my top conifers for year-round garden beauty

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CONIFER, the “beautiful one” to your eye? I could only narrow my list down to 10, plant-mad person that I am, but with hints of the winter landscape in the cooler air, I’m thinking of just how important evergreens are. And not just to me. Coniferous trees and shrubs also provide important winter shelter for birds, and many small mammals depend on their seed, as do various bird species. Conifers’ value as nesting spots is another reason to plant more.

But you needn’t settle for some old generic spruce, or your basic white pine (both valuable in the right spot, especially in a larger landscape, but not quite choice enough to be my top choices for right here in my own backyard). When I make space for a conifer, I want something extra: maximum visual interest, not just its ecological assets. I want eye-catching color, from near-aqua to gold and every shade of green, and a diversity of textures and habits. I want conifers like these (links take you to full profiles of each plant):

10 great conifers for the home garden

Favorite Coniferous Trees

  • Golden hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’ (lacey, gold, and gorgeous)
  • Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata (the most asked-about plant in my garden, and very choice; bottom photo)
  • Concolor fir, Abies concolor (the bluest of all blues, nearly turquoise; above photo)
  • Weeping Alaska cedar, Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Pendula’ (maybe the most graceful of all)
  • Korean fir, Abies koreana (purple cones, no less!)
  • Lacebark pine, Pinus bungeana (mottled, camouflage-pattern bark on a long-needled pine)

Favorite Coniferous Shrubs

  • Russian arborvitae, Microbiota decussata (lacey texture and a groundcover habit in semi-shade)
  • Golden spreading yew, Taxus baccata ‘Repandens Aurea’ (gleaming gold spring through fall, and a sideways habit)
  • Dwarf white pine, Pinus strobus ‘Nana’ (white pines that don’t grow into trees, but rather a mounded, bonsai-like shape)
  • Prostrate Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Prostrata’ (great for groundcover in semi-shade, with yew-like texture)

plus:

As Andre reminds us in his doodle up top, conifers are not just for Christmas, right? (Andre Jordan’s doodle is just one of a rich stash in the archive on A Way to Garden. Root around in all the Andre doodles.)

32 comments
October 2, 2012

comments

  1. Susan says

    We planted a blue spruce at our old house. I went pass the other day and they had cut it down. They said pines make too much mess. Broke my heart.

  2. says

    Leyland Cypress because they grow so quickly and make a great privacy screen. My favorite …absolute favorite – Frazier Fir. Unfortunately, our location in North Carolina isn’t ideal for growing them.

  3. Karen Moran says

    About 20 years ago I planted three little Italian cypresses in each corner of my large backyard. They are now much higher than my two story house and have weathered hail, tornadic winds and a bagworm infestation. They are still gorgeous. Birds love to nest up high in them in the spring. They really help define the space and add architechture and color to the landscape year around. I listen to your Podcast on Robin Hood Radio and laughed when you were talking about trying to anticipate the growth of trees and scrubs. I did plant the cypresses too close together, but they still look nice and are healthy. Love listening to you!

  4. Chris says

    Serbian Spruce is on my list. We planted a “stick” about 10 years ago and it’s now about 10 foot tall with wonderful cascading branches. Gorgeous with snow.

  5. Marilyn says

    One of my new favorite conifers is the Korean arborvitae — low shrub/groundcover that handles some shade, with a gorgeous blue green color. Similar to your Russian one, but it keeps that blue green color all through the winter. Nice lacy texture. Looks great with Abelia Kaleidoscope in front, and purple Loropetalums behind to set off the blue green color. Zone 7B.

  6. Denise Dyko says

    On ‘nana-esque’ conifers: I’ve squeezed in a second Japanese umbrella pine after finding a short more shrub-like cultivar at Broken Arrow Nursery: Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Mitsch Select.’ I also have a cultivar of concolor Abies that is short: Abies concolor ‘Green Globe’ (which still has a blue cast to its needles, just not as blue as the species). After 18 years, it is not quite as tall as I am (5’6″) and it’s been shapely (with double leaders) since I brought it home. The only ‘small’ cultivar I had to remove after many years was Pinus strobus nana; apparently, it was ‘nana’ only in relation to what the straight species can do (although it did take many years to exceed my notion of ‘nana’). And my Pinus densiflora x thunbergii ‘Jane Kluis’ is beginning to threaten a path; I can barely see over it now (after 16 years; until I looked these up, I hadn’t realized how fast time has flown). My challenge in finding short conifers is finding those that still have a presence: shorter conifers that aren’t rock garden shrubs.

    Yesterday, I reached another conclusion about conifers (any plant in general, I’m sure): the most beautiful conifers are those that are well grown. I passed a single Canadian hemlock growing in a yard that was mostly lawn. It was beautiful, full and shapely, the tips of the branches arching up gracefully. It also had enough space to grow. I think there’s a lesson in that for me but I doubt I’ll learn it no matter how hard I try to give enough space to each plant in my small garden.

  7. Martha says

    I have a gorgeous golden hinoiki cypress that I was just wondering about how to trim, thank you for such timely info! On a related note-do you have any opinion on Save a Tree and their kelp infusion for “arbor scout patrol”? My property (1.3 acres) is surrounded by decent sized evergreens for privacy. There is a mix of types (hemlock-not doing well, Norway spruce-happy when they get enough sun, etc) and many are looking rather sad. Especially the hemlocks. Anyhow, save a tree quoted me a crazy price ($335 x 7) to inject their kelp infusion to try and enrich my soil. We are in Fairfield county, CT. I feel like my trees need some help but $2100 blows the budget. They also quoted me $300+ to spray some anti desiccant on a few boxwoods – which I am thinking I will buy some horticultural oil and have my lawn guy spray it on instead-can you recommend a product? Thanks a ton!

    • says

      Hi, Martha. I don’t know about the infusion, sorry. Hort oil is not the same as anti-dessicant (the popular brand of the latter is Wilt-Pruf, I think). The anti-dessicant is like a waxy-seeming substance, not an oil.

  8. says

    I love the down-swept branches of my Canadian Hemlocks and the shelter they provide my birds. But the fragrance, color and form of my Blue Ice Cedars are at the top of my list.

  9. says

    Hi Margaret and thanks for the welcome. I’ve always felt our selection of evergreens was limited to some rather plain trees. I’m in the piedmont heading toward the coast. Our woods out back have leggy, scraggly pines. They aren’t very attractive, but I’m grateful for them in the winter months. I was actually searching Google for some ideas and landed here. I don’t know whether to invest time, energy and money into trees that aren’t 100% ideal for our climate or not. They are all so beautiful and I have the space.

  10. Elizabeth F says

    Hmm, my favorite. None. I am not an “evergreen fan”. I don’t like the way they do not provide shade, they take up a lot of space on the ground , make the soil too acid. I don’t mind looking at them in other peoples yards and in parks etc. They can naturally be quite lovely. We do have a small stand of mixed pines at the back of our property. They are OK and the birds like to shelter there.

    Our most recent house where we have been since 1993 was surrounded by arbor vitae that had totally grown out of control, pushing all other flowering shrubs to the side, overgrowing perennial flowers, and home to the despicable grackles. After 2 years of barely tolerating them I had a friend with a husband who owned a chain saw come an fell them all. All 8 of them. It was like the house was reborn.

    I also don’t like pruning evergreens. We have too many yew that just genetically want to keep expanding yet were planted in too small of a space. About half we finally had to dig out, no easy task. The rest need constant clipping. I do miss a very pretty pine that we had to cut down as it was planted around the light post or grew up around it, not sure. The people we bought the house from told us it was a mugo (sp?) pine. It was very pretty, had lovely candles but needed severe pruning every year to keep it from engulfing the post.

    I would say I like Frazier firs the best, blue spruce the least. We have had to cut down 2 huge blue spruce already and I think a 3rd will have to go as large chunks of it are dying out. My husband likes white pines and has planted a few. I am not enamored of the color (to yellow green) or the shape (too irregular) but they add a nice feather contrast to the darker conifers. We have a couple in the back where I mentioned the pine stand. My husband likes to plant trees that are native to the area so has been adding oaks here and there. Do they ever grow slowly…we are seeing our 1st acorns this year.

    Altogether I much prefer hard woods and flowering trees that leave fruit for the birds over the winter. We have a bad windstorm here in 2000 that took 1 of our apple trees (yellow delicious) and damaged the other apple and a maple and a Russian Olive. We nursed those on for awhile, but eventually they had to be removed and replaced. We had so many trees. I am in much worry over our 2 lovely huge ashes due to the invasion of the Emerald Ash borer…what a horror. The trees are majestic and I love to remember my daughter’s wedding reception in our yard last year with all the pretty tables arranged in their shade.

    We have quite a large property. I had to have our maples thinned out recently as worry about snow and ice. They are in their full colorful cover right now.

    • says

      Nice to “meet” you, Elizabeth. And I think I have had exactly the same result with blue spruce — remember when they sold it everywhere, and we all planted it? Now I would not. Hope to see you again soon with more good tales of plants.

  11. Liz G says

    I agree with Chris — Serbian Spruce. My neighbor planted three on our property line. They looked so beautiful with snow, I planted another three along that same property line. And now another one in the back…Everything an evergreen should look like!

  12. says

    We have a big old Japanese Yew in our backyard – at least 15′ tall. It’s pretty ugly, and I would have taken it out but it is our only evergreen shrub and I am sensitive to the bird issues you mentioned. Plus, I can’t think of another evergreen that I would like any better. I’m tempted by the dwarf white pine, but this is a spot by our back fence so probably need a more upright habit. Also, not sure if there is enough sun.

  13. Steve Auerbach says

    Margaret, I love conifers too, for what they give me all year, especially the ones with character. I just splurged on a Cedrus deodora “Snow Sprite” and had to move several other things just to find enough room for what I hope will be a focal point for many years. Other favorites, beside your great list, include “Thunderhead” Pine (whose candles I’ve halved to make more dense), Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (very slow, but as time goes by, wow!), Weeping Hemlock (had to battle Wooly Adelgid last year), Cryptomeria, and various other Chamaecyparis.

  14. Valerie Gillman says

    Abies pinsapo “Aurea”. I loved it since I first set eyes on one. Now that we’re in zone 6, I’m trying it.

  15. Valerie Gillman says

    How could I forget my baby Sciadopitys verticillata, ” Joe Kosey”
    I must stroke it when I’m near.Sorry, Joe!

  16. mikeinportc says

    I’d add ( to the top of my list) Golden Oriental Spruce ( Picea orientalis ‘Aurea’) and Grand Fir (Abies grandis). :)

  17. John Urban says

    We have 2 Serbian Spruce about 12′ tall. About 3 years ago the leader on both trees drooped to the side and never recovered. The 1st year that happened we pulled the leaders straight and left them suppported for 8 months. When we released them they were a little better, but that growing season they just took off to the side again. Now the leaders are almost horizontal. The first 4 years the trees were in the ground they grew staight and true. The leaders were never damaged. The branching on both trees seem strong and healthy. Any thought would sure be appreciated. Thanks

    • says

      Hi, John. It almost sounds as if someone (before you got them) had tried to train a branch as the leader — and the branches have it in their DNA, so to speak, to grow more sideways or weeping that upright. I would choose a candidate for a leader and stake it in place for some time to come. Fasten it loosely to a stake with twine.

  18. says

    I just returned from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands where a Norfolk Island Pine loomed over the house my family rented. A conifer seemed out of place among the yellow hibiscus, red bougainvillea, and purple jacaranda that blossomed nearby. (I always think of conifers living in northern latitudes.) Turns out that conifers evolved in the tropics about 248 million years ago, long before any of their blooming companions lived. This means that dinosaurs plodded through soggy, warm forests of conifers. But once those first flowering plants gained a foothold about 70 million years ago, they rapidly diversified and multiplied. With big, sunlight-capturing leaves instead of narrow needles, they outcompeted the conifers. The conifers (generally) retreated to colder zones where flowering trees didn’t do so well. Anyhow, the Norfolk Pine is a tropical holdout… sort of like that Japanese soldier who survived in the Philippines jungle for decades, thinking WWII was still on.

    • margaret says

      Hi, Ruth. Nice to “meet” you. Yes, and the monkey puzzle tree from Chile/Argentina is another that is visually startling, when you think of where it hailed from in nature. Latin America, Asia, and even parts of our desert Southwest have coniferous forests, I think — but like you I first think of them as covered with snow in a Christmas-y northern environment.

  19. Bill Plummer says

    I inherited several 100 year old white pines that are majestic. They develop so much character as they age and lose branches. I then saw a Serbian spruce 40 some years ago and it is magnificent. Nut hemlocks are my favorite confers, both the trees and the dwarf varieties especial Cole’s Prostrate.

  20. Carol says

    So many conifers I love–dwarf and standard ones. We have many Deodar Cedars at the place I work, and one is especially huge, old, and beautiful with a trunk that requires three people in order to reach around the trunk. In Central Georgia, not every Conifer does particularly well (Hemlocks, for example). Firs–no way! But I planted a Momi Fir (Abies firma) about eight years ago that is about 10-12 feet tall and beautifully shaped. Someone at a seminar gave me this plant in a three gallon pot. I adore this thing (maybe because I have never seen a Fir grow in this climate).

  21. says

    It is amazing how there are so many beautiful varieties of gold, blue and green conifers that can add immediate interest to the landscape. Being a true conifer lover… some of my favorites are ‘Skylands’ Golden Oriental Spruce, Golden Hinoki Cypress, Globe Montgomery Blue Spruce, Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar and Weeping Norway Spruce. They are all beautiful and I just can’t get enough! Thank you for highlighting these wonderful additions to the landscape.

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