Garden Design

Using Conifers in Garden Design


Conifers are often used in foundation plantings and for screening purposes. However, there are two other ways to use conifers in your landscape—as a focal specimen and as a naturalistic grove.

Focal Specimen
The first step is finding the correct site from a design point of view. The purpose of the focal point is to lead the eye to a certain spot and have it linger a bit longer by enjoying the detailing—color, structure or texture—of the visual element.

Sometimes, you may decide to place the focal point somewhere between a beginning and an ending. For example, if you consider the entrance to the property and the house as one dimension, then placing the focal point one-third or two-third’s from that distance will often look good. Other factors, including existing trees or rocks all function as focal points even if you didn’t intend for them to be focal points, so be aware of these factors. You may want the focal point to lead the eye to another prominent element in the landscape like a sitting area or a swimming pool. A focal point can also create balance if one side of the view is heavy and you need something to bring some weight to the other side.

It is essential to know the sun or shade aspects of the potential site for the conifer. You may find the perfect tree visually, but if it wouldn’t grow well you will not be satisfied in the long-term. Also pay attention to the color of what is behind the focal point. Often you will want to contrast colors with the background; if the house is white, a deep green focal point will show up nicely.

Consider the garden’s theme—traditional, modern, Asian, sculptural, farmhouse, or naturalistic—in your choice. The theme of the landscape and the focal specimen should fit well together.

Finally, sometimes you may want to add a companion plant—a minor element to be planted nearby or even in the same bed. If the primary focal is deciduous, consider using a dwarf evergreen. Likewise if the focal is evergreen consider using a grass or some small deciduous plant. The idea is the eye brings together the relationship between the two and adds a level of complexity to the focal point.

Naturalistic Grove
Plants grow in communities and sometimes it looks great to have a community of the same plant at different ages and sizes. For example in nature, spruce trees tend to grow thickly together. If you wanted to create a sense of a naturalistic grove, you could plant three or more trees of the same type. This approach looks best if you can find trees of different ages or sizes or at least one of the three that is a different size. Plant far enough apart so that they are not crowded, but close enough that you see them all in one view.

Conifers can add color, texture and form all year long. Consider adding ornamental conifers either as a focal point or as a naturalistic grove to provide another level of interest to your landscape.

Featured photo – by J.C. Raulston Arboretum

John Monroe is the owner of Architectural Trees, a local nursery in Bahama that specializes in conifers, Japanese maples and other interesting plant material.