Garden Design Ideas With Conifers

Conifers have become a favourite of landscapers and gardeners alike due to the huge range of varieties that are available for ornamental purposes. All sorts of shapes, sizes, foliage textures and colours have been cultivated in order to provide design solutions for the innovative garden designer. The use of conifers as feature elements of a garden is a strategy that is often used very successfully.

They can be effectively incorporated into many differing styles of garden including the english traditional (sometimes consisting almost entirely of conifers), rockeries (dwarf and ground covers), to Japanese symbolic style gardens where a ragged and worn looking cupressus is in stark contrast to the serene and ordered nature of the garden. Conifers could also be incorporated effectively in informal or native bush gardens, depending on the species/cultivars chosen. There is a conifer for just about any situation in your garden.

Conifers come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes ranging from large trees to small prostrate ground covers, from rounded forms to upright conical shapes to sprawling types. The height of conifers varies from only 20cm or so for some of the creeping types to the giant Californian Redwoods, hundreds of feet tall.

Although conifers are not renowned for their vast array of colourful flowers, their foliage does come in a large range of colour shades and textures; and the great thing is that these can be used for affect all year round (unlike plants that flower for only a short time and then become another obscure green mass of leaf). Most conifers are cool climate plants and generally have a characteristic resinous fragrance. The majority are evergreens. The foliage of conifers can be short and spiky, or long and needle like. Colour variations range from greens, blue greys, golds & yellows, to purplish bronze and more. Colour may also vary according to the season, for example, new spring growth may be light green or golden yellow which turns darker with age, or the foliage of some might turn purplish or bronzish in colour during the cooler months.

A well planned conifer bed can provide colour all year round. One trick is to use a variety of different coloured foliage plants and different shapes planted together so that they contrast one with another.  


  • Common uses for conifers in a park or garden include:
  • for hedging (both low and tall);
  • as topiary specimens;
  • stand alone specimen trees;
  • as part of a shrubbery, often as a contrast plant;
  • low growing or prostrate shrubs as ground covers or cascading down a slope, over rocks or a wall;
  • windbreaks - but be careful with planting distances as many conifers have a tendency to self prune (dropping their lower branches) if planted to close together, which makes them ineffective as a windbreak, as the wind gets funnelled beneath the plants near ground level;
  • as specimens in containers;
  • as 'Christmas Trees' with suitable varieties kept in containers and bought indoors for a short time during the christmas period;
  • dwarf varieties can be used as low borders along a pathway or to delineate a garden bed;
  • to frame a building or attractive view.

Other uses for Conifers
Conifers can also be used in a landscape design:

  • as a windbreak
  • as a visual barrier or screen
  • to reduce noise (i.e. on the edge of freeways, or if you have noisy neighbours)
  • to provide shade
  • to provide shelter for animals (e.g. stock on farms)
  • to stabilise the soil (i.e. prevent erosion, landslips)
  • to provide timber - many conifers are highly valued for this purpose
  • to control weed growth (eg. needles dropped by pines will discourage other plant growth)
  • a combination of two or more of these reasons   

Growing Conifers

Most conifers are easy to grow once established. They generally prefer cooler climates, though there are some which grow in warmer areas. The most important requirement for the majority of conifers is a suitable soil. Rich loams, high in organic content, preferably acidic, and moist, but reasonably well drained (few conifers will take waterlogged soils, even for a short time) are generally preferred. This is often best achieved in a raised bed which is either made as a rockery (where roots can get under the rocks to remain cool and moist), or a well mulched bed.

The height to which a particular species will grow can vary greatly depending on the conditions under which it is grown... climate, soil type and position.  Many conifers are slow growing and reduced watering and fertility can slow the young plant even more, producing an almost dwarfed compact plant. Ideally always water conifers from underneath, wet foliage and direct sun can sometimes result in burning.  

The foliage of many conifers contains toxins which impair the growth of other plants underneath them (even weeds). The root system is usually shallow, fibrous and spreading. Some of the larger conifers will have larger roots appear at ground level, making it difficult to mow (although grass will rarely grow there), or people could trip over them. Soils around conifers can be rapidly depleted of nutrients and moisture, again making it difficult for other plants to grow beneath a conifer's canopy.  

The lifespan of most conifers is usually long, often hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years.


What Conifer for what Landscape Use?

Columnar to narrowly conical
Abies pinsapo 'Pyramidalis'
Calocedrus decurrens
Cedrus atlantica 'Fastigiata'
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Alumni', 'Columnaris', 'Ellwoodii', 'Fletcheri', 'Pottenii', 'Wisselii'
C. nootkatensis 'Columnaris'
C. obtusa 'Cripsii'
Cupressus sempervirens 'Nitschke's Needle'
Gingko biloba
Juniperus chinensis 'Columnaris'
J. chinensis 'Spartan'
J. communis 'Compressa'
J. virginiana 'Pyramidalis', 'Skyrocket'
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Picea abies 'Cupressina'
P. omorika
Pinus sylvestris 'Fastigiata'
P. strobus 'Fastigiata'
Taxodium distichum
Taxus baccata 'Stricta', 'Fastigiata'
Thuja occidentalis 'Fastigiata', 'Nigra'

Cupressus sempervirens Swanes Golden

Thuja occidentalis Yellow Ribbon

Oval to rounded
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Minima Glauca'
C. obtusa 'Pygmaea'
Picea abies 'Nidiformis', 'Gregoryana', 'Pumila Nigra'
Pinus densiflora 'Umbraculifera'
P. mugo var. mughus
P. mugo var. pumilio
P. strobus 'Nana'
Thuja occidentalis 'Globosa', 'Woodwardi'
Tsuga canadensis 'Globosa'

Weeping or Drooping habit
Abies alba 'Pendula'
Cephalotaxus fortunei
Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula'
C. deodara 'Pendula'
C. libani 'Pendula'
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Pendula'
C. nootkatensis 'Pendula'
C. pisifera 'Nana'
Gingko biloba 'Pendula'
Juniperus communis 'Oblongo Pendula'
J. virginiana 'Pendula'
Larix decidua 'Pendula'
L. kaempferi 'Pendula'
Picea abies 'Pendula'
P. breweriana
P. pungens 'Pendula'
P. pungens 'Glauca Pendula'
Pinus strobus 'Pendula'
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Pendula'
Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Pendula'
Taxus baccata 'Dovastoniana', 'Dovastoniana Aureovariegata'

Red bark
Pinus densiflora, P. resinosa, P. sylvestris

Flaking, patchy bark
Pinus bungeana, P. sylvestris

Aromatic foliage
Abies amabilis, A. balsamea
Cedrus spp.
Chamaecyparis thyoides 'Andelyensis'
Juniperus spp.

Red/Bronze toned foliage during a particular time of year
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Pygmaea'
Cryptomeria japonica
Juniperus horizontalis
J. virginiana 'Repens'
Thuja occidentalis
T. orientalis 'Shirls Supreme'

Yellow toned foliage during a particular time of year or year round
Abies procera 'Aurea'
Cedrus atlantica 'Aurea'
C. deodara 'Aurea'
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Lane', 'Stewartii'
C. nootkatensis 'Aurea'
C. obtusa 'Aurea', 'Crippsii', 'Gracilis Aurea', 'Nana Aurea', 'Tetragona Aurea'
C. pisifera 'Aurea', 'Filifera Aurea', 'Plumosa Aurea'
Cupressus sempervirens 'Swanes Golden Pencil Pine'
Juniperus chinensis 'Pfitzeriana Aurea', 'Plumosa Aurea'
J. communis 'Depressa Aurea'
Picea abies 'Aurea'
P. orientalis 'Aurea'
Taxus baccata 'Adpresssa Aurea', 'Dovastoniana Aurea', 'Fastigiata Aurea', 'Washingtonii'
T. cuspidata 'Aurescens'
Thuja occidentalis 'Aurea', 'Rheingold'
T. orientalis 'Aurea Nana'
T. plicata 'Variegata'

Grey, silver or blue toned foliage during a particular time of year or year round
Abies concolor
A. lasiocarpa var. arizonica
A. pinsapo 'Glauca'
A. procera 'Glauca'
Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'
C. deodara
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Alumni', 'Columnaris', 'Ellwoodii', 'Fletcheri',
'Glauca Argentea', 'Minima Glauca', 'Silver Queen', 'Triomf van Boskoop'
C. pisifera 'Baby Blue', 'Boulevard', 'Squarrosa'
X Cupressocyparis leylandii 'Naylors Blue'
Juniperus chinensis 'Blaauw', 'Gray Owl', 'Hetzii', 'Pyramidalis'
J. communis 'Compressa', J. communis var. montana
J. horizontalis 'Blue Forest'
J. X media 'Shimpako'
J. scopulorum
J. squamata 'Meyeri'
J. virginiana 'Burkii', 'Glauca', 'Skyrocket'
Picea asperata 'Glauca'
P. glauca, P. glauca 'Echiniformis'
P. mariana 'Nana'
P. pungens 'Glauca'
Pinus pumila
P. parviflora 'Glauca'
P. sylvestris 'Watereri'
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Glauca'
Tsuga mertensiana 'Glauca'

White toned foliage during a particular time of year or year round
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Albovariegata'
C. obtusa 'Maresii'
C. pisifera 'Plumosa Argentea'
X Cupressocyparis leylandii 'Star Wars'
Juniperus chinensis 'Variegata'
Tsuga canadensis 'Albo-spica'
Thujopsis dolabrata 'Variegata'

Autumn coloured foliage
Gingko biloba
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Taxodium distichum

Conifers for moist to wet soils for short periods
Abies spp.
Chamaecyparis pisifera
Juniperus communis var. montana
Larix laricina
Metasequoia glyptostoboides *
Picea abies
P. glauca
P. jezoensis
P. mariana
P. sitchensis
Pinus strobus
Taxodium distichum *
Taxus canadensis
Thuja occidentalis

* tolerates longer periods of waterlogging

Conifers for sandy, dry to sterile soils
Abies cephalonica
A. concolor
A. homolepsis
Actinostrobus spp.
Callitris spp.
Cupressus macrocarpa
Juniperus communis
J. conferta
J. virginiana
J. horizontalis
Picea omorika
P. pungens
Pinus contorta
P. mugo
P. ponderosa
P. rigida
P. sylvestris
P. virginiana

Conifers that exhibit some hardiness to humidity
Agathis australis, A. palmerstonii, A. robusta
Araucaria araucana, A. bidwillii, A. columnaris, A. cunninghamii, A. heterophylla
Callitris collumellaris, C. macleayana
Cupressus arizonica, C. Bakeri, C. glabra 'Limelight'C. macrocarpa, C. sempervirens,
C. sempervirens 'Swanes Golden'
X Cupressocyparis 'Castlewellan Gold', X C. 'Naylors Blue'
J. conferta, J. communis var. compressa
Pinus canariensis, P. caribaea, P. merkusii, P. ornatum
Podocarpus elatus, P. gracilior, P. macrophyllus, P. polystachys, P. rumphii
Taxodium distichum, T. mucronatum (syn T. mexicanum)
Thuja orientalis 'Rosedalis', T. orientalis 'Zebrina' (syn T. orientalis Aurea)

Conifers for alkaline soils
Athrotaxus laxifolia
Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca'
Juniperus communis
J. sabina
Picea abies
Pinus leucodermis
P. mugo
P. nigra
Taxus baccata

Conifers for acid soils
Abies procera 'Glauca'
A. veitchii
Juniperus chinensis 'Pfitzeriana'
Picea sitchensis
Pinus cembra
P. mugo

Conifers for sea coastal planting
Agathis spp.
Callitris preissii
C. rhomboidea
Araucaria spp.
Cupressus macrocarpa
Cryptomeria japonica
Juniperus chinensis
J. communis
J. conferta
J. horizontalis
J. virginiana
Picea asperata
P. pungens
P. sitchensis
Pinus mugo
P. nigra
P. pinaster
P. rigida
P. radiata
P. sylvestris
P. thunbergii
Thuja occidentalis
T. orientalis

Shade tolerant conifers
Araucaria spp.
Callitris macleyana
Cephalotaxus spp.
Chamaecyparis spp.
X Cupressocyparis leylandii 'Naylors Blue'
Juniperus chinensis, J. chinensis 'Pfitzeriana'
J. horizontalis
J. sabina
Picea abies
P. orientalis
Taxus spp.
Thuja spp.
Thujopsis spp.
Tsuga spp., T. heterophylla

Conifers good for pot containers
Araucaria spp.
Actinostrobus spp.
Athrotaxus spp.
Agathis spp.

Best conifers for regular trimmed hedges under 2m
Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Plumosa'
Picea abies
Taxus baccata
T. X media

Best conifers for hedges between 1m - 2m
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Ellwoodii', 'Fletcheri'
C. obtusa 'Crippsii', 'Tetragona Aurea'
C. thyoides 'Andelyensis', 'Ericoides'
Juniperus communis 'Hibernica'
J. squamata 'Meyeri'
J. virginiana 'Burkii'
Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'
T. cuspidata 'Densa'
Thuja orientalis

Best conifers for hedges between 2m - 4m
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Alumni'
C. pisifera 'Plumosa', 'Squarrosa'
Juniperus chinensis
Picea abies
Pinus mugo
Taxus baccata
T. X media 'Hicksii'
Thuja occidentalis
T. orientalis 'Shirls Supreme'

Best conifers for border plants between 3m - 10m
Actinostrobus pyramidalis
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Alumni', 'Monumentalis', 'Silver Queen',
'Triomf van Boskoop'
C. pisifera 'Plumosa', 'Squarrosa'
Larix decidua
L. kaempferi
Picea abies
P. glauca
P. omorika
Pinus nigra
P. strobus
P. sylvestris
Pseudotsuga menziesii
Taxus baccata
T. cuspidata
Thuja occidentalis
T. plicata
Tsuga canadensis
T. heterophylla

Good wind break conifers
Callitris hugelii
Cupressus torulosa 'Arctic Green'
Larix decidua
Picea abies, P. glauca, P. pungens
Pinus mugo, P. nigra, P. strobus, P. sylvestris
Thuja occidentalis

Conifers as groundcovers
Juniperus communis 'Depressa', 'Hornbrookii', 'Repanda'
J. conferta 'Blue Pacific'
J. horizontalis 'Douglasii', 'Bar Harbor', 'Blue Forest', 'Plumosa'
J. procumbens 'Nana'
J. sabina 'Broadmore', 'Tamariscifolia'
J. virginiana 'Reptans'
Taxus baccata 'Repandens'
T. X media 'Wardii'

Best conifers tolerant of pollution to some degree
Abies concolor
Chamaecyparis spp.
Gingko biloba
Juniperus spp.
J. chinensis 'Pfitzeriana'
Larix kaempferi
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Picea breweriana, P. omorika, P. orientalis, P. pungens
Pinus densiflora, P. mugo, P. parviflora, P. sylvestris, P. wallichiana,
Pseudotsuga menziesii
Taxus baccata, T. cuspidata
Thuja spp.
Thujopsis dolabrata
Tsuga caroliniana
Taxodium distichum

# deciduous conifers are generally considered as good pollution sinks by taking pollution out of the air.

Bird attracting conifers
Juniperus spp.
Larix spp.
Picea spp.
Taxus spp.
Thuja spp.
Tsuga spp.


More from ACS