Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why do we love to hate conifers?

What is it about conifers? Is it just that everyone overdid them back in the Seventies, and now we're all sick of the sight of the things? Has the world had one Leylandii hedge too many? Have we all inherited a monster that starves out everything within a square mile? Whatever the reason, mention the word 'conifer' to your average modern gardener and they'll look at you as if you just said a dirty word. This is a shame, because in my experience, conifers can be incredibly useful and reliable garden plants, not to mention tactile, drought-tolerant, aromatic and suitable for container-growing. In other words, they tick all the modern gardening boxes - yet we still hate them.
The plant that attracts the most attention and admiration in my garden is not a rose, or a canna, or a spectacular tree fern, but a pine tree. It's Pinus montezumae (the Montezuma pine, above and below), which boasts needles that are about eight inches long. Its nickname is the Shih Tsu tree, which must be because the ends of the branches, with their rosettes of new needles, look a bit like a small shaggy Shih Tsu dog, complete with topknot. When people see it, they tend to say: "I usually hate conifers, but ..."
The Montezuma pine comes from Mexico, so it can take heat and a certain amount of drought. It's a big tree, with an eventual height of 90ft, and it grows fast. But I have one in a pot, which has restricted its growth, and it's one of my favourite plants. It's impossible to walk past without stroking it, and one of the few consolations of the filthy weather we're having in the UK at the moment is that its piny fragrance is held captive in the moist air.
My Montezuma led me to look at other pines with fresh eyes (before, I'd just walked straight past the conifer section) and I discovered that Pinus strobus minima, a dwarf version of the American Eastern white pine, also does well in a pot and has become invaluable in my garden for providing textural contrast that lasts all year. These pines have soft shaggy needles which makes them very tactile, like a lot of small dogs in among the scented geraniums.
I find junipers invaluable too. They're also good in containers: look for the dwarf varieties and remember that the more prickly they are, the more drought-tolerant they'll be. Juniperus procumbens 'Nana' is hardly a rare plant, but it's one of my favourites. And I like the columnar ones, such as 'Stricta'. Just don't expect me to enthuse about anything whose name begins with Chamaecyparis. I'm afraid even I can't overcome my conifer prejudice when it comes to those.