The bushy fir trees we so enthusiastically festooned with brightly coloured gewgaws just a few weeks ago now lie casually discarded on streets and at council dumps up and down the land. Out of fashion for decades now, conifers don't fare much better in our gardens, appearing either as monster Leylandii hedges or stunted dwarfs huddled and repetitive in island beds, with nothing much in between. But like other plants and styles of gardening that have fallen out of fashion only to rise phoenix-like from the ashes, conifers are ripe for reimagining. They're fabulously varied in colour, texture and form, from creeping ground huggers to soaring, swaggering pinnacles and everything in between, from dense and knobbly piceas to elegant pines, fringed with lustrous veils of needles. Some of them even change colour in autumn.
Over the past decade I've shot some notable gardens where conifers are valued as any other ingredient in the available plant palette, used amongst grasses, deciduous shrubs and herbaceous perennials, bringing a density of texture, or a light reflecting quality that few others can. Here are just a few of my favourite examples.
Fiona Chancellor's garden at Windy Ridge in Shropshire features a gorgeous gravel garden that's home to one of my favourite ever small trees, Larix decidua 'Puli'. And I don't mean this variety is a favourite of mine, I mean this particular tree in its particular setting. It's a modest, weeping larch, shaggy headed as a muppet, with soft needles and delicate colour changes that conjures up feelings of affection and attachment in me usually woken only by butterflies, dogs or very occasionally, people.
Over at Ellicar Garden in Nottinghamshire exuberant extrovert Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula' swirls and stretches for the sky. In her bold, expansive garden Sarah Murch teams all sorts of conifers including cypresses, pines and junipers with tall grasses, evergreen shrubs and coloured stemmed willows and cornuses creating painterly sepia-tinted pictures around a natural swimming pool. This giraffe of a cypress towers over its surroundings, laden with cascades of flattened, scaley foliage dotted with small spherical cones. Great texture and silhouette in the winter garden. Amongst a palette of plants inspired by the New Perennials movement conifers can look right at home and introduce structure and substance during the winter months when grasses and herbaceous perennials are reduced to dry papery skeletons.
Conifers can work wonderfully well in a formal setting too, like here at Exbury, where four Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica' frame a central sundial in place of the clipped yew or box that might be more often used. These naturally cone shaped spruces are dense and slow growing, don't need clipping and don't suffer from the dreaded box blight. What's not to like?
As well as coming in an extraordinary range of shapes and sizes conifers can also be trained. Yews are well known as ideal for topiary and hedging, but other conifers can be trained using techniques more often seen shaping deciduous shrubs and trees such as fruit and roses. At York Gate garden on the edge of Leeds there's an extraordinary Blue Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica var. glauca, trained into dense, tactile layers flattened tightly against the stone wall behind it. This is plant sculpture of the most satisfying kind, its texture, colour and three dimensionality intensified by the other bold plants that surround it, and the dark, deeply crimped yew hedge that looms behind.
So think outside the box and welcome a conifer or two into your garden, they're just evergreen (mostly) shrubs and trees after all and we could all do with more of those in our lives. See lots more in the conifer gallery.