Colorful Conifers for Your Winter Garden

If your garden has a case of the blahs, try perking things up with a conifer or two--or three.
Glenn R. DiNella

When you look out on your winter landscape, are you taking in a pleasing scene that invites you outside, or does it make you want to draw the blinds and wait until March? If the only green you see this season is when you flip on ESPN to watch a golf tournament, perhaps it's time to consider adding a few conifers to your garden.

This time of the year is perfect for analyzing the design of your landscape. If you rely heavily on deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials, your garden is probably looking a tad bleak right now. Conifers, most of which are evergreen, can change that. A broad group of plants that bear cones and have needle-like leaves, they come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and textures that can provide year-round interest to any setting. Although they are also included in the conifer family, keep in mind that exceptions such as dawn redwood, bald cypress, and larch will drop their needles in winter.

On a small mountain overlooking downtown Bowling Green, Kentucky, homeowner Jerry Baker has amassed an extensive collection of evergreens on his arboretum-like property. With the help of landscape architect Mitchell Leichhardt, he has planted numerous conifers. "I love how the foliage colors change with the season," Jerry says. "That's one of the most interesting things about conifers. Some get bright yellow in summer but fade to green in winter, and some are bluish green in summer but turn purple in winter."

In addition to their diverse colors, one of the main reasons Jerry became passionate about conifers was the captivating textures they lend to the landscape. "There's a lady that teaches art at Western Kentucky University who likes to come here and draw during the winter because that's when you get the best textures," he says.

Gardeners in the Upper South, like Jerry, are particularly blessed when it comes to growing conifers, such as spruces, firs, arborvitae, and false cypress, which can handle any winter temperatures the region has to offer. But even these hardy plants appreciate protection from harsh winds or sudden freezing or thawing. To handle the hot summers found in the Lower and Coastal South, gardeners are better off planting a juniper, cypress, cedar, cryptomeria, or rugged Japanese black pine.

Virtually all conifers, from the Upper South to the Coastal South, prefer well-drained soil and full sun. If your yard is mostly shady with clay soil, try some smaller conifers in raised beds or, better still, containers that can be placed in a sunny spot. To prevent needle burn or even dead plants, it's best to avoid chemical fertilizers. A mild organic fertilizer or a top dressing of compost applied in late fall or spring is all that is needed.

Unless you have a large garden like Jerry's or you are ready to become a full-fledged conifer collector, it might be best to limit your palette to just three or four favorite selections. It's just like the "too much of a good thing?" speech your mother gave you about ice cream when you were young. Just consider yourself forewarned. Many a crazed conifer collector began with the innocent purchase of a few small shrubs.

 

The Colorful World of Conifers
When it comes to conifers, there is a staggering array of possibilities out there. We've tried to help you narrow your search by offering a few of our favorites. Don't forget, green is a color too, particularly in winter.

Harvest Some Gold
  • 'Gold Coast' juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Gold Coast') US, MS, LS, CS; height: to 3 feet
  • Sawara false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera Aurea') US, MS; height: to 8 feet
  • 'Rheingold' arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold') US, MS; height: to 6 feet

Get the Blues
  • 'Fat Albert' Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens glauca 'Fat Albert') US, MS; height: to 10 feet
  • blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii') US, MS, LS, CS; height: to 4 inches
  • 'Blue Star' juniper (Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star') US, MS; height: to 3 feet
  • 'Carolina Sapphire' cypress (Cupressus arizonica 'Carolina Sapphire') MS, LS, CS; height: to 30 feet
  • China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca') MS, LS, CS; height: to 75 feet
  • white pine (Pinus strobus) US, MS; height: to 100 feet

Gorgeous Green
  • Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) US, MS, LS; height: to 80 feet
  • Emerald Isle Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii 'Moncal') US, MS, LS, CS; height: to 25 feet
  • Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis') US, MS; height: to 4 feet
  • Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Kaizuka') US, MS, LS, CS; height: to 20 feet
  • Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergiana) US, MS, LS, CS; height: to 40 feet
  • Japanese cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica) US, MS, LS; height: to 100 feet

Key:
US--Upper South
MS--Middle South
LS--Lower South
CS--Coastal South