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Ben’s Botanics talks about the C word.

So many times people have asked me to recommend a plant that grows quickly to 6ft (2m) and then stops, is evergreen and has good foliage colour, is completely cold hardy, thrives in any soil and situation… oh and it must flower for a long time, a very long time!

Searching for the perfect plant is pointless because it will only lead you to disappointment. The best you can do is to open your mind to new possibilities and make your decision based more on a ‘best fit’ than precise requirements. It’s amazing how many gardeners are reluctant to waiver, preferring to seek the [often] impossible rather than consider the possibility of a compromise. I know this from my own experience selling plants; people would want, for example, a characterful low growing evergreen, or something to give a sense of structure to a border. I would show the customer(s) the range of plants available and take them to a plant that would fit the bill perfectly. Standing in front of, for this example, a beautiful Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’, I would tell the customer about its low habit, tidy growth and ease of maintenance, and the showy bright white new growth that covers the plant in spring, and recommend this as right plant that would fit their needs.

“But it’s a conifer”, they would say. I then have to reply with “Yes, but…” before repeating all the ways that this actually rather lovely plant would meet their needs. Some customers were eventually coaxed into shedding their inhibitions and allowing a well behaved conifer into the garden, but there were always the ones who flatly, plainly, and sometimes rudely, refused.

The very idea that a plant’s method of reproduction should be inherently offensive to any gardener mystifies me; some flowering plants are prolific self-seeders and can conquer a garden if not kept firmly in hand, and yet there is this strange sense that even these plants are more acceptable in our gardens than conifers. The fact that a plant doesn’t reproduce in a certain way is neither here nor there; it’s the plant’s character and traits that are important- does the plant do the job it needs to?

Abies koreana 'Silberlocke', a fantastic tree that just happens to produce cones.

Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’, a fantastic tree that just happens to produce cones.

I’m not saying that you should choose conifers if your heart is set on a flowering plant for a particular spot. No, what I’m saying here is that conifers should not and must not be ignored by gardeners just because they are conifers!

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Imbricata Pendula', a majestic evergreen tree!

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Imbricata Pendula’, a majestic evergreen tree!

Conifers are being used effectively as garden plants in the UK, but not widely enough; where conifers are seen at their best is in the gardens where gardeners have taken time to understand the nature and characters of a wide range of plants. The majestic Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Imbricata Pendula’ at RHS Rosemoor (pictured here) is a magnificent tree; long thin stems stream from weeping branches to give a fine effect, even though the tree itself is big. This is a ‘Lawson’s Cypress’. It’s a big tree. It’s green. It’s actually a valuable tree with immense character for a larger garden. While we’re talking about the ‘tree end’ of the conifers, why not talk about the ‘Dawn Redwood’ (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) with it’s fantastic autumn colour (and in the cultivar ‘Goldrush’ soft golden leaves), or even the popular-because-it’s-not-a-‘real’-conifer Gingko biloba?! These are large trees for large spaces, but are all worthy trees.

Gingko 'Saratoga', a fantastic deciduous tree!

Gingko ‘Saratoga’, a fantastic deciduous tree!

When it comes to shrubby conifers the Podocarpus are great! A single plant in a pot is a little uninspiring, but they are absolutely invaluable for adding their own texture to a garden, and come in a range of earthy colours that just aren’t seen in other garden plants. Most of the varieties in widespread cultivation are perfectly hardy, and yet their potential as worthwhile garden plants has yet to be realised. If a designer used a clipped mound of rusty red Podocarpus ‘Young Rusty’ to ‘anchor’ a border of airy perennials at Chelsea it would be a spectacle- something different and oh-so-achievable!

Podocarpus 'Young Rusty', a shrub with a distinctive metallic colour!

Podocarpus ‘Young Rusty’, a shrub with a distinctive metallic colour!

This just won’t happen, and it won’t happen because too many people turn their noses in disgust at conifers rather than taking time to evaluate them properly. Media hype about big growing conifers like ‘leylandii’ growing out of control and becoming a nuisance has destroyed the reputation of the rest of the group, and yet bamboos that outgrow their space and become a nuisance don’t have the same stigma. It’s become fashionable to hate conifers, and while this fashion persists gardeners will be robbed of a useful and versatile group of garden plants.

Find out more about our handsome contributor, Ben here!

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