Growing conifers

Ornamental conifers can solve many design dilemmas, no matter what the size or style of your garden

Conifers are extremely versatile and what they lack in flowers they make up for with a variety of forms, textures and colours. They not only provide the garden with a sense of stability, but being long-lived, become part of its framework. There are conifers for virtually any location and most climate zones. They are equally at home in traditional and contemporary gardens and fit into styles as diverse as ‘cottage’, Tuscan and Japanese.

Being good feature plants, they are valued for their sculptural qualities and can be clipped into hedging, trained into topiary forms and provide height without taking up space. They help lift the eye, thrive in containers and make excellent groundcovers.

Reasons to grow conifers

  1. Conifers provide interest throughout the year. Apart from green, they come in grey and even a particularly pleasing blue-grey and gold; some are variegated, giving a refreshing two-tone effect. In winter, especially in cold regions, they are even more eye-catching as their colours intensify and even change; some turn bronze and others take on a purple haze.
  2. Their shapes and sizes cover a whole spectrum of needs. Some are tall and slender; others cascade or hug the ground. Many are cone-shaped becoming bulky with age, and then there are the pyramids and round balls.
  3. A further plus is their interesting foliage. On some it is needle-like but on others scale-like. It can be in upright fans, crinkled up or layered.
  4. Many produce ornamental seed pods; junipers on the other hand have berries used to flavour food and to produce gin.

Conifer shapes

Tips for planting and growing conifers

  • Conifers will grow successfully in most climatic regions and are frost hardy. The majority need full sun, but the greys and greens will take semi-shade. A good loamy, slightly acid soil is best. Ensure clay soils are free draining. Plant them at the same depth as in their container.
  • Enrich the soil when planting by adding compost, bonemeal and mulch. Feed with organic products as conifers are sensitive to chemicals. Feed containers every fortnight in the growing season.
  • As they can be grown from slips, always choose plants which show a similar growth habit when you need a matching pair.
  • Allow sufficient space so they are not cramped and don’t lose their shape; prevent nearby plants from scrambling over them.
  • Although conifers are relatively drought tolerant, regular watering is important, especially in dry areas. Some conifers are less drought tolerant, and unlike other plants which show signs of wilting immediately when they are stressed, they slowly desiccate and surprise you when they die.
  • Some conifers are fast growers; others are slow taking from 10-20 years to reach maturity. Sizes given here are an estimate at the age of 5-10 years.


Conifers are well-mannered, low-maintenance plants which tend to keep their shape. To keep them neat and compact, they can be lightly clipped and even ‘shaved’; confine this to the soft leafy growth as few will reshoot when cut back hard, especially into the branches or trunks. Many can be trained into topiary.
Conifer shapes