Michael Heseltine on conifers

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.