How to Design a Conifer Garden

By Ed & Colleen Weiss

Redesigning your conifer garden? Be inspired by a modernist architecture and industrial design, “Form follows function.”

A view of the conifer garden's top of berm, in the West end
A view of the conifer garden's top of berm, in the West end

“Form follows function” is a principle associated with 20th century modernist architecture and industrial design, which says that the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.

The term easily fits for designing a conifer garden, or any garden for that matter. You need only ask yourself what you want to accomplish before starting your project.

Before we begin on how our garden came together, a few background notes are in order. It has been approximately seven years since we started this project. We moved to Ann Arbor from Detroit, bought a house, gutted it and put it back together; an almost two year effort which allowed landscaping ideas to present themselves.

Our lot is a non-uniform shaped, subdivision plot on a cul-de-sac. The lot size is a little less than 14,000 square feet with a 4-6 foot high berm along the 130-foot length of the property.

Take away footage for the house, garage, driveway, patio and potting shed, and there isn’t a lot of land left for a conifer collection, yet we soldiered on. To date, we have over 100 different varieties of conifers for a total of approximately 150 trees and brooms.

The view to potting shed from top of berm of the conifer garden
The view to potting shed from top of berm of the conifer garden

Some of the principal design functions were:

1. Provide a screen to road activity along the 130-foot south side length of the house, where the berm is located. In addition, on the north side of property, our goal was to develop an attractive privacy screen to other neighborhood houses.

2. Install a closed loop geothermal system.

3. Allow access to the city bus stop without having to climb over the berm.

Modest wishes!!

How and what was accomplished:

1. It didn’t take much thought to decide that conifers were the best choice for screening road activity, especially in the winter when deciduous have lost their leaves. We used the same concept for establishing a pleasing privacy screen from other houses in the subdivision.

With that basic function defined, one would think it would be a simple task to go ahead and plant. Unfortunately, to a novice, it opened a vast array of options as to which conifers to select and purchase...thus began the journey.

2. The geothermal heating/cooling system was a straightforward process to install. It was necessary to cut back the berm along the entire length of house so that a large drilling rig could be brought in to drill the geothermal vertical lines.

That accomplished, it left us with a dramatic cut along the entire length of the berm. To maintain the effect, it was necessary to do something to retain the dirt. A boulder wall seemed a sensible answer.

Berm before rock wall installation in the conifer garden
Berm before rock wall installation in the conifer garden

After doing the math, it became apparent that it would take a lot of stone to complete this task. Researching stone sources and cost, we found we could purchase the stone directly from the source instead of going through a middleman and at quite a reasonable cost because we were buying over 200 tons of boulders.

In fact, we were able to go out into the fields where they were excavating the boulders and choose the actual stones we wanted. Over several weeks, as new boulders were dug up, we would go out again and again to select our stone. In choosing the rocks, we didn’t want a wall with stacked round boulders and opted for flat and broken faces.

3. Getting to the city bus system on the other side of the berm without climbing 6 ft. up and down, was accomplished by cutting a 5 ft. wide snaking path through the berm. Both sides of the path were reinforced with more large boulders to hold the two sides of berm in place. The snaking path was also designed to avoid a straight line view into the yard from the street.

Berm after rock wall installation in the conifer garden
Berm after rock wall installation in the conifer garden

Beginning the design and our process:

1. Look, read, and look some more!! We had to develop some sense of the types of landscape designs that appealed to us. We searched online for garden pictures, borrowed books from the library, and, when we were out driving, keeping our eyes open for landscape ideas, both residential and commercial.

We also visited nurseries and surveyed what was available. We understood that this was not going to be a one season event, so we developed a "don’t panic” attitude.

2. We took photos from different locations inside the house, looking out the widows in order to locate key views. From the photos, we set up markers for planting sites. If we were to ever advise others, it would be to take your time establishing your views because you will be looking out those windows for many years to come. This is doubly important for us in the north who spend so much time during the winter indoors.

3. Selecting trees overview: Our approach to tree selection encompassed very basic concerns: color, texture size and shape.

The conifer garden's walkway to the bus stop
The conifer garden's walkway to the bus stop

Color and texture

To any beginner, collecting conifers is a fascinating discovery that conifers come in a large variety of colors. Once you can get over the presumption that yellow-needled trees aren’t sick or dying, you can begin playing with the many shades of blues, greens, and yellows.

Everybody loves conifer cones, and a unique aspect of some conifer trees are the cone colors which can equal the excitement of any flower in bloom, for example -- Picea abies ‘Acrocona’, Picea abies ‘Pusch’, Abies koreana ‘Cis’, Abies koreana × lasiocarpa.

The view of the conifer garden from inside the house
The view of the conifer garden from inside the house

Size and Shape

Because of our limited space we approached the aesthetics of size in three ways. First, we concerned ourselves with the shield/barrier to the road on the back side of the berm. Our choices emphasized, for the most part, full/dense evergreens. Included in this group were: three Cupressus nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ and three Tsuga canadensis, Picea abies, Picea pungens 'Moerheim', and Juniperus chinensis ‘Mountbatten’.

Second, we wanted to continue with tall trees, but cut down on the width. We maximized the tall and narrow with mixed conifers and deciduous trees: Cupressus nootkatensis 'Green Arrow', Thuja occidentalis 'DeGroot's Spire', Juniperis communis 'Lemon Spire', Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’, Acer saccharum 'Newton Sentry', and Quercus robur 'Crimson Spire'.

Third, brooms and conifer miniatures worked well for maximum use of ground space. Some of our favorites are: Abies concolor 'Hosta la Vista', Taxodium distichum ‘Gee Wizz’, Pinus Strobus ‘Squiggles’ and ‘Wiggles’, Pinus mugo ‘Mops Top South’ and ‘Mops Top North’, Pinus mugo subsp. rotundata ‘Maja' [SS #26], Picea abies ‘Chub’, Abies cephalonica ‘Meyer's Dwarf‘, Larix kaempferi ‘Nana’.

The front of house area of the conifer garden, next to the driveway
The front of house area of the conifer garden, next to the driveway

Final Thoughts

Once you start collecting different conifers, they all become special, though some do seem a little more special for no particular reason. For us it’s Picea pungens 'Ferrance Skirt', Pinus heldreichii 'Green Bun’ and Picea schrenkiana 'Nana'.

In summary, “Form Follows Function” can be simply viewed as: what do you want your garden to do? Is there a necessity or problem to solve such as water control, privacy, views from windows or an outside patio?

List your wants and issues, do your homework by visiting other gardens, review garden books and talk to experts. Then have fun designing your garden.

The conifer garden's walkway to bus stop in the winter
The conifer garden's walkway to bus stop in the winter

Ed & Colleen Weiss’ Garden is open to Conifer members. Check the ACS member directory for contact information.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Conifer Quarterly. Join the American Conifer Society to access our extensive library of conifer-related articles and connect to a nationwide group of plant lovers! Become a member for only $40 a year and get discounts with our growing list of participating nurseries in our Nursery Discount Program.

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