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Some Design Basics

Designing with conifers is easy and their uses in the landscape are limited only by the imagination. The strong silhouettes of many compact, slow-growing conifers can accent a corner of a garden bed, frame a doorway or add winter interest to perennial and annual flower beds.

Use conifers in foundation plantings, borders or island beds with other shrubs. Plant a mixture of different conifers, blending the various textures, shapes and colors, for a unique low-maintenance landscape.

Using a variety of conifer species and cultivars of different sizes, textures and colors creates a low maintenance border with year round interest
The designer of this Massachusetts garden used a variety of conifer species and cultivars of different sizes, textures and colors to create a low maintenance border with year round interest. In spring, some cones emerge red or purple to add to the seasonal palette.

Photo by Sean Callahan


Use large specimens amid expansive lawns and miniature specimens to view up close in containers, troughs or rock gardens. Don’t forget that conifers are also stalwart hedging and windbreak plants.

Pruning Conifers

The natural growth pattern of a normal or dwarf evergreen is a large part of its charm. When the wrong plant is selected or the right plant is not maintained properly, this charm may be lost as the conifer grows too large for its assigned space. At this point, you must choose between pruning, moving or removing; often removing and replacing the plant is easier. Some evergreens can be severely pruned while others cannot. In most cases, severe pruning will destroy the conifer’s natural charm, although some plants may recover over time.

Yews and hemlocks are the easiest to control. Both have abundant buds on old and new wood; these develop into twigs when the wood above is cut. Since they can be sheared heavily without permanent harm, they can be used as hedges. The leaves tolerate some shade, so they grow well on the inside of the plant and allow for shearing or pruning. Pruning in the spring just before the new growth begins allows the pruning cuts to be covered with new growth very rapidly, preventing the “just sheared” look.

Firs, cedars, spruce and Douglas firs are also easy to manage. These have visible buds along the current season’s growth; some also have buds along the stems of the previous year’s growth. Control size at any time by pruning back to a bud. For a formal shape, prune or shear when the current season’s growth is soft. These plants’ leaves tolerate some shade, so pruning and shearing can potentially produce a dense plant.

Take more care with pines. When pruning pines, be aware that pines lack buds along the stem. Buds are only present at the tip of the current season’s growth, so the time to prune pines is in the spring. Soft new growth, called a “candle,” can be cut or pinched before the needles are fully elongated, and buds will develop from needle fascicles below the cut. This type of spring pruning or “candling” will produce a compact plant. During the rest of the year, prune carefully or you may damage the plant’s shape.

Junipers, arborvitaes and falsecypress (Chamaecyparis) are the most difficult to maintain at a particular size. This group’s buds are present only where there are green leaves; a branch cut back to a non-leafy region will not produce new foliage. If you shear one of these plants, do so carefully while it is actively growing in the spring. The naked brown interior indicates that the leaves are intolerant of shade. Each plant in this group forms a thin shell of green growth surrounding a zone of leafless twigs and limbs. Take care not to open this shell during pruning, since the unsightly scar may not be covered for many years.

Final Cuts

Make sure your hand shears and lopers are clean and sharp. Clean them after use, particularly if you’ve been cutting diseased wood. Contoured hand shears are more comfortable and efficient; many models come in left-hand models as well. Hand shears and lopers have recommended limits to the thickness they will cut comfortably. Exceed those limits and you not only risk straining your hand and arms but will make a sloppy cut that invites insects and disease to invade before the tree heals. Remove diseased wood from the area.

There are some borers and moths that can kill terminals (or other shoots) near the top of growing spruces and pines. If so, prune the dead brown branch down the nearest junction of healthy emerging growth (the whorl) and fashion a new leader. Don’t leave the dead cuttings lying around. Better to put them in a sealed plastic bag and deposit in the trash to get them – and their incubating eggs – off your property and into a landfill.

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