Growing Conifers: Four-Season Plants

Conifers are the most underrated plants in the landscape world! These versatile, low-maintenance plants come in an array of shapes other than the ubiquitous pyramid and in umpteen colors—yellows, blues, grays, and maroons. This essential guide covers selecting, growing, and designing with conifers, and includes an encyclopedia of scores of spectacular candidates for your garden.

  • Introduction: Four-season Plants, by R. William Thomas
  • Conifer Names, by R. William Thomas
  • What are Conifers?, by R. William Thomas
  • Selecting Conifers for Your Garden, by Kim Tripp
  • Using Conifers in Your Garden, by Kim Tripp
  • Conifers for Containers/Hedges, by R. William Thomas
  • Designing with Conifers, by R. William Thomas
  • Growing Conifers, by Susan F. Martin
  • Thirteen Top Conifer Pests & Pathogens, by R. William Thomas, Bruce Steward & Scott Aker
  • Encyclopedia of Conifers
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • For More Information
  • Nursery Sources
  • Contributors

Introduction: Four-Season Plants

by R. William Thomas

Conifers are the most underrated plants in the landscape world. For many people, a conifer is merely a Christmas tree or a blue spruce in the front yard. Landscape professionals fall in one of two camps in their regard for conifers: the staunch enthusiasts who tend to establish collections or the downright contemptuous who erroneously believe that designing with conifers is inherently difficult. This book is intended to persuade gardeners otherwise.

Conifers offer more than winter interest. They provide the garden with strong form, color and texture in every season. From towering trees to spreading shrubs and rambling ground covers, they come in an array of shapes?not just the ubiquitous pyramid. Colors include not only umpteen shades of green but also yellows, blues and, in winter, maroons. Some conifers retain one color throughout the year, while others change dramatically, with foliage going from brilliant yellow in the spring to green for the remainder of the year. Before their needles drop in autumn, deciduous conifers turn rich yellows and oranges. Conifer textures can be as bold as a ponderosa pine or as soft and fine as a shore juniper.

Conifers provide the garden with strong form, color and texture not just in the winter?but year-round.

Conifers provide the garden with strong form, color and texture not just in the winter?but year-round.

Correctly chosen and placed, conifers fit most definitions of "low maintenance." Established plants require little care and, unlike perennials, need no dividing or deadheading. And these versatile, four-season plants form the structure and backbone of our gardens. Conifers can divide space into garden rooms, block unattractive views and focus attention on specimen plants, sculptures or special vistas.

Conifers have interesting histories, too. At 2,000 to 4,000 years old, bristlecone pines and giant sequoias are among the world's oldest living plants. Dwarfed, 1,000-year-old eastern arborvitaes have been found growing on cliffs in Ontario, Canada. Dawn redwoods were thought to be long extinct until living plants were found in China in the 1940s. Fossils indicate that the species was once widespread throughout North America and Asia. Recent headlines announced the sensational discovery of not just a species, but a whole new genus?Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis)?only 100 miles from Sydney, Australia.

When designing your garden, think first of the four-season plants. They are the ones that will set the stage for every day of the year. Consult this handbook to help you identify, grow and design with conifers and to learn some of the best species available. Use conifers as major trees, hedges, shrubs and ground covers. Think of them as familiar, useful and attractive garden plants rather than simply as specimens for a collection. Mix them with perennials, use them as backgrounds for flowering trees and shrubs and plant them in containers for year-round interest. Plant them and the world will be a better place!

Scott Aker is Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Coordinator at the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington, DC.

Richard L. Bitner is a physician anesthesiologist and a teaching assistant in the Longwood Gardens Continuing Education Program, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Ronald O. Determann is the Fuqua Conservatory Superintendent at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Greg Grant is the Cherokee County Horticulturist for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. He is co-author of The Southern Heirloom Garden. He lives in Jacksonville, Texas.

Edward R. Hasselkus is Curator of the Longenecker Horticultural Gardens at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Pat Hayward is a sales and marketing representative for Iseli Nursery, Inc., in Boring, Oregon. She is a regular contributor to American Nurseryman and specializes in conifers for the West and Southwest.

June Hutson is Outdoor Project Coordinator for the Kemper Center Home Demonstration Gardens at Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, Missouri. Her previous position at the garden was Curator of the Temperate Conservatory, Rock Garden and Conifer Collection.

Jeff Lynch is Nursery Manager and a teaching assistant at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. He gardens in Landenberg, Pennsylvania.

Susan F. Martin has been Curator of Conifers at the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington, DC. since 1979. She is a founding member of the American Conifer Society and a former editor of its quarterly bulletin.

Elizabeth McClintock is Associate Editor of and regular contributor to Pacific Horticulture. Her books include An Annotated Checklist of Ornamental Plants of Coastal Southern California, An Annotated Checklist of Woody Ornamental Plants of California, Oregon and Washington, Supplement to Arizona Flora and Poisonous Plants of California. She lives in San Francisco, California.

Kathy Musial is Curator of Living Collections at The Huntington Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California. She has studied and collected conifers and other plants in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Taiwan.

Bruce Steward is a pest control research and marketing coordinator for the Bayer Corporation and formerly the Integrated Pest Management Coordinator at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

R. William Thomas is Education Division Manager at Longwood Gardens, where he teaches several classes on woody plants, including conifers. He is past president of the American Conifer Society and editor of Trees and Shrubs (Hearst Books, 1992).

Kim Tripp is the Director of The Botanic Garden of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and Associate for Research at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Previously, she was Curator of Conifers at the North Carolina State University Arboretum. She is co-author of The Year in Trees (Timber Press, 1995).

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