Conifers have become a somewhat tricky subject to talk about. As indifferent to the zeitgeist as I like to see myself, even I know that they’ve been deeply unfashionable for at least the last twenty years.
You probably have to go back to the 1960’s to see the start of what now looks like a rather predictable fall from grace. There was then a fashion for conifer and heather beds, born out of a demand for low maintenance gardens and especially popular in the open plan housing developments of the day.
As ever with a gardening fashion, to begin with demand outstrips supply and a great many Thuja ‘Rheingold’, Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Carpet’ and Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ were sold to unsuspecting gardeners as dwarf conifers. Predictably, within a few years they had outgrown their allotted space and needed to be removed, a process that took place in the 80’s and 90’s to the extent that by the turn of the century conifers were becoming an uncommon sight in gardens. Perhaps people need to build up a head of steam before they rip out a group of big plants, suffice it to say that many people’s attitude to conifers went from enthusiasm to hostility, bypassing indifference altogether.
The British Conifer Association was born out of the ashes, set up by nurserymen and enthusiasts to try and drum up some sort of change of attitude. Some very fine show gardens were put into Chelsea and Hampton Court, among other venues. Pretty much to no avail.
I was working on a nursery which regarded conifers as one of its specialisms and the decline in sales from the early 90’s onward was inexorable. We did try and maintain interest by seeking out conifers that were in some way different from what had been widely available before then and built up a range of rarities, mostly dwarf forms and species, that combined with the introduction of mail order, which extended our market countrywide, at least allowed us to keep them going.
The conifers I have in my garden now reflect those efforts, with one exception. I have four pines. Two are forms of Pinus parviflora, the Japanese white pine. One is called ‘San Bo’, the other has lost its label. This is one of the species that the Japanese like to use in their traditional gardens, usually constrained by quite drastic pruning. The trunk typically leans, often at quite a low angle and the branches are horizontal. The needles are in bundles of five, fairly short and fine, usually very glaucous. Male cones are produced in late spring in great abundance and are often bright red in colour. Female cones are frequently carried in clusters, even on young trees. Growth rate varies between varieties but on the garden forms is typically well under a foot a year. As well as growing well in a wide range of soils, they are well suited to growing in pots. My ‘San Bo’ has been pruned a bit, removing lead shoots back to well placed laterals so as to preserve its character while restricting its size.
One of the other pines is Pinus pumila ‘Saentis’, a close relative of P. parviflora and similar in character. It has been in the garden for many years and is now about 8 feet tall. Its lower branches were becoming rather sparsely furnished so I removed them all, creating a small tree effect. Growing only 3-4 inches a year, I have not felt the need to restrict its size.
The forth pine is Pinus koraiensis ‘Silver Ray’. I saw a picture of this in a book, growing as a neat narrow column and thought it would be perfect in my space restricted garden. Evidently the tree in the picture had been trained that way as mine is rather broader, in spite of my efforts to contain it. It has glaucous needles in fives, but much stouter and longer than P. parviflora.
Growing below ‘Saentis’ are two dwarf spruces, Picea omorika ‘Piccolo’ and Picea abies ‘Treblitsch’. It would be difficult to say anything about either without damning them with faint praise.
Sequoia sempervirens is the coast redwood, from California, which is generally held to be the world’s tallest tree. A form called ‘Adpressa’ is quite widely available, often sold as dwarf or slow growing, which it may be until it produces a proper leader. It is then capable of growing into a very large tree. Mine was bought as ‘Adpressa Nana’, which suggests it is a smaller form; it is not. Very similar to ‘Adpressa’, but definitely a distinct form, it doesn’t seem to exist as far as conifer literature is concerned. Sequoia is at least one of the conifers that responds well to pruning, so it can be kept to a size appropriate for its location.
Taxus baccata ‘Standishii’ is a bright gold female clone of Irish Yew. Growing narrowly upright it sold well on the nursery for its architectural qualities. I think ours is about 25 years old, perhaps 10-12 feet tall. It has started to open out, especially in winter storms and I have run a couple of loops of wire round it to try and maintain its shape. It is not clippable because its branches are more or less vertical and what you see is a cylinder of branches and foliage with mostly empty space within.
The last conifer is Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Little Spire’, a name that drives a coach and horses through the trade descriptions act. It has congested foliage which makes it look like it would be slow growing but in fact does a foot a year or more. Nor is it any more spire like than many other Lawson’s cypress forms. I have tried raising its skirts a bit, but it doesn’t have a very attractive trunk and its upswept branches leave vertical holes in the greenery when removed. The only positive I can come up with is that the cats like climbing up it.
That’s eight in total. It has been many more in the past, we even had a leylandii hedge for a number of years. I’m slightly surprised it’s as many as it is. In the main though, I like them very much. They have a quality of unchanging permanence that other plants don’t have and which anchors some of the other planting in some intangible way. I have no immediate plans to either remove any of them nor to add to them.