If there is one group of plants that I could not do without, it is conifers. Flowers, with all their pretty colours and exuberance, capture attention like a star actor in a small town. But in landscapes where winters dominate, gardeners need something else to admire when flowers are but a fleeting memory of warmer seasons long past. In come conifers.

Four seasons of appeal

For many people, the word ‘conifer’ conjures up images of uninspiring ‘pine trees’ often relegated to property boundaries as windscreens or privacy hedges, but conifers offer so much more than that. Because they retain their needled foliage (except for Larches), conifers are permanent features in the landscape providing visual interest throughout the year. And they are not just green. They come in palettes of rich emeralds, yellows and blues and display subtle hue variations and other unique attributes as seasons change. They shine in autumn gardens when brilliant reds and glowing ambers contrast exceptionally against their velvety, evergreen foliage and in winter, a dusting of snow shows off their form. In spring they show off their growing tips: those of ‘Moon Frost’ Canadian hemlock resemble delightful, frosty-white, buttons that eventually disappear, blending into existing, delicately arching, soft grey-green, foliage.

That same foliage is tinged with pink in winter. Other conifers, such as ‘Rheingold’ white cedar, transforms from golden yellow in spring to coppery bronze in fall. And it’s hard to resist the twisting, fanned foliage of Hinoki cypress or the striking purple cones on more tender conifer specimens such as the Silbirlocke Korean fir (Abies koreana ’Silberlocke’). Conifers are a delicious treat for the eyes.

Conifer uses

Needled evergreens are tough: most resist diseases and pests, can take on the heat and the cold and are typically drought tolerant once established. Their hardiness and extremely slow growth rate makes them ideal container candidates even for winter displays. And although most prefer a sunny site, others like yews and hemlocks will tolerate shade. There is a dizzying selection of conifers waiting to embellish your home’s facade and surrounding garden.

Not just pine trees

Conifers come in diverse shapes like upright, weeping, rounded, prostrate and even fancy topiary forms. Low-growing or prostrate conifers cover erosion-prone slopes better than most lawns while upright forms are useful as focal points or to frame entryways. Their sizes (from miniature to giant) and range of textures (fine and feathery to bold and prickly) are equally varied, offering plenty of options from a design point of view.

Dwarf conifers grow extremely slowly, remaining under 6 feet after 10 years. This makes them especially suitable for designing around a home’s foundation, but that doesn’t mean they won’t grow to a hefty size eventually, so careful consideration of the planting space, especially around windows and doorways, is essential.

Designing with conifers

Conifers make an excellent backdrop for most perennials and deciduous shrubs, but also look good mixed into garden borders on their own. I prefer combining them with deciduous shrubs and complementary perennials of contrasting shapes, textures or colours to enhance their best attributes. Blue spruces or junipers makes a bold autumn statement when paired with the tan, wispy foliage of ornamental grasses and a blazing, red burning bush or, for a harmonious blend, with the pink autumn flowers of Limelight hydrangea.

Weeping conifers such as weeping Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Frohburg’) or compact upright varieties like Swiss stone pine (‘Pinus Cembra’) are perfect accents for house corners where their distinctive beauty can be admired.

Winter care

Don’t forget to water newly planted conifers deeply until ground freezes to prevent excessive moisture loss over winter. Most mature evergreens are tough enough to endure some of winter’s worst weather, but you’ll need to wrap any newly planted upright or exposed evergreens no earlier than mid-November to shield them from winter’s drying winds.

Worthy investments

Conifers are more pricey than the average perennial, but their long-lasting beauty together with their hardiness and minimal maintenance make them worthy investments and, quite frankly, essential additions to any northern garden.

End of year sales abound in garden centres throughout the fall and there is still time to plant, so take advantage if you can. In another month or so when cold temperatures and diminished daylight hours have forced the foliage off deciduous trees and shrubs, and perennials have retreated into dormancy, landscapes without the permanent framework of conifers will start to look bleak.

Once you see how splendid conifers are, you may even find yourself transplanting treasured flowers to make room for them in your garden.

Elaine Sanders can be reached at www.solutionsjardins.com

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