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Pines and Needles: All About Conifers

Blue-leaved Juniper shrub with perennial Bluestar (Amsonia) in front. Both have a feathery texture but their different heights, shapes and colors still makes them a great pairing.

Cascading dwarf Deodar Cedar with a very dwarf Japanese Cedar and a well-placed stone. Conifers always seem to go well with stones…maybe it’s their finer foliage texture that plays well off of the rough, neutrally-colored rock.

Not all cones have to be big to be interesting (though those are fun too)! I like taking Hinoki Cypress cones and mixing them in with other conifer cones as a desktop decoration.

Dwarf conifers like this golden Hinoki Cypress pair well with small flowering shrubs for seasonal interest.

Not all needled evergreens are prickly! Foliage companions work very well with conifers since the focus is already on foliage year-round; here a dwarf Hinoki plays with perennial Lamb’s Ear, both of which are easy on the eyes and on the fingers.

A medley of miniature and dwarf conifers mixes well with annuals and perennials.

‘Soft Serve’ Falsecypress gives you the shape of, well, a soft-serve ice cream cone (now I’m hungry), soft foliage and a lovely shade of green that works well with the red leaves of barberry and other colorful shrubs.

Some conifers change color in the winter; several, like this Hinoki Cypress, turn “caramel” or “bronze” while others turn more gray-blue or purplish.

Weeping or unusually-shaped conifers always add character to a planting bed.

A compact Falsecypress anchors a flowing Japanese Forest Grass and Creeping Jenny. It’s a good combo to draw your eye and the two forms of yellow play well together and are kept from being overwhelming by the deep green of the evergreen.

Even flecks of variegation can make an impact; here’s a white-tipped Falsecypress that looks even better against a dark green background evergreen. Hollies, with their added bonus of flatter, glossy leaves, are great partners for this purpose.

Coppery-red young stems and purplish-toned foliage make up the winter color change in this dwarf Whitecedar.

The same variety of dwarf Whitecedar in another winter, this time a deep, deep plum-purple. Against the bright yellow Hinoki Cypress it makes even more of a statement.

Keeping container plantings interesting in winter can be challenging unless conifers and other evergreens are used; this big pot has all the right components – thriller, filler and spiller – and four of the six ingredients are conifers.

A wonderfully Asian-themed look, this large Japanese Cedar pairs well with clumping Bamboo and Japanese Maples, which are resplendent in fall color.

Three-color trio of blue Arizona Cypress, golden creeping Juniper and mounding dwarf Pine.

The gray-blue berries (well, they’re really cones, but we all call them berries because that’s what they look like) of Juniper play off the silvery Artemisia foliage; the blue-purple in the Blue Mistflower (Asters come in the same color), as a cool color, complements the palette well.

Miniature and fairy gardens lend themselves perfectly to miniature and very dwarf conifers.

A short, vigorous but well-behaved groundcover makes the little mounds of dwarf conifers all the more cute and harmonized, since with this spacing mulch between them would make things look a bit spartan.

Look ma, no flowers! (Well, ok, the groundcover has tiny flowers.)

Another perennial groundcover playing well with a dwarf conifer.

Another nice medley of dwarf conifers, groundcovers and perennials.

Conifers and perennials.

A mix of dwarf and compact conifers with a Hydrangea and a few perennials.

Mixed planter with conifers and dwarf shrubs.

Compact pine, creeping Juniper and, on the edge of the photo, a taller accent from a Blue Arizona Cypress.

Golden groundcover Juniper feathering its way into a perennial groundcover.

Gold, green and blue…a timeless combo.

Blue-gray dwarf Juniper with golden Sedum underneath.

The same blue-gray dwarf Juniper with a mix of other evergreens and perennials in full fall color.

A wider view of the previous photo, with the Junipers surrounded by a rainbow of perennials (and a few annuals) in fall color.

Two more groundcovers playing well together – creeping Juniper and golden Creeping Jenny.

A wide shot of the previous photo, with green groundcover Juniper separating the yellow-leaved shrubs and golden Creeping Jenny.

A mix of dwarf conifers.

Atlantic coast garden with several conifers that are sure to keep it colorful all year long.

Even just one large specimen plant can make a big statement when it’s blue, gold or an unexpected shape.

Another specimen plant making a statement in the front yard, a pendulous Blue Spruce. It’s dancing!

Appreciate the tiny! Here’s a miniature pine with a creeping Thyme in bloom.

Screening-sized plants don’t always have to be used in large hedges; here’s one Arborvitae surrounded by Hydrangea, Ninebark and creeping Juniper.

Shady areas don’t have to miss out on all the fun. Here Hosta and Azalea foliage work well with soft conifer foliage. False Arborvitae, Yews, Plum Yews and Hemlock all tolerate shade well.

The autumnal hues of this dwarf Arborvitae actually last all year, though they intensify in cooler weather. Green is a good way to tone that color down (or make it stand out more), but you can also go whole-hog and pair it with more orange-foliaged perennials or yellow- or red-leaved shrubs.

Another dwarf Arborvitae with colorful young growth.

One of the conifers that does well in shadier areas, a dwarf False Arborvitae.

[We stock many of the varieties mentioned/pictured here, but since we only tend to get restocked in spring, please call ahead if there is something specific you’re looking for; otherwise there’s sure to be a substitute that will suit your needs.]

I see conifers as the “red-headed stepchild” of gardens; why so few appreciate their myriad forms and interesting habits, colors and textures is beyond me. Ok, so they don’t flower and don’t produce pretty berries, but they make up for it in their own way: some change color with the seasons, their seed cones can be just as interesting as clusters of fruit, and their range of textures and colors provide a consistent palette to play other plants off of. For those of you who decorate for Christmas, their cut branches last well into winter in arrangements with wet floral foam and cool temperatures (here at the nursery, they’ve lasted through Valentine’s Day).

Just like many other shrubs and trees, conifers come in dwarf and compact forms; this doesn’t always mean they’ll stay small forever – it just means that they don’t get where they’re going very quickly. “Miniature” conifers only grow about 1” per year and “dwarf” conifers grow no more than 6” per year so, let’s face it, they’re not outgrowing their space anytime soon.

There are some options for shady sites, though honestly the vast majority of conifers grow best (and look their best) in at least 6 hours of direct summer sun. I always appreciate conifers the most when they’re mixed with non-conifers; it forces you to notice the change in texture and other nuances that I think are often overlooked or taken for granted. Of course, there’s always color: you put a bright yellow conifer next to a blue one and everyone’s going to notice. Add in a purple-leaved perennial or red-berried shrub and you’ve now got a riot of color on your hands that is going to last longer than any flowering annual can, and we all know annuals are very good at what they do.

“Variety is the spice of life,” the saying goes, and that’s definitely true of gardening. The more you can mix plants together, the more interesting it becomes. If you don’t like a chaotic look, just remember to plant in swaths (if using multiple smaller plants) and use repetition to tie everything together. What do you repeat? That’s up to you – it can be the exact same cultivar or it can just be a theme like leaf color, plant shape, or overall texture. Let’s look at some uses of conifers in various landscapes to see how we can use them and what some of our options are (there are way too many to list here)…

by Miri Talabac, Woody Plant Buyer

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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