Conifers FAQs

I have a prostrate silver fir which has suddenly grown a vertical shoot right in the middle. Should I cut it out or leave it?

This is a common problem with prostrate conifers, especially varieties of the silver fir (Abies). It is very important to remove the vertical shoot as early as possible. Cut it out with sharp secateurs at the point from which it arises on the horizontal stem. If it is left, more vertical growths will arise, until the plant has lost all its character.

I bought some dwarf conifers from my local garden centre a few years ago but they do not seem to be staying very small. Can I prune them?

There is a difference, I’m afraid, between dwarf conifers and slow-growing conifers. Very few stay permanently small, although many will grow very slowly and so remain small for a fair while. Some can be clipped, rather than pruned, but you must never cut out the growing shoot. Those that will stand clipping include yews, junipers and cypresses; but never clip firs or spruces.

What is the best place in the garden for a bed of dwarf conifers and how should I go about preparing the soil for planting them?

Conifers do best in open situations with sun for at least part of the day. Do not put them under larger trees. Prepare the soil by adding plenty of organic matter and removing all perennial weeds. If you are to grow heathers (Calluna) with your conifers, the soil will need to be acid, so dig in peat.

I would like to plant a golden conifer as a specimen in the corner of the garden. Can you suggest a variety that will grow fairly quickly but not get too big?

There is no such thing as a conifer that will grow quickly and then stop. However, here are some suggestions. The golden form of the very popular Leyland cypress (X Cupressocyprais leyhndii ‘Castlewellan’) is quick-growing— but eventually it will lose its gold; the golden Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) is slower, but will still become fairly large eventually; the Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lanei’) is a stage slower again, eventually reaching about 9 m (30 ft); the variety CI ‘Stewartii’ is a good alternative, and ‘Winston Churchill’, a striking dense gold in colour, is even slower-growing.

Can you suggest a good prostrate conifer to disguise a manhole cover?

The junipers are best: the savin (Juniper sabina ‘Tamariscifolia’) is especially flat, while dwarf common juniper (J. communis ‘Hornibrookii’) runs along the ground at first, building up a little later. Two varieties of creeping juniper (J. horizontalis) hug the ground very closely: ‘Emerald

Spreader’, and ‘Glauca’ with its sea-green foliage.

Bear in mind, that you may have to lift the manhole cover occasionally. In particular if it is in a border I would suggest planting something a little more upright, such as one of the many varieties of Chinese juniper (J. chinensis; syn. J. x media), with branches arising at an angle of about 45 degrees from the ground. Access to the manhole will then be far easier.

I have a Lawson cypress whose branches are beginning to fall sideways, especially after they have been weighed down by snow. What can I do about it?

The first thing to do on winter mornings is to knock any snow off your conifer trees, so that it never has a chance to build up. You can also loop polypropylene twine loosely around the tree every 450-600 mm (18-24 in) to bring the branches closer to the trunk. I have seen plastic pea and bean netting, with a 150 mm (6 in) mesh, tied around a conifer to keep the branches in place. They will eventually grow through the netting and mask it. The problem is especially difficult if more than one main shoot has become established, so it is wise to cut out all but one of the rival leaders on young plants.

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