Some people hate conifers. I find this difficult to understand. How can one feel so certain, so dogmatic about a significant proportion of the world’s flora? I personally approve of conifers and find them of great use. I even like leylandii (x Cupressocyparis leylandii). Grown as a specimen tree, it has stature and a certain conviction, and its ability to put on three feet a year makes it an obvious candidate for shelter belts. Of course, this very quality encourages its use in hedging with sometimes disastrous consequences, once the original owner loses enthusiasm for height control.

The problems of planting the wrong trees in the wrong places are not restricted to leylandii. As a practising politician, I always enjoyed June elections, when canvassing could so easily be combined with chats over the fence about the contents of the front garden. The 18in-tall blue cedar was a frequent case in point, as it did not appear to have occurred to the delighted new owner that a time would come when this great tree would take over, not only their garden, but dominate those of both neighbours as well. The Hybrid Tea roses were safer territory.

The provision of shelter and an awareness of soil characteristics should be first priorities when planning a new garden. Shelter belts don’t have to resemble a ‘thin green line’ as though inspired by a parade of guardsmen. A patterned approach incorporating hardwoods and large shrubs, can let some wind through and create a more interesting and diverse background. As a backdrop for spring flowering trees and shrubs, or autumn colour, conifers are unbeatable. At the other end of the scale, a visit to a nursery or garden centre will reveal the range of dwarf conifers now available for use in rockeries. I was impressed recently, when on a visit to one of Europe’s most renowned private gardens, to see small conifers used as shrubs, in areas of general planting. The lady owner told me she always includes up to a third of evergreens in her plantings, to give bulk and winter colour.

But what really gets me about conifers is their cones. The pendulous cones of Pseudotsuga guineri have a charming elegance enhanced by their upturned bracts that reminds me of a ballet dancer. Related to the Douglas fir from North America, this species came from north-east Mexico in the 1980s.

The slate-blue upright cones of Abies spectabilis, the Himalayan fir, deliver a much more macho performance. The cones grow to about six inches and have a compact solidity about them. Gathered in 1991 by the Edinburgh Makulu collection, this tree has a striking, well-turned-out look that commands attention.

Cedar cones are very different, being squat to almost round as though something rather heavy sat on a football. In the early 1980s, I was given several Picea purpurea, which I believe were grown from seed collected by the Chinese Academy of Forestry, and propagated here by Keith Rushforth. Then there is our Picea purpurea. This majestic spruce arrived here in a pot and has flourished, growing confidently to more than 30 feet and spreading enthusiastically. Its outer and upper branches have a distinguishing upturn at their ends.

As I write, it is covered by reddish-purple, young cones and male flowers. Abies fraseri also came to us in the early 1980s. A native of the American Appalachian mountains, it is fast growing and is increasingly being used as a Christmas tree. In my garden, its cones are a charming green, although they vary from green to purple within the species.

Mr Rushforth collected seed from Pinus armandii in Kunming, China, in 1980, and those he gave to me have powerful, pendulous cones merging with drooping leaves on trees that have grown extremely well on our Northamptonshire soil. There are conifers for every situation, but it is unwise to buy and plant one without the elementary precaution of anticipating what the ‘dear little thing’ will one day become. With such a range to choose from, if one type doesn’t suit, there is almost certainly something very similar in size or colour to use instead. Some research will have certain reward.

  • Michael Dennis Stagg

    Baron Heseltine likes Conifers, Him and Me too, and he still dealt with
    Stoke on Trent, which is hardly a decent forest, rigorously but then I
    see he is Welsh Guards as well, has to be a good guy … however CLA
    needs its butt kicked from personal experience with those comments Green
    Belt and my grandfather was a farmer, t’other an estates gardener, we
    taught and read ARICS standards to Design students. That was until
    Cadbury sacked head gardener grandfather after Cadbury’s wife verbally
    abused a servant of limited ability, these days would be disabled
    classified. I understand Green Belt to be stronger in Law than the other
    cases and after that they can roll Countryside Commission 1973 and 2013
    down the hill off Exmoor scree. Also National Parks officer connected
    and Black Mountains research experience. What do we pay and put up with
    this for, by now we should be better than US Forest and Parks, we
    listened to one lad trying to explain Boston, he received a pasting from
    some audience and Boston had big drought desiccation problems, could
    not see any conifers in the crisp crunching landscape of washed tree
    debris in freezing winter but the staff know it is happening. So I
    bought a book on US Conservation origins from their shop and another new
    urban landscapes to go with my Macey’s jacket. I stood in Hafren
    conifer with snow slipping off canopy, the only sound in a silent
    landscape, wonderful peace no lost Annapurna twits no falling daughters
    on Snowdon Ice in skid Kagool, no daft extremist Orange Order students
    defying staff on course in dangerous scree. Anybody belts Planning and
    working estates officers I tend to go for them, Pitbulls beware! Thanks
    Michael, Mike Stagg BSc Wales Hydrology soils MSc Senior Lecturer 1978