Conifers are a great way to add structure to your garden with the added benefit that most are evergreen, which adds year round interest and is especially welcome on those dark winter days when many plants and shrubs are laid bare. Given the range of conifers available, there is bound to be a few that will suit your soil type and situation. Some conifers also make great hedges and wind breakers depending on your requirements.
These plants are generally very rugged and are all essentially a form of forest tree, although there are many dwarf varieties that will stay small and can grow over many years or even decades with little or no maintenance.
Selecting your Conifers
When choosing a conifer, the main consideration will be space as you will need to choose a growth rate and eventual size that is suitable for your garden. For this it is useful to understand the following terms used to describe conifers:
- Miniature conifers grow at around 2-2.5cm per year with a typical specimen being around 30cm (1ft) or less in height and up to twice that in width after about 10 years.
- Dwarf conifers can grow 2.5–15cm per year with a typical height of between 60 – 180cm (2-6ft) after 10 years.
- Intermediate Conifers (or medium sized conifers) can grow 15-30cm per year with most reaching between 180cm – 4.5m (6-15ft) at full maturity.
- Large Conifers can grow quite vigorously at 30cm per year with a majority reaching over 4.5m (15ft).
Once you know the growth rate and eventual size of the plant you are looking for, you can then look at the various textures and foliage colours of plants that fall within that range and see what best suits your planting scheme.
When to Plant Your Conifers
The ideal time is usually late October, early November or March, when the soil is neither waterlogged or frozen, but retaining enough moisture that they will happily work away without much intervention.
It is fine to plant during the summer months, particularly within our fairly damp climate, but be aware that on particularly hot or dry days you will need to keep on top of the watering for the first season.
How to plant
First you'll need to prepare the soil in the area you wish to plant – if the soil is heavy you may need to loosen it a little and dig in some organic matter like compost. If the soil is particularly light or sandy – again the addition of organic matter may help to bulk up the soil and retain some moisture.
Most conifers prefer a moist but free draining soil in a sunny position but there are some that are suitable for other conditions such as shaded areas and differing soil types so take this into consideration as you would with any plant you purchase.
Generally conifers will not need staking, however if you do buy a large, particularly tall conifer, it is worth adding a tree stake initially, just until the roots are established to prevent them being blown over.
As for the planting itself, this will be similar to most trees and shrubs. In general, you will need to dig a hole twice as wide as the pot you bought the plant in and as deep as the original pot.
Give the rootball a good soak in the pot prior to planting. It is often best to do this an hour before you intend to plant. Remove the plant from the pot and check for any bound roots. If the plant is at all root-bound then you will need to tease some of the roots out to encourage them to spread or they may just continue to wind around themselves.
At this stage it is worth placing a thin piece of wood or bamboo cane across the hole you intend to plant in, this will ensure that when you place the plant in the hole that the top of the rootball is level with the cane. You mustn't plant the conifer any lower than it was in the pot as this may cause stem rot and could damage or kill your plant.
Once you are satisfied with the position and level, you will then just need to back-fill, firm in gently with your heel and then give the plant a good soak.
Maintaining your conifers
Conifers are generally very low maintenance. You just need to ensure they are watered sufficiently for the first two years in particular, ensuring the soil is moist but not waterlogged. In the Irish climate this will usually mean that you only need to water through particularly hot or dry periods. If your conifer is in a container however these will need regular watering to prevent your conifers from drying out, this will include during dry periods in winter.
Most conifers will not require feeding but you can apply a general feed once in late winter for optimum performance. Those in containers, like many plants, will need a liquid feed from early spring to late summer.
Other than that, keep weeds away from young confers until they are established and they will always benefit from a mulch in late winter, being careful that the mulch isn't in contact with the stem as this can cause rot or fungal infection.
Follow these guidelines and your conifers should give you pleasure and structure in your garden for a lifetime!
Should you have any questions about conifers or what varieties are most suitable for your garden, be sure to ask one of our team.