Gardens & Conservatory

Plants & Collections

Conifers: The backbones of the garden

By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Published February 2008 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

When developing a landscape design, what’s the typical starting point for gardeners and landscapers? Usually conifers, because they’re nature’s family of all-purpose trees and shrubs. In the home landscape, junipers hide unattractive building foundations, columnar arborvitae screen corners and plum yews form hedges for privacy. Rug junipers spread as attractive groundcovers. A golden false-cypress makes a lovely focal point, while nearby a red cedar provides a home and food for wildlife.

According to Scott Burrell, horticulture director for the Virginia Historical Society, the conifer’s value extends far beyond these basic utilitarian benefits. He admires this family of typically cone-bearing trees and shrubs because of their four-season interest, easy maintenance and fascinating options in terms of color, size and form.

“Conifers are probably the most under-rated plants in the landscape world,” says Burrell, who serves on the America Conifer Society’s board of directors. Burrell suggests that with conifers, diversity is the norm.

Color – The conifer’s four-season interest results primarily from the colors of its foliage, especially when combined with plants of complementing hues. For example, the frosty-blue needles of the dwarf Colorado blue spruce ‘Montgomery’ and the soft yellow scale-like fans of the Hinoki cypress ‘Crippsii’ are both evergreen conifers that provide attractive coloring all year round.

But if you think ‘conifer’ is synonymous with ‘evergreen,’ think again. Several conifers are classified as deciduous because they drop their leaves in autumn. A golden larch is an example of a deciduous conifer whose leaves present a rich orange-yellow coloring as a last hurrah before winter.

Intriguing color variations also are revealed in the barks of conifer trees, such as the lacebark pine. Beyond typical grays and browns, some barks are tinged with deep reds, whites and greens. Changes in bark texture at maturity, such as the growth of rough platelets and deep fissures, add yet another depth of color to the conifers’ overall presentations.

Size – A conifer’s anticipated height at maturity is classified as either miniature, dwarf, intermediate or large. During a ten-year span, a miniature conifer grows only 1 to 2 feet while a large conifer usually exceeds 15 feet. These heights are estimates, for overall growth may be impacted by the geographic region as well as cultural and climatic conditions. It’s important to take all these factors into consideration before selecting and placing a conifer in the residential or commercial landscape.

Form – The variety of conifer forms, textures and growing habits are appreciated by landscapers and homeowners alike. Whether one seeks a strong pyramidal plant with vertical height or a soft, lacy weeper for visual impact, there’s probably a low- maintenance conifer with attributes to match.

2008 award winners
The American Conifer Society named its 2008 Collector’s Conifers of the Year. The winner in the full-size category was the ‘Blues’ (Picea pungens), a weeping Colorado blue spruce with powder-blue needles that will not grow erect without staking. The pick in the dwarf-size category was ‘Pusch’ (Picea abies), a 2-foot Norway spruce that produces striking burgundy-pink cones. Images and information are posted at the Society’s website at

Want to read and see more?
Burrell recommends “Gardening with Conifers” by Adrian Bloom, and “Growing Conifers” published by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Both books can be found in the Lora M. Robins Library, and a variety of conifers can be seen in the Streb Garden and Asian Valley at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.