These beautiful conifers work wonders

Steven R. Lorton,  – August 7, 2004

Our favorite conifers

During the holidays, we tend to associate conifers with Christmas trees as we select the prettiest cut firs and spruces to decorate. But conifers are also beautiful landscape plants that serve many uses. You can plant them this month.

Conifers come in all sizes, textures, and colors ― dark and light greens, sparkling blues and golds, and even variegated color combinations. And they do many jobs in the garden. The deodar cedar stretches out its long, horizontal limbs to do a graceful hula each time a stiff breeze blows through them, adding motion to the garden; its cousin, weeping Atlas cedar, makes a sculptural accent above lower-growing plants. And leave it to ground-hugging junipers to sprawl happily over a hot, dry bank through a rainless summer.

Here we present thirteen of our favorite conifers that are listed according to their role in the garden. They represent just a fraction of the hundreds of conifer species, but this should give you an idea of what you can try in your own garden. Most are sold in 1-, 5-, and 15-gallon containers. All can take full sun and require regular water unless noted.


Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica’). Compact, bushy shrub to 8 feet tall with short, soft, gray-green needles. Needs protection from drying winds and strong, reflected sunlight. Little to moderate water once established. Sunset Western Garden Book climate zones A2, A3; 1-7, 14-17.

Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘Stricta’). A glistening, dark green column, 15 to 30 feet tall and 3 to 10 feet wide. Sun or shade. Zones A3; 3-9, 14-24.

Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). This dark green pillar reaches 60 feet when fully grown, 5 to 10 feet wide. C. s. ‘Glauca’ has blue-green needles. Zones 4-24; H1, H2. C. arizonica, a related species, grows to 40 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Zones 7-24. Both need little to moderate water once established.

Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii). Needs regular pruning to stay shapely. Can grow as much as 4 feet a year to 60 or 70 feet tall with a 15-foot spread. C. l. ‘Castlewellan’ has golden new growth. C. l. ‘Naylor’s Blue’ has grayish blue foliage. Zones 3b-24.


Hollywood juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Torulosa). This Western standby makes great garden sculpture, zigzagging its way up to 15 feet tall with dark, rugged-looking limbs and rich green foliage. Sun or light shade; low to moderate water once established. Zones 1-24; H1, H2.

Japanese cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’). Nearly as colorful as the regular species, but grows to only 30 or 40 feet tall (versus 100 feet). Zones 4-9, 14-24.

Mugho pine (Pinus mugo pumilio). Shrubby, symmetrical pine with deep green foliage. Grows slowly to 4 feet tall; good in rock gardens (with little to moderate water) and containers. Zones A1, A3; 1-11, 14-24.

Shore pine (Pinus contorta contorta). A Western native, this pine grows relatively quickly to 20 to 35 feet tall and wide, with rich green needles. Nursery trees are pyramidal (along the coast, trees are often contorted by winds). Equally useful in groups as an informal screen or singly in a mixed shrub border. Zones A3; 4-9, 14-24; H1.

Weeping Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’). This handsome conifer arches up slightly and fountains down. Excellent for planting above walls or to spill over rocks. Moderate water once established. Zones 3b-10, 14-24.


Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’. A dense, slow-growing bush with soft, silvery blue-green foliage on reddish branches. To 8 feet tall. Zones A3; 2b-6,15-17.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’. Forms a vibrant golden cone with a mixture of scale and needle foliage. To 6 feet tall and wide. Zones A2, A3; 1-9, 15-17, 21-24; H1, H2.


Sargent weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’). Dark green needles cover arching branches (about 5 feet long) that spill down to the ground or, if planted atop a wall, even farther. T. c. ‘Gentsch White’ is smaller (to 2 feet) with white-tipped new growth. Sun or light shade. Zones A3; 2-7, 17.

Shore juniper (Juniperus conferta). Blue-green needles on multiple stems that cascade 3 to 4 feet; 1 foot tall. Sun or light shade; little to moderate water once established. Zones 3-9, 14-24; H1, H2.