Conifers: A Look At Garden Varieties


The name “Conifer” comes from Latin and means “to bear cones.” Although cones are a common feature with most conifers, junipers and yews are two exceptions with berry-like fruit. The best method of identifying a conifer is to look at the leaves. Conifers are mostly evergreen trees or shrubs with linear, needle-like or scale like leaves, though some such as Larch and Cypress drop their leaves in autumn. Among the Conifers are some of the smallest, largest, and oldest living woody plants known. The more than 500 Conifer species are distributed worldwide and are invaluable for their timber as well as being adaptable garden plants for year round interest.


The diversity of available conifers for the landscape is tremendous. Nurseries and plants people around the world are devoted to the discovery and introduction of new selections that vary in size, form, color, and texture. There has been special interest in the group of conifers classified as “Dwarf Conifers.” One definition of a Dwarf Conifer is one that for some reason fails to attain the size and stature of the parent plant.


From massive forest giants to minuscule mounds of elegant foliage, the appropriate size will depend on the landscape situation. The typical landscape today is limited in space, making size an important issue when choosing plants. The American Conifer Society has adopted, as a relative guide, the following four size categories for conifers.*

  • Category Growth/year at 10-15 years
  • Miniature Intermediate 6-12″ 6-15′
  • Large 12 + 15 +

* Size may vary due to cultural, climatic and regional factors.


The form most commonly associated with conifers is the familiar conical shape of Christmas trees, yet for the landscape, the range varies from the vertical form of tall columnar plants to the horizontal form of flat ground covers.

  • Globose: globe-like or rounded in general outline.
  • Pendulous: upright or mounding with varying degrees of weeping branches.
  • Narrow Upright: much taller than broad. Includes plants referred to as fastigiate, columnar, narrowly pyramidal or narrowly conical.
  • Broad Upright: includes all other upright plants which do not fit into categories 1-3.
  • Prostrate: ground-hugging, carpeting plants – without an inclination to grow upward.
  • Spreading: wider than tall,.
  • Irregular: erratic growth pattern.
  • Culturally Altered: pruned or trained into formal or imaginative shapes. High grafts and standards.


Garden conifers come in a rainbow of year round colors that can be used effectively with companion plants. Many are shades of green, yellow, orange, blue, lavender, or purple, while others are bicolor and have variegated foliage. with patterns of stripes, spots, and patches. Many go through seasonal color changes and provide interest in the winter landscape. In the spring lighter shades of new growth contrast against the darker older foliage. In some cases new growth is not just a lighter shade, but emerge as a bright yellow or red shade, but emerge as a bright yellow or red rivaling any floral display. Some even display two colors of needles. On others the cones and seed bearing fruits are brightly colored and decorative during certain seasons of the year.


The landscape uses are limited only by the imagination. The strong silhouette of many compact, slow-growing conifers can accent a corner of a garden bed, frame a doorway, or add winter interest to perennial and annual flower beds. Use them in foundation plantings, borders or island beds with other shrubs. Plant a mixture of different conifers, blending the various textures, shapes and colors, for a unique low-maintenance landscape statement. Use large specimens for expensive lawns, or miniature specimens to view up close in containers, troughs, or rock gardens. Don’t forget that conifers are also stalwart hedging and wind-break plants.


It is easy to say that the natural growth pattern of a normal of dwarf evergreen is a large part of its charm. When its charm gets out of hand by getting too large for its assigned space than either the wrong plant was selected or the proper pruning was not maintained. At this point the choice is pruning, moving, or removal, often removal is easier. Some evergreens can be severely pruned and others cannot.. In any event severe pruning will destroy the natural charm, although some evergreens can recover over time.

Easiest to control are Yews and Hemlocks. Both have abundant buds on both old and new wood that develop in twigs when the cut is above. Thus, they can be sheared heavily and not permanently harmed, so they can be used as hedges. The leaves tolerate some shade so they grow on the inside of the plant and hence the plant can be made dense by shearing or pruning. Pruning just before new spring growth allows the pruning cuts to be covered with new growth very rapidly to get away from the “just sheared look.”

Next easiest to control are the Firs, Cedars, Spruce, and Douglas Firs. These have easily identified buds along the current season’s growth and sometimes on the stem of the previous year’s growth. Size can be controlled at any time pruning back to a bud. For a formal shape, they can be pruned or sheared when the current season’s growth is soft. Their leaves are also somewhat shade tolerant so pruning or shearing has the potential for making a dense plant.

More care must be taken with Pines. When pruning Pines one must be aware of their lack of buds along the stem and that buds are only at the tip of current season’s growth. Thus, pruning at most times of the year must be done carefully or shape will be lost. The time to prune Pines is in the spring. When growth is soft a candle can be cut or pinched before the needles are fully elongated, and buds will develop from needle fascicles below the cut. Spring pruning or “candling” will produce a compact plant. By careful early spring pruning, one could almost maintained the size forever.

The group most difficult to prune and control their size are the Junipers, Arborvitae, and False cypress (Chamaecyparis). In this group, buds are present only where there are green leaves; a branch cut back to a non-leafy region will not form new foliage. Thus cutting or shearing to the brown inner part results in an unsightly scar that may not be covered for many years if ever. The naked or brown interior is the result of the fact that this groups foliage is intolerant for shade and therefore the interior leaves die. If they are sheared, it should be done with care and only when they are actively growing in the spring. This group of plants ends up being a thin “shell” of green growth over a zone of twigs and limbs with no leaves and no potential for development of buds. Care must be taken not to open this thin “shell” during pruning.

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