Think of traditional European or North American gardens and many people will think of conifers. These adaptable plants can provide a real contrast to many of the plants we commonly grow in Australia. In fact, there are several attractive species native to Australia, including the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla), the Port Jackson Pine (Callitris rhomboidea) and the Queensland Kauri (Agathis robusta).
The conical-shaped ‘Christmas trees’ are the most easily recognised conifers, but there are many others, offering a myriad of shapes and sizes, colours and foliage textures. They range in size from creeping groundcovers to towering giants like the Californian Redwoods.
Their ease of care has made them a favourite amongst designers and home gardeners. They make excellent long-living screening plants and hedges. The smaller, compact varieties are often used as feature plants in rockeries, garden beds and tubs.
In general conifers prefer cool conditions, but some varieties can be grown successfully in warmer climates – a trip to the Brisbane Botanical Gardens at Mt Coot-tha is a pleasant surprise to most conifer enthusiasts.
Conifers do not require excessive care in terms of maintenance and pest control. Most simply require the following: do not over water, provide plenty of compost/mulch to maintain a cool root system, and trim lightly, if at all, to maintain a neat appearance, unless you are using them for hedges, mazes, bonsai or topiary. Space them well apart, in warmer climates, to allow plenty of air movement and to prevent diseases.
Most suitable soils are rich loams, high in organic content, preferably acidic, and reasonably well drained (few conifers will take waterlogged soils, even for a short time). The foliage of conifers contains toxins which impair the growth of other plants underneath them (even weeds). The root system is usually shallow, fibrous and spreading.
Popular Conifers for the Home Gardener
Size(h x w)
Port Jackson Pine (Callitris rhomboidea)
5–10m x 2m
Column-shaped with dense green or blue foliage; hardy Australian native; fast-growing; excellent hedging and screening plant.
Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’)
12–20m x 10m
Tall, triangular shape with clumps of short blue needles; hardy but prefers moist, rich soil in cool areas.
Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
Pyramid shape with pendulous branches and grey-green needles; fast-growing; needs deep, moist soil; feature tree for large gardens.
Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)
10m x 8m
Narrow tree with flattened sprays of leathery leaves; many colours and forms, including dwarf varieties; hardy in well-drained soil; good for rockeries and tubs.
False Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa)
30cm-15m x 30cm-10m
Spreading, upward-curving branches; many forms and colours available, including dwarf varieties; needs well-drained soil.
Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica)
20m x 10m
Pyramid shape with dark green foliage which turns reddish-purple in winter; fast-growing needs moist, cool, sheltered position.
Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens var. stricta)
6-15m x 1m
Narrow column shape with mid-green foliage; likes warm, dry conditions; good formal vertical accent.
Irish Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’)
5m x 2m
Upright column shape with blue-green, dense foliage; hardy but prefers well-drained soil; good vertical accents
Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
1m x 3m
Prostrate, layering habit; blue-green foliage; hardy in most areas.
Blue Spruce (Picea pungens var. glauca)
5–12m x 5m
Pyramid shape with short whorls of bluish needles; prefers cool, rich soils; often used as living Christmas trees.
Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo)
5m x 3m
Spreading, twisted branches with dark green needles; hardy but slow-growing; good feature plant and bonsai subject.
Yellow Cypress (Thuja occidentalis)
15m x 5m
Flattened sprays of dark green leaves; tree and shrub forms available; prefers fertile, well-drained soil.
For additional advice refer to books and ask your local nursery or garden centre. Their knowledge of the local climate and conditions will greatly assist you in selecting the right conifers for your garden.
‘Growing Conifers’ by John Mason (Kangaroo Press)
Newly written and released, this book looks at the conifer group of plants from two points of view – temperate climates and subtropics. The author has considered the full range of Australian and overseas climates when producing this book. Abundant lists of plants are supplemented with colour photographs and plant descriptions.
Everything you may want to know about conifers is covered: how they are grown, how to propagate the plants, how to plant and train them into shapes, and how to use them in a garden design.
The book recently had its much publicised launch in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, surrounded by stunning conifers.
Order through www.acsbookshop.com