Gardening with Colorful Conifers

Gardening with Colorful Conifers

For some gardeners, a winter landscape is a blur of neutral colors highlighted with the dark green of conifers and sometimes the blue of the sky. But imagine another winter scene — with golds, yellows, and spring greens.

All conifers are not green, and with some careful plant selection your winter garden can be a very colorful place indeed. In winter, almost any color is welcome, but remember that these plants will be in the garden in summer, too, and must blend in with that summer garden's foliage and flowers.


A touch of blue spruce looks beautiful with the burgundy leaves of summer coral bells, smokebush, or purple-leaved euphorbia. A splash of gold falsecypress echoes the chartreuse flowers of lady's mantle and yellow coreopsis. Selections of gray-green junipers will tone down the saturated pinks and purples of summer perennials. Come winter, these woody plants will bridge the seasons, complementing both fall foliage and the new greens of spring.

Different needle textures also make a group of conifers more interesting, just as different leaf shapes add drama to a deciduous garden. Especially in winter, the stiff, sharp needles of spruce contrast strongly with the long, soft needles of pine. Short, prickly juniper needles balance the rounded sprays of arborvitae needles.


Spruce is probably the most familiar of the blue-needled conifers, but the more prosaic junipers should not be overlooked. There are many low-spreading junipers with a blue cast to the needles, like the well-known 'Blue Star', 'Blue Carpet' and 'Blue Chip'.

The abundant berries (which are actually compressed cones) of Blue Mountain juniper are a dazzling bright blue. All the blue-needled evergreens make a beautiful winter tableau when sited close to the red stems of redtwig dogwood.


Gold and rust are interesting accent colors that add a feeling of warmth to a chilly scene. Rheingold arborvitae, golden in summer, turns copper-rust in winter. The feathery texture of falsecypress conveys warmth, especially the golden-needled 'Filifera Aurea' and 'Plumosa Aurea Nana'. Not as tough as juniper or arborvitae, falsecypress must be carefully sited. It grows best in sandy, somewhat acidic soil with protection from drying winds.


There is even variation among the green-needled conifers. Bosnian pine is a bright spring green; Western arborvitae is olive; and the common yew is dark green. Many of these colorful conifers are in the Dwarf Conifer Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Imagine the contrast of powder blue Candicans white fir needles set next to those of the bright Green Candle mugo pine. It's hard to imagine a combination of flowers more pleasing than this.

Perched on a small hill with beds divided by grassy paths, the conifer garden is a vivid demonstration of how varied, colorful, and textural these plants can be. Nothing is in bloom, and yet the "evergreens" shine with startling brightness. In winter, the show is all theirs.