If you thought conifers were naff, think again says Charles Quest-Ritson, who joins the new wave of designers rediscovering the opportunities offered by spreading cedars, noble pines and mysterious swamp cypresses.
Many people — including some readers of Country Life — are resistant to the charms of conifers. This is regrettable, particularly at this time of year when they are so obviously alive and so many plants appear to be dead. In fact, it’s more than regrettable — it amounts to a horticultural sin of omission. Stately cedars, prehistoric ginkgos, mysterious swamp cypresses and sensational Wollemia nobilis: there is huge variety among conifers, so much that they cannot be lumped together and given a dismissive shrug.
Some people say Leyland cypresses have given conifers a bad reputation, but the real trouble is that Cuprocyparis leylandii is recommended as a quick-growing evergreen hedge, whereas it is far better planted as a specimen tree in a spacious setting. Vicky Tate of Lime Cross Nursery in East Sussex recommends, instead, Thuja occidentalis for hedging, especially more compact forms such as Brabant (AGM), densely leafy, with an upright shape. This tolerates hard pruning, which Cupressus and Chamaecyparis don’t.
Others lay the blame on those island beds composed entirely of dwarf conifers, fashionable in the 1970s. An early convert was Lady Anne Berry at Rosemoor, who turned her old tennis court into a mini-pinetum. Small conifers were beautiful, she said.
If massed plantings of dwarf conifers were rather a divisive innovation, polarising gardeners between those who loved the enormous variety of colour, shape and form they offered and others who considered them distinctly non-U, the fact remains that there are hundreds of slow-growing conifer cultivars. Almost every one of them is beautiful.
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‘Conifers,’ says Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter, ‘are unlike anything else in the garden — and it’s time we embraced their extraordinary qualities, exploring new ways of using them rather than turning up our noses.’
Vicky and her sister, Helen, whose father, Jonathan Tate, established Lime Cross as a wholesale producer of conifers for garden centres, are leaders in the field. Since Jona-than’s premature death in 2014, Vicky has exhibited at shows, locally, at Great Dixter, and further afield at the RHS Chatsworth Show. Last year, she and Helen won a Gold Medal at the RHS Hampton Court Show.
‘Cut back the bark and conifers re-emerge as living sculptures. No garden should be without one’
Now, the Tates have 24 acres at Lime Cross, where the soil is sand over Tunbridge Wells sandstone with clay below. Twenty years ago, their father planted a pinetum, still one of the best places to discover how conifers develop and how to combine them with other plants. The pH is ≤6, so rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias may be included in the sisters’ plantings, too. Lime Cross lists some 500 species and cultivars, of which about half are available in pots for instant effect.
Choosing the best for your purpose can be daunting, but, at Lime Cross, the plants are sold according to their ultimate height and shape. Spreaders include Juniperus horizontalis Blue Chip, J. conferta All Gold and Podocarpus Red Embers, with J. scopulorum Blue Arrow and Pinus sylvestris Spaans Slow Column among the columnar forms. For tall, narrow weepers, compare the merits of three forms of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis: Strict Weeper, Jubilee and Moonshot.
At Great Dixter, Fergus looks for plants with character, whether that be in their texture or colour. He planted Cryptomeria japonica Araucarioides in the Exotic Garden — ‘a zany, ungainly thing with scaly pipe-cleaners for branches and a peculiar whorled habit reaching for the sky’. The effect, he says, was to turn the atmosphere Jurassic.
Matthew Pottage, the youthful Curator of Wisley, is another fan. He looks for plants with interesting colours, textures and shapes, and finds these qualities in conifers, which, he says, ‘have their purpose in any garden’.
Alas, for the snootiness of older gardeners. The young have no such hang-ups and RHS shows have seen a renaissance of interest. Young designers such as Matt Keightley, Charlotte Harris and Hugo Bugg have found conifers invaluable in their award-winning gardens at Chelsea. In the right setting, they add real value and never look out of place.
The problem with the smaller conifers is that too many are planted — often in the wrong place — by people who are not interested in gardening. Moreover, owners do not notice when they began to look untidy. People are afraid of pruning them, but even mature ones may be given a bonsai makeover or a change of shape. Indeed, creative pruning opens up many possibilities. Thought, imagination and planning are invaluable, but, by cutting back to the trunk to make a feature of the bark, overgrown conifers re-emerge as living sculptures. No garden should be without one.
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