulture specialist at the Goochland County campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. “They add interest to the winter garden and bridge the seasons with color.”

Green is the most prevalent color among conifers, which is welcomed in the winter landscape as a symbol of life and harmony. However, there’s not just one green, but a wide range of hues. While the American arborvitae presents olive-green foliage and the common yew typically displays dark-green branches, the dwarf hinoki cypress and mugo pine exhibit brighter greens.

Evergreens keep their color all year, as their name suggests, but some conifers experience changes based on their species as well as new growth, seasonal chlorophyll supply and environmental factors. They might take on plum, copper or mahogany tones in their foliage or cones. For example, the cones of the Snow in the Valley Japanese white pine are a rosy pink.

Blue, silver and yellow-toned conifers provide another layer of vibrant color. Junipers are a great resource for blues, such as the Blue Star, Blue Chip and Blue Alps varieties.

The blue Colorado spruce offers elegant silver tones, while the golden threadleaf falsecypress and the Wate’s Golden Virginia pine are examples from the yellow palette. Burrell cautions that design and placement are critical when using these bursts of color.

“Don’t use a lot of blues together or yellows together because it makes the winter garden look restless,” he said. “Space them throughout the landscape, interspersed with deciduous or arranged with green conifers.”

Another pleasing effect involves showcasing two-tone and variegated conifers, where stripes, spots or patches might sport white, cream or yellow casts.

“Before you plant, know the cultivar and characteristics so you won’t be disappointed,” Burrell said.

Remember that some conifers are deciduous, so they lose their leaves in winter. Also plan ahead for warm seasons when conifers share the spotlight with flowering and ornamental plants.

With careful selection, you can dress up the landscape all four seasons using hardy conifers that require minimal care.

For more information, visit the American Conifer Society website  or the J. Sargeant Reynolds Goochland campus where an accredited Conifer Reference Garden is maintained by students and open to the public.

Editor’s Note: This article first published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 8, 2012 

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