How I fell in love with conifers

By Sara Malone
Conifers add year-round structure, color and interest
Conifers add year-round structure, color and interest

I made my first garden when I was nine years old, and, but for a few years off here and there when I lived in cities, I have been gardening ever since. I have gone through gardening phases of all kinds: from Heuchera to Helleborus, from English cottage to Mediterranean, from sweet peas to sourwood. Each season seemed to bring a new book or plant introduction that would dominate my gardening focus for a while.

My garden back when I was a perennialista


My gardens have always been nice, have always been admired and, for most of my life, have always satisfied me. Like most people, I grew primarily herbaceous, flowering perennials and I was happy with the colorful, seasonal displays that they produced. It wasn't until I retired in 2005 and found myself with more time to devote to gardening that I began to feel strangely unfulfilled by what I had created.

In the first place, here I was gardening in Sunset Zone 15 (USDA 9b), which barely ever sees a hard freeze, with beds replete with perennials that were dormant for nearly half the year! Winter, not only a mild season in my Sonoma County, California garden but also a particularly lovely one, abounded with shapeless hulks of dormant--nay dead--foliage. The perennials, when in flower, were undeniably pretty, but the effort was great. They required heavy shearing in late winter, were slow to get going in spring, and no sooner had they shown themselves to best advantage in May and June than they crisped in the mid-summer heat and began the slow descent into winter, only to start the entire cycle again.

The rose garden in winter

Too, the perennials lacked structure. They were mostly round and grew into each other with a resulting lack of definition that began to irritate me. These 'blobs of color' lacked sophistication and, like people with lovely complexions but mediocre bone structure, were certainly pretty but no one would call them beautiful. The lack of structure was particularly noticeable in the garden's off-season.

While this theme was swelling in my mind, a counterpoint emerged: the maintenance was wearing me out, especially since the plants were dictating the schedule, not I. If I happened to miss the late-winter shearing, the plants would push new growth through last year's dead stems and the resulting mess would require either sacrificing a goodly number of fresh shoots and setting the plants back, or living with the tangled web of new foliage snarled in the detritus underneath. To get the best performance from most of the perennials during the growing season I had to ''refresh" them (i.e. hack the blazes out of them) every six to eight weeks. My vacation schedule was determined by the garden chores, most of which I derived less and less pleasure from.

The Real Thing

Pinus wallichiana 'Zebrina' lights up the landscape

Do I sound like someone ripe for a new garden romance? Little did I know that Mr. Right was on his way! He arrived in the form of Adrian Bloom, not in the flesh, but by way of his book, Gardening with Conifers, which a friend gave me for Christmas. Adrian turned out to be the man of my dreams. In fact, he gave me a new dream entirely: to have a landscape as rich in color as a perennial garden, but with year-round interest and much more structure and texture than the perennials could provide. This was not just a new romance, but a mature, enduring love affair that resonated deeply with me after my infatuations with pretty flowers! It was also not lost on me that the woody plants would not require the constant attention demanded by the coquettish perennials.

Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula' flank the front entry and add color and texture in the deaf of winter

We all look back fondly to our 'first times' in life, and my first conifer was a twofer: a pair of Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula' to flank the front door. Almost immediately upon reading Bloom's book, and with no regrets whatsoever, I hacked back and yanked out a couple of messy, ungainly Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' and replaced them with the sophisticated, seductive curves of the cedars. They looked like they were designed for the site and their cool, powder-blue needles and smooth, undulated trunks invited me to touch them each time I passed. I felt myself interacting with them in ways that I had never experienced with a flowering plant; their structure gave them a prominence and a complexity that had me immediately anthropomorphizing and imbuing them with quasi-human attributes. I stopped short of naming them, but don't think that I wasn't tempted!

The cedars look pretty nice in summer, too!

I never looked back. My next purchase was a Cryptomeria japonica 'Mushroom', in full winter lilac-tinted bronze. I combed the conifer books, the catalogs from specialty conifer growers like Iseli and Buchholz, where I couldn't shop but could certainly fantasize, and making wish lists which grew longer and longer. Fortunately, Sonoma County is home to some fabulous nurseries, both retail and wholesale. There are a few that specialize in conifers and I began to haunt them, pumping owners and staff for their favorites and finding out when new shipments were due so that I could meet the truck and not miss anything.

A Glorious Garden of Conifers

I have now graduated to special-ordering specific cultivars and doing my research well ahead of the ACS auctions so that I can make the most of my bidding. I have learned to pick and choose among the species and the cultivars and understand which selection is best for a particular spot. I have learned, too, that not every plant can be a 'diva'; the garden needs a robust chorus to back up the soloists. I've also learned that conifers come in surprising forms and colors. My garden has graduated from an assortment of flowering perennials to a collection of specimen conifers and other rare and select woody plants. It now has four seasons of interest instead of two and has all of the structure that I felt was lacking in its prior incarnation, even on foggy days or in low light. I no longer spend the month of March chopping back perennials; I now spend it admiring the new foliage and emerging cones of the conifers.

Another Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula', paired with Thuja occidentalis 'Malonyana'


I marvel that I went so long before I found true garden love. Now, as I wander the paths of my garden in all seasons, I find satisfaction and sustenance from the incredible variety of conifers which dominate the landscape. Their breadth is astonishing: from the grandeur of the sculpted Pinus nigra 'Compacta' to the delicacy of the Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Barry's Silver'; from the rugged stoutness of Pinus jeffreyi 'Joppi' to the elegance of Cupressus cashmeriana; from the dusty turquoise of Cedrus deodara 'Prostrate Beauty' to the brilliant gold of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Golden Showers'; from the whimsical Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendulum' to the wistful Pinus wallichiana 'Zebrina' - oh, the list is endless!

The seasonal highlights are noteworthy, as well. There is the spring new foliage on specimens such as Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata' and the male cones on Pinus parviflora 'Cleary', which are just as beautiful as flowers and never need deadheading. The summer green of many Taxus and Chamaecyparis cultivars keeps the garden temperature down when the mercury soars. Autumn's drama is enhanced by the golden needles of the Larix and the blues of the Picea pungens, which showcase the fiery deciduous foliage. Finally, the bronzy winter cloaks of the Cryptomeria and Microbiota smolder with highlights of lavender and burnt umber.

Winter color on Cryptomeria japonica 'Mushroom'

May I share the final, wonderful aspect of my new-found garden love? When you begin a new love affair, don't you always wait with trepidation to see if your friends will approve? I'm delighted to report that conifers play well with others! In my garden they romp with an amazing variety of Acer palmatum, Southern hemisphere natives such as Leptospermum, Leucodendron and Condropetalum, structural succulents such as Agave, a host of California natives, including Arbutus and Arctostaphylos, and an array of deciduous shrubs such as Fothergilla, Cornus and Spirea.

It took me a while, but I finally found the love of my garden life. Like all true love, I expect it to grow stronger and sweeter with age.

Comments