Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Celebrate Conifers

What do Aga stoves, Sub-Zero fridges and Bosch dishwashers have in common with conifers?

They’re all high end—and they all deliver.

Right now, many summer borders are going over the top in a proverbial riot of blooms. They could use a bit of stability, form and balance. So, in the face of frolicking flowers, let’s talk conifers.

This huge class of mostly evergreens should be at the top of gardeners’ must-have lists. Their importance is so vital that the Oregon Association of Nurseries has declared 2011 “The Year of the Conifer.” At the end of August, the Farwest Show, a wholesale exposition in Portland, will offer to the trade the largest grafted conifer display in the country.

No matter where you live, there’s a conifer that’s suitable (or native) to your location. And yet, if I suggest a nursery shopping spree, I’m sure you won’t say, “Oh boy, let’s go buy conifers.”

Allow me to change your mind about that. Conifers bring:

  • Stability. Yes, I’ve heard the complaint—“But they’re so boring.” However, that steadiness is exactly what madly blooming gardens require. Conifers frame fly-away flowers and provide a calming element. A caution: Their needles will go brown if smothered under nearby exuberant foliage.
  • Year-round interest. Like a good friend—there through life’s thick and thin times—these sturdy, often slow growers keep your yard going in all seasons. And many sport colorful foliage to brighten drab winter landscapes.
  • Fabulous forms. Conifers come in all shapes and sizes—rounded, pointed, pyramidal, upright, ground hugging. Most keep their contours with minimal pruning. Others open up and take on dramatic character as they grow.

Conifers’ garden-worthy qualities also contribute to the high end price tag. Why? It’s about time and effort.

In the Oregon growing fields of David Grotz’s Peace of Mind Nursery, every conifer, from tiny two-footers to towering Alaska spruce, has been in the ground for seven to ten years. Season after season, skilled workers walk the rows, hand pruning to direct the early development or picking out a particularly desirable form or color.

That’s a long wait for a crop.

But a good conifer is worth it.  Consider Pinus sylvestris ‘Green Penguin’ that will make its début at the Farwest Show. This slow-growing (2 to 3 inches a year) pyramidal Scotch pine, ‘Green Penguin’ features extreme cold tolerance (Zone 3) and no pruning needs. The propagator, J Farms of Amity, Oregon, charmingly describes it as having “a fat little broad base,” with “tufted juvenile growth surrounded by longer needles