Conifers can be very useful, long-lasting design elements in a garden.
They can sometimes be useful features as trees to provide year-round cover. They can be used in hedgerows on their own, or combined with deciduous options in mixed hedgerows.
Coniferous trees can also come in dwarf of ground growing varieties, which can be useful in mixed beds or borders, or in pots.
Why Grow Coniferous Trees?
These trees are useful because they usually keep their needles or thin leaves all year round, and not only improve the appearance of a winter garden but also provide shelter for a range of wildlife.
Choosing the right coniferous tree is important. Some grow extremely quickly while others are much more slow-growing. Some are neat and compact, while others can tend to take over and will outgrow a smaller garden.
Conifers can be good choices due to their density and the privacy they can afford. But it is important to think about the shade they will cast, and their impact on other plants grown nearby.
They can be excellent low maintenance garden plants, which often won’t require a lot of your care or effort.
Coniferous trees are those which bear cones. There are some fantastic (and some not quite so appealing) options to choose. Some fast-growing conifers like the notorious Leyland cypress are not the best choice for most gardens, and are often best avoided.
While many conifers work extremely well, even in container gardens and where space is tight, coniferous trees should always be chosen and positioned very carefully. Where conifers are incorporated correctly, they can be very appealing and grace your garden for many years to come.
So to help you make the right choice or choices for your garden, here are some conifers which are commonly grown here in Britain:
Cedar, Cedrus, are commonly grown in larger gardens and estates in the UK. Species within this genus are:
- Cedrus atlantica (Atlas Cedar)
- Cedrus brevifolia (Cyprus cedar)
- Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar)
- Cedrus Libani (Cedar of Lebanon)
These are majestic trees are typically grown as stand-alone specimen trees in larger gardens. But cedars can also be trained as bonsai, and can be grown in pots and shaped to give different effects.
Those above are ‘true cedars’. But other coniferous trees commonly grown in British gardens are also called cedars. For example:
- Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar)
- Thuja occidentalis (Northern white cedar/ eastern arborvitae)
- Juniperus virginiana (Red Cedar/ Eastern Red Cedar)
- Calocedrus decurrens (Incense Cedar)
Cypress is the common name for a range of coniferous trees or shrubs in the family Cupressaceae. Some cypress commonly grown on these shores include:
- Cupressus sempervirens (Mediterranean Cypress/ Italian cypress)
- Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress)
- Callitropsis nootkatensis (Nootka Cypress)
- Cupressus x leylandii (Leyland cypress, a hybrid of the two above)
- Cupressus arizonica var. glabra (Smooth Arizona cypress)
Cypress (especially Leyland cypress) are particularly common as hedging plants. But it is important to realise that while cypress can be very useful and hardy trees in certain settings, they grow very quickly, and very tall, and so are often not at all the best choice for smaller gardens.
That said, smaller shaped, topiary and bonsai cypresses can be grown in pots or containers even in the smallest garden.
Chamaecyparis are also common evergreen trees or hedging plants in UK gardens. These are known as ‘false cypresses’.
Common options for our climate include:
- Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Lawson cypress)
- Chamaecyparis obtusa (Japanese cypress)
- Chamaecyparis pisifera (Sawara cypress)
- Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic white cypress)
Many different cultivars of these coniferous trees are prized for their variety and are commonly used in horticulture.
3. Douglas Fir
The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is another common coniferous tree.
In spite of its common name it is not actually a fir at all. It is a conifer species in the Pinaceae or pine family.
Of course it is a common tree used for Christmas trees and in forestry plantations. But is also has ornamental appeal in large gardens and parks.
True firs (Abies) is a large genus of coniferous trees which offer many options.
Common firs grown here include:
- Abies alba (European silver fir)
- Abies balsamea (Hudson fir)
- Abies concolor (White fir)
- Abies fraseri (Fraser fir)
- Abies koreana (Korean fir)
- Abies nordmanniana (Caucasian fir)
- Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir)
- Abies procera (Noble fir)
This is another varied collection of coniferous trees which can make impressive full-sized trees, or be cultivated in pots, shaped, and kept much smaller.
Hemlock (Tsuga) is another genus of coniferous trees that can offer options for a garden in the UK. Some common choices include:
- Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock)
- Tsuga heterophylla (Western Hemlock)
- Tsuga mertensiana (Mountain hemlock)
Numerous cultivars are great in gardens. They can be slow-growing and attractive conifers for pots, beds or borders.
Junipers (Juniperus) are a wide range of coniferous trees and shrubs widely distributed across the Northern hemisphere.
UK gardens can choose from many, including:
- Juniperus communis (Common juniper) – a UK native
- Juniperus chinensis (Chinese juniper)
- Juniperus scopulorum (Rocky mountain juniper)
- Juniperus procumbens (Decumbent juniper (mat forming))
- Juniperus squamata (Flaky juniper (prostrate shrub))
The diverse growing habits of junipers make them extremely useful in many different settings and positions in a garden.
Larches (Larix) are a little different to most other conifers because they are not evergreen, but deciduous. They lose their needles in the winter.
Some larches to consider for gardens include:
- Larix decidua (European larch)
- Larix gmelinii (Dahurian larch)
- Larix kaempferi (Japanese larch)
- Pseudolarix amabilis (Golden Larch)
Larches in many different sizes, shapes, colours and forms are available for British gardens.
8. Monkey Puzzle Tree
This enormous evergreen tree is another common option for large gardens. It can grow truly monsterous in size, however, and so many not be a great choice where space is more limited.
Though a common sight in gardens, this tree is actually endangered by logging, overgrazing and forest fires in its native South American range.
It is known by the Latin name Araucaria araucana.
One interesting thing to note about this tree, commonly grown as an ornamental, is that it also can produce edible seeds (similar to very large pine nuts) which could mean that it has potential as a future food crop – in parts of the UK, for example, where other nut crops do not grow well.
Bear in mind though, that you will have to plant a male and a female. And these trees do not yield seeds until they are 30 or 40 years old.
Pines are another very important category of coniferous tree when considering which conifers to choose. Pines of note include:
- Pinus sylvestris (Scot’s pine – native to parts of Scotland)
- P. armandi (Chinese white pine)
- P. cembra (Arolla pine)
- P. coulteri (Coulter’s pine)
- P. densiflora (Japanese red pine)
- P. halepensis (the Aleppo pine)
- P. heldreichii (Bosnian pine)
- P. jeffreyi (Jeffrey’s pine)
- P. montezumae (Montezuma pine)
- P. mugo (the Mountain pine)
- P. nigra (European black pine)
- P. parviflora (Japanese white pine)
- P. patula (Mexican yellow pine)
- P. pinaster (Maritime pine)
- P. peuce (Macedonian pine)
- P. pumila (Siberian pine)
- P. radiata (Monterrey pine)
- P. strobus (Eastern white pine)
- P. thunbergii (Japanese black pine)
- P. wallachiana (Bhutan pine)
… and more.
Pines offer a lot of varied options if you are looking for coniferous trees for your garden.
There are also a lot of spruce (Picea) trees to consider when choosing coniferous trees. Some of the common options to consider include:
- Picea abies (Norway spruce)
- Picea asperata (Dragon spruce)
- Picea breweriana (Brewer’s spruce)
- Picea glauca (White spruce)
- Picea mariana (Black spruce)
- Picea omorika (Serbian spruce)
- Picea orientalis (Caucasian spruce)
- Picea pungens (Blue spruce)
- Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce)
Though there are also many other options to consider if you are looking for more usual conifers to place in your garden.
The European yew, Taxus baccata, is another coniferous tree to consider.
This is a native evergreen tree, which like so many other conifers on this list, can also be an option for hedging. There are several named cultivars to choose from.
These types of coniferous trees commonly grown in Britain should give you a good place to take inspiration when choosing conifers for your garden.
A permaculture garden designer, sustainability consultant and freelance writer, Elizabeth works as an advocate for positive change. She aims to inspire others to reconnect with nature and live in a more eco-friendly way. She also tries to practice what she preaches as she tends her own forest garden, polyculture beds and polytunnel. See her personal website here.