Conifers' bad reputation, caused by fast-growing Leylandii cypresses, and their dull image are unjustified, says plantsman Adrian Bloom, who believes conifers can add "essential ingredients" to a garden, as he launches his second edition of Gardening with Conifers.
Among the changes in the revised and expanded edition, 15 years after the original book, is a foreword by Michael A Dirr, author of Dirr's Hardy Trees & Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Bloom says conifers add something that other plants cannot. He has spent 45 years planting hundreds of conifers at his Foggy Bottom garden in Norfolk.
Leylandii are "entirely innocent" and have caused costly legal disputes "simply because people plant it in the wrong places and omit to trim it". Bloom says the "negative sides of conifers are no more prevalent than any other group of plants". The Anti-social Behaviour Act (2003) allows councils to take action when the height of a hedge is "adversely affecting the complainant's reasonable enjoyment of their property".
Bloom says any fast-growing tree such as eucalyptus, polar or willow must be "chosen and placed with care". His advice is to "consider before you buy, plan before you plant and always take heed of growth rates". He adds: "We expect any plant we purchase to grow but, whilst you can 'grow to like' your conifers, one of the long-standing concerns of gardeners is their plants may grow too much, or perhaps already have.
"It may seem strange to North American and even European horticulturists and gardeners that there has for decades been a media antipathy toward conifers in the UK. I have had a battle going on for years over the prejudice shown by some UK garden writers. I let Foggy Bottom be my case."
Unshowy conifers have experienced a decline in sales since their 1970s heyday, but Bloom says: "Far from being dull, to the observant this group can be awe-inspiring and magical." They vary greatly in size and colour and come in evergreen and deciduous varieties. Bloom has always advocated mixing conifers and heathers. Garden centres should try and sell year-round and mix a range of Award of Garden Merit, new and unusual conifers with other plants in displays, he suggests.
With many small garden owners not wanting to be overlooked, conifers are a good choice, he says. Leylandii alternatives include yew (Taxus baccata), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), Lawson's cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), Thuja plicata 'Atrovirens' and Thuja occidentalis 'Smaragd'.
Gardening with Conifers features the author's comprehensively revised directory of 600 conifers, up to and including the recently found Wollemia nobilis. It also covers size, hardiness and growth rates; site and soil preferences; planting, maintenance and propagation; pruning, pests and diseases; dwarf conifers and ground covers; and conifers in containers and moving conifers.
Bloom says: "Despite being revised by a Canadian publisher and expected to sell better in North America, the book is written by a British gardener primarily from the experience of gardening with conifers for over 50 years at my garden Foggy Bottom in Norfolk. There is an international perspective to this subject and for 30 or more years I have travelled, visited, lectured, designed and gardened in the US and many other countries." He adds that 2017 marks 50 years since he put the first plant in the ground at Foggy Bottom. There is an event on 9-10 September to celebrate.
The HTA's British Conifer Group highlights the plants' benefits in the garden and the landscape as well as their benefits to wildlife and the environment. The group also aims to keep the public, garden centres and gardening press informed and to promote new varieties. It says conifers can give a great splash of colour in autumn and winter, when most other plants are dormant. The conifer group garden centre promotional week has been held in late September/early October since 2005.
- National Conifer Week runs from 30 September to 7 October 2017.