Monday 18 July 2016

A case for conifers, a conifer showcase

Mainly about conifers and birds

Not only do conifers enhance your garden they support wildlife
Some gardeners seem to consider conifers as alien invaders that have no place in a garden and believe them to be ecologically inferior. They are wrong.

Chaffinch nest in pine

Regular readers will know that since Harry died I have been doing blogmeister Cathi’s garden. They also know that my most popular posts are based on her pictures of animals. I have now realised why she has so many. Her garden is not only a haven for wildlife with  grass, trees, water and flowers, she has plenty of conifers.
Little and Large - not at all very special and taken for granted
Each Spring this cypress undergoes a transformation
It suddenly dawned on me that the new growth on her conifers looked rather pretty. I took it it into my head that it would make an ‘easy post’ if I just took a few pictures. I wandered back to my own garden thinking of course I don't have many and found I had fifteen! There is so much more to say about conifers than just pretty pictures.

This ‘volunteer’ is my number fifteen - albeit yew is not strictly a conifer

Spot three more conifers
What is lurking under Cathi’s juniper?
Oh it's Spike
Most conifers are evergreen and provide an all year round structure to the garden. The word ‘ever green’ is wrong in that conifers provide the most fantastic range of dramatic foliage colours. Not, as some claim static, but ever changing from season to season as they make young foliage and those wonderful cones.
No other group of plants provides such a wide range of well defined and dramatic shapes.

Lovely new foliage on Cathi’s thuja
Male and female cones on pine
See through the cedar

Not all conifers are evergreen. This metasequoia will eventually be too large
The Maiden hair tree is slow growing and deciduous
Most conifers provide cover and shelter. In design terms they provide a ‘permanent structure’ to the garden. They make very fine focal points too! As windbreaks they are second to none - although personally I prefer individual specimens to screens. They do actually make very fine hedges and a wider range respond to tight clipping than you might imagine. Even the dreaded Leyland makes a wonderful hedge if clipped six times a year!

The overgrown ‘hedge’ of leyland cypress is actually across the road
Conifer’s achilles heal is that many grow too large for the small garden. With some you need to be ruthless. If they are becoming too big cut them down and plant some new ones! Some so called ‘dwarf conifers’ might when established grow a foot a year. Other conifers much more! 

Three years ago under the then overgrown hedge these were invisible suppressed little runts. Look at them now
If carefully selected there are plenty of genuine dwarf ones. No matter, most conifers make fine plants lasting many years before becoming too big. Some eventually tall ones such as Picea breweriana have you wishing they might grow faster. Mine has taken ten years to make an elegant statement only now.
I wish more gardeners took the view that if a plant gives you fantastic value for say fifteen years and has achieved Its ‘use by date’ then it becomes expendable. It is not a crime to chop down!
I have chopped down more than fifty overgrown conifers over the years and have organised the felling of very many more! I cut as cleanly as possible close to the ground. I have never dug one out.

Cathi’s contribution
I e-mailed Cathi begging a few ornithological pictures and telling her of my intention to promote the values of conifers for wildlife. She replied…

Sure! Lots of finches nest in conifers. Lots of birds eat the insects that live in the bark. 
Thrushes, blackbirds like yew berries. Even sparrows
Hawks and buzzards nest in some conifers. You will have a lot of pics of these birds anyway. I’ll have a look for others. Got some of Harry’s finch pics - somewhere!

Tawny owl
Blue tit
Thank you Cathi

Most gardens are ecolological hotspots of diversity. It is good to have a very wide range of plants that promote rich wildlife habitats for bees, butterflies, insects, amphibians and birds. Conifers make a valuable contribution.

Coniferous woodland
The tops of Cathi's pines are twenty foot high. The sparrow hawk likes to perch there
Conifers in Cathi’s adjacent small holding provides cover for corvids
Most research with regard to conifers and wildlife is carried out on dense woodland. Most woodland, whether deciduous
or coniferous, native or alien are valuable habitats but inferior to gardens in terms of diversity. Broadleaf forest has greater diversity than conifers.
But don’t damn coniferous forest. They provide a woodland home to very distinct residents. These include birds such as siskins, goldcrests, crested tit and crossbills. Raptors such as sparrowhawks and goshawks nest in conifers but prefer them in open woodlands or as individual specimens. They really like Cathi’s garden.
Many butterflies thrive and pupate in coniferous bark.

I wonder if the soft bark on my dawn redwood is suitable for butterfly pupation
Thank you Jim
Unashamed to gather information from knowledgable personal contacts I asked naturalist Jim. He is one of the Bolton Percy cemetery C team. By shear coincidence he lives in my old Bolton Percy home. Here is his e mail

Hi Roger - good to see you yesterday - I and my parents enjoyed looking around the cemetery on the Open day.

Re birds, 3 pics attached:

Goldcrest - the tiny resident bird with the yellow stripe on its head - conifers are more or less essential for it, and this year especially it has been commonly heard singing round the village with a very high pitched repetitive song.

Coal tit is another fan of Conifers, but not exclusively so

Crossbill - another conifer specialist with crossed mandibles for prizing cones apart (cheating here - the pic was taken in Austria) - although it's not really a garden bird. There's a chance you'll get the occasional one passing through if you have a few mature pines around.

Re conifers in gardens - In principle I would say in a mixed garden, conifers are great, as they provide relatively secure nesting and roosting sites, and do attract spiders which spin webs in the branches, so the birds feed on those.

As a monocrop they are not so good (in my opinion) as they block out all the light from the ground, so there's no ground flora, and they can trash the soil pH with their acidic needles. 
Hope this is of interest

When Cathi’s fantastic pictures came in I had a dilemma. What with Jim’s great contribution perhaps I ought to make a post about birds rather than gardens. Bird posts are very popular… and my own snaps are somewhat blurred. No matter, I will go ahead and celebrate wildlife, conifers and gardens.

I love Cathi’s blue cones
Peak throughout the picea
I wrote a series of posts about the fossil trees - all conifers
dawn redwood (and swamp cypress)
The cemetery c team and basal pruning of chamaecyparis


  1. I've been caught out with so called dwarf confers in the past. Re wildlife though - it's the large conifers that support wildlife and not everyone is fortunate to have a large enough to grow them. Then the ubiquitous Leylandii left to its own devices and grown along a garden boundary may provide a haven for some wildlife but can render a neighbouring garden incapable of cultivation by creating a dark, dry canvas.

    As with many plants it's case of growing in the right place ang our garden isn't the right place. Sorry!

  2. Don't be sorry Sue. I agree with most of what you say albeit there are a few exceptions.
    You could perhaps grow them as bonzais. Just kidding!

  3. When Steve and I first moved into this flat nearly 13 years ago, the small bathroom window was always in the shade because a huge conifere in one of the neighbouring gardens. It faces east and when the neigbhours decided the tree was really getting too tall, too big and too dangerous in stormy weather and had it cut down, we suddenly had a bathroom with lovely morning sun, same as the kitchen.
    The other neighbours still have plenty of pines and other coniferes which truly are, as you describe, a haven for birds. I am usually too slow with my camera, otherwise I'd have a whole range of birds pictures on my blog, and of squirrels (the reddish-brown variety native to my area, the south of Germany).
    I observe their seasonal changes and never find them boring, but I didn't know as much about them as I do now after your post.
    Thank you!

    1. When we moved into Boundary Cottage fifteen years ago the removal van could not get up the drive for a wretched Leyland Cypress. Indeed a dozen had to eventually go. You might have seen my earlier post about not removing tree stumps!

  4. Coming from Norway I do of course regard conifers as a natural part of any garden setting – although the huge Christmas type conifers are best left out in the forest. I like small dwarf conifers and those with interesting cones – especially if they are with nice colours. I am looking for a couple of (true) dwarf conifers for my Japanese inspired bed for next year’s plant purchase, still looking as I want a variety of colour and shape. I will never have a ‘coniferous forest’ in my tiny garden, but some form of conifers belongs here.
    Thanks for all the great info and lovey photos, thanks to all the contributors – a great post from you as always :-)

    1. A nice dwarf(ish)conifer is Picea albertiana conica. In my recent Aysgarth post there is a nice one in the first picture. It must have been planted 15years ago when the garden was restored.

  5. "Many butterflies thrive and pupate in coniferous bark"
    I've got a gap in my knowledge on this, so I can't say that you are wrong, just that I'm not sure that you are right! Which ones?

    1. You always get to incisive and sometimes embarrassing queries Sarah.
      When I was researching my post I had a lovely picture on the net of a butterfly that almost exclusively pupated in conifer bark. But can I find it now….!
      Actually insect pupation in bark is very common and if you do a google search for images you will find examples of insects pupating, overwintering as larvae or cocoons or depositing eggs in bark.
      I am awaiting an e mail from Cathi and will then give you an answer!
      Put the thriving bit down to poetic licence!

    2. Apologies for being a bit blunt, it's a bad trait of mine, I don't even know I'm doing it!
      Perhaps they were non UK species on google, that is entirely possible. But not the Red Admiral in the photo, that is just have a sit down!

    3. i have never heard the expression 'have a sit down' Sarah and guess it means 'a pretty but irrelevant illustration'' This would be true in this case - the pretty red admiral picture was taken by Cathi in her mixed conifer/everything else garden. I believe it is sometimes seen in woods!
      Sorry to confuse you and my readers that I think it pupates in conifer bark
      As a result of your query I will always now be looking in rough pine bark for evidence of butterfly pupation
      I have not heard from Cathi yet. Perhaps a reader will help me out?

      ps the picture I originally admired and can't now find was in an article about a walk in a Welsh wood!

    4. I think red admirals pupate in nettle levels. The caterpillars feed on nettles and often wrap,themselves in the leaves as protection. One good excuse for letting nettles grow as other butterflies feed off the leaves tool

    5. Thanks as ever for the information Sue
      But you won't persuade me to (voluntarily) grow nettles. It's not as if they were uncommon

    6. 'have' was a typo, it should have been 'having', as in 'he's just having a sit down' but I like your interpretation!
      Why don't we agree on 'many Lepidoptera'? Almost the same thing :-)

  6. We have a few conifers like you, I love them when they are growing up but rarely like the full grown versions once they "block" the sky but I quite agree that by then they have passed their sell by date and should make way for newer models. I am always telling people they should get rid of plants that are not performing well. We gardeners are just too soft hearted about plants, would you keep a pair of shoes that were worn out and full of holes?

    1. I think we are both on slightly dodgy ground Pauline felling trees without permissions! I just go ahead but then mine are not subject to any preservation orders and I have no neighbours to complain.
      I am sure that you agree that there are many mature trees in the landscape where it would be criminal - morally and legally - to chop them down

  7. Personally I blow hot and cold when it comes to conifers Roger, like many other plants they have had times of popularity or trendiness but have been less prominent in the last 30 years, some quite rightly so.
    The native woodland lobbies have always been quick to point out that coniferous forest does not support much in the way of insect life and therefore not much wildlife and in fact I have seen them described as "sterile". We know the relationship of conifers and wildlife, when mixed in with other plants in a garden, works differently but it is definitely not good PR for the poor old conifer.
    I have taken down a few in my garden over the years which have outgrown their position but will definitely have to get permission to remove my Cedrus atlantica glauca which has had the worst fungal infection ever this year causing massive needle drop to the point that areas of the tree are denuded which I will picture in my next post. One pet hate is the time of the year when my larches drop their needles, like those of the cedar they get everywhere including places in the house you would think they could never reach!


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