Winter Dreams: Designing with Conifers

January Garden Advice

Red mustard and friends

Red mustard and friends

  • Smell the sweet citrus of witch hazel ‘Arnold Promise’; visit the Washington Park arboretum’s winter garden if you don’t have witch hazels of your own.
  • Plan vegetable cloche for February (buy seeds, if you haven’t already).
  • Build pea trellises for February.
  • Notice Giant Red Mustard flattened and darkened by frost, yet still edible (it will revive and return to normal later).
  • Survey the hard, green tips of the first bulbs emerging. Get hopeful. Very hopeful.


Designing with Conifers

Calocedrus decurrens ‘Berima Gold’ in the Coenosium Rock Garden at the South Seattle Community College.   A beautiful form of the incense cedar.

Calocedrus decurrens ‘Berima Gold’ in the Coenosium Rock Garden at the South Seattle Community College. A beautiful form of the incense cedar.

Color therapy

In winter, I appreciate evergreen trees because they keep working (just like us humans) while the rest of the garden has gone to sleep. No matter how cold or wet it gets outside, conifers provide year-round substance and texture – from perky pine needles to the hefty, scaled, sprays of a staghorn cedar. During these long winters, our eyes are drawn to the silvery yellow of ‘Berima Gold’ incense cedar or ‘Verdoni’ false cypress (photos at end of this post), or by the deep, golden yellow of the ‘Chief Joseph’ form of our native Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta var. latifolia (right).P.contortavarlatifolia-'Cheif-Joseph'500

Blues and blue-greens are another lively color palette that needled trees bring to the garden. I love to see the many ways people use the graceful form of the weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’).Westaftercloseup2-500 Pictured here is one I recently transplanted into the ground from a giant pot where it had lived for most of its life. I surrounded it with our native creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens), which has red-tinged growth in winter to contrast with the cedar’s blue foliage, and a low grass, Pennisetum ‘Hameln’, which turns beige in the winter. There are also a few blue oat grass and ‘Blue Rug’ junipers to tie in with the Atlas cedar’s blue foliage.

There are also great low-growing forms of the Deodar Cedar, such as the six-foot-wide-spreading, fluffy (yet prickly) Cedrus deodara ‘Feelin’ Blue’. I use it to cascade over low walls.

One of my favorite dwarf conifers is a clumpy form of Colorado Blue Spruce: Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom.’ It stays small because it only grows 1-2” a year. At that rate, it will be only eighty feet wide in 500 years!Picea-pungens-'St-Mary'-500


Problem solversCupressussemp'Totem'500

If your garden has an overabundance of evergreen rhododendrons or viburnums, conifers can provide vertical relief from vague masses of rounded shapes. Super narrow Cupressus sempervirens (Cypress) ‘Totem’, growing to 15’ tall by 18’’wide, is best in full sun. For roomier situations, Spanish fir (Picea pinsapo) has wonderfully rubbery-soft needles, and grows wider at the base like a traditional Christmas tree. P. pinsapo ‘Glauca’ is the bluish-needled form. It is as lovely as a flamingo dancer’s skirts!

For a shadier spot, Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Fastigiata,’ is a slow grower that reaches 4’ in 10 years. If it is a true yew that you want, try the Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata,’ the Irish yew. There are several good dwarf forms of yew that are narrow, such as ‘Amersfoort,’ and ‘Standishii’ (which is also golden). Sorry I don’t have photos of them all.

With conifers, you really get your money’s worth. They are long-lived, usually drought-tolerant, and can play the role of deep green backdrop or bright yellow focal point. If there is a hole in your garden due to the prolonged freeze we had this December, consider filling it with a hard-working, visually rewarding, and low-maintenance conifer.

Evergreen trees, which once blanketed the landscape from the Yukon to Sacramento, are the symbol and character of the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. To me, no garden is complete until it has some form of conifer, even if only a single dwarf pincushion of a tree like Pinus strobus ’Sea Urchin.’ But if I had the room, I would plant a grove of my most favorite conifer of all: the iconic Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’ grouping, close-up of foliage.  Photos by Deborah Horn, taken at Coenosium Rock Garden, Seattle, Washington.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’ grouping

Close-up of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni'

Close-up of Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’

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