Garden centres nationwide will be showing you how to create structure and texture with conifers during National Conifer Week. Hannah Stephenson reports.
Gardeners who love a riot of colour throughout the seasons may dismiss conifers as dull, boring specimens which add little to the glory of the garden.
Indeed, some of us will only really come into contact with a conifer in the form of a miniature type which we use to gain height in our summer or winter containers, surrounded by much more colourful bedding or shrubs to fill the pot.
Yet the conifer has a much wider use than the fill-in specimen in containers. It is also invaluable in beds and borders, providing structure, texture and colour when everything else has died down and looks stunning in winter when its foliage is whitened with frost or dusted with snow.
Conifers can work as a backdrop, standalone, or in a border with other plants, from making effective screening to creating the perfect background for flower borders or accents in rock gardens. They are extremely versatile, coming in an amazingly diverse range of shades, textures, shapes and sizes, says the Horticultural Trades Association, which has named the conifer its plant of the month for October.
Retailers will be creating inspiring displays of conifers during National Conifer Week (Sept 26-Oct 3), organised by the British Conifer Group, to encourage gardeners to make the most of these unsung year-round garden heroes.
They are low-maintenance, suit contemporary and traditional settings and provide all-year-round interest. They come into their own in the winter and early spring, when they are unchallenged by the green of deciduous shrubs and perennials, and come in shades of green, gold and brown.
Of course, the size of your garden will determine your choice of conifer. Generally, most conifers look best planted where their individual shape and colour can be enjoyed without competition from other show-stopping plants. Good plant partners include heathers, grasses, phormiums and dwarf hebes.
In formal settings, they can boast stunning architectural value - common box can easily be trimmed into balls and cones, Laurus nobilis (sweet bay) looks great used as a standard, while Taxus baccata (yew) is perfect for topiary. Buxus sempervirens (common box) is often used to create hedges around formal beds.
Some conifers that are columnar in shape are really useful in narrow spaces, creating an evergreen feature which rises out of lower planting. The dark green Irish yew, Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata', is perfect for creating an exclamation mark in planting because of its slender nature, rising out of ground cover such as ivy or periwinkle. Attractive red fruits stud the plant in the latter part of the year, while the column becomes slightly broader with age.
As winters have become milder, so Cupressus sempervirens has bloomed, its narrow structure conveying a Mediterranean atmosphere, ideally paired with silver-leaved plants in sunny, drier gardens. It also produces heavy cones which weigh down the branches, creating a more open, feathery appearance.
Large gardens can make the most of coniferous evergreen trees such as pines, with their spiky needles, or spruces, with bristling branches. The Austrian pine, Pinus nigra, is one of the most widely grown for landscape purposes, its large dense head of dark green foliage making a brilliant windbreak. It's also a great choice for inhospitable sites as it grows on almost any soil.
Conifers are low-maintenance. They need little pruning except for where green branches appear in trees with variegated or coloured foliage.
The biggest problem is that they can grow too large for their site. If you buy a dwarf conifer, be aware that in many cases it won't be dwarf but will be slow-growing. However, in time it will outgrow its space, although to some extent you may be able to keep it under control by trimming. If you can't, you may have to dig it out and start again.
A few conifers such as yew can be pruned hard and will regrow, but most won't regrow if you make the mistake of cutting back into old wood. Yet you can trim the foliage as you would a hedge, from spring to late summer, to leave a mossy green finish.
National Conifer Week runs from September 26 to October 3. For more information, visit conifers.org.uk
Best of he Bunch
Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata)
You won't find a more dramatic sight in autumn than a Boston ivy, also known as Japanese creeper, covering north, east or west-facing walls, as its large, deeply lobed green leaves turn spectacular shades of blood red and purple.
These self-clinging deciduous climbers love well-drained, fertile soil and grow in sun or shade, usually producing a crop of blue-black berries in late summer. When planting, ensure the stems are held securely against the wall with canes or lead-headed nails, to enable the tendrils to fix their pads firmly to the surface.
The stems tend to grow vertically, so it's worth spreading young stems out horizontally to cover a wider area. Boston ivy grows to a huge 20m, making it an ideal choice for really big walls. A more compact variety is 'Beverley Brook', which grows to 3m or 'Lowii', which is very slow growing, reaching 3m. A taller type, 'Veitchii', will provide excellent autumn hues.
Good Enough to Eat
Pruning fruit trees
Early autumn is a good time to prune fruit trees to prevent disease, which can become worse over the winter. With apple and pear trees, cut out any branches which are dead, diseased, or crossing over.
However, do not prune trees which bear stoned fruit such as plums, cherries or apricots, as this can cause disease rather than preventing it. To prune fruit trees, shorten the central shoots by a quarter and cut the sideshoots back to three buds to boost the chance of them changing into fruiting spurs.
- Clean barbecues, garden furniture and non-frost-resistant pots and store them for winter.
- Finish repotting winter-flowering arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica).
- Check ties of climbers and replace as necessary where the shoots are rubbing against supports.
- Mulch over areas that haven't been done and replenish those areas which have dispersed.
- Cut back dead or diseased branches of plum and cherry trees after picking. Paint saw cuts with wound paint.
- Clean water butts to prevent contamination of the water and blocked taps.
- Plant garlic outdoors in warm areas.
- After sowing a new lawn, keep off young grass as much as possible until spring.
- Sow seeds of pelargoniums in a frost-free greenhouse or conservatory.
- Start planting container-grown trees and shrubs in the garden once there has been enough rain to wet the soil thoroughly.
- Remove flowers from first year globe artichokes to allow roots to build up.