Conifers are wonderful plants — attractive, hardy, functional. They’re terrific additions to any garden or landscape. Really.

You may look around your neighborhood and laugh, seeing that 60-foot pine tree that dominates a neighbor’s front yard.

And therein lies the problem with conifers. We don’t know how to use them.

“People don’t like conifers because after 10 years they’re saying, why is it dying at the bottom, why are they brushing my windows, and so on,” says Richard L. Bitner, a writer, photographer and conifer expert who teaches at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens. “So we need to make better choices.”

A smart start is a good reference book. Bitner’s “Timber Press Pocket Guide to Conifers” (Timber Press, $19.95) is the right first step for anyone contemplating the use of conifers. It describes hundreds of them, which may surprise some people too.

“Part of the problem,” Bitner says, “is the availability. The local nurseries have been providing the same 10 conifers forever, regardless of where you live and where you’re trying to grow them. The same ones are everywhere. We have to do our homework and decide, yes, this plant is right for my garden. But then we have to ask the nursery people to get it for us.”

Conifers make great accent pieces in gardens — they come in all shapes and sizes and a variety of colors — and are a must for the well-landscaped lot. They can be shaped into hedges or topiaries. Dwarf varieties also work in containers or troughs, and new cultivars are coming along all the time.

As you ponder which conifer to buy, think ahead. You’re planting them for the long run, so you need to know their growth rate and ultimate size. Skip this part, and you end up with that out-of-scale 60-foot pine tree dwarfing everything else.

Another consideration: climate change.

“We need to plan for that,” Bitner says. “When we plant a conifer, we’re not going to move it next year. It’s not a salvia. It’s not something we’re going to shift around. Many conifers will live hundreds of years. I’m encouraging people not to plant a lot of spruces and firs these days because they’re from higher altitudes, cold areas.”

Once you know what you want, the rest is a breeze. Conifers aren’t difficult to plant or maintain.

“They’re fairly easy to grow, compared to a lot of herbaceous plants we try to grow,” Bitner says. “They’re not fussy about the soil, generally speaking, and they’re actually more versatile than many people think.”


Bitner weighs in on a few conifers:

Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa): With its fan-shaped foliage, this false cypress tolerates some shade. Some cultivars grow ¼ inch a year, some a foot a year. There are also golden and variegated varieties. Cultivated varieties grow 50 to 75 feet tall. Zones 5 to 8.

Golden thread-leaved false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera “Filifera Aurea”): It’s available in every nursery, Bitner says, “but people usually take the golden thread and shear it into a meatball.” Let it grow into its natural state, which is mounded, he says. Grows to 6 to 8 feet tall, and 15 feet wide. Zones 4 to 8.

Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica): The texture is what stands out on the Japanese cedar, which has more than 200 cultivars and can range from a dwarf to 160 feet. It tolerates some shade, and some varieties change color in the winter. Zone 5.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana): “I think it grows everywhere,” Bitner says. “It’s common and ubiquitous, and people don’t appreciate it enough because it grows along every roadside.” The point is, the Eastern red cedar is tough and can take heat and drought. Two things to be aware of: It changes color in the winter, and you shouldn’t dig one up from the wild. “You don’t know what you’re getting,” Bitner points out, “so you want a cultivar recommended by your nursery.” He says a wise choice would be the narrow and conical “Corcorcor,” which remains a rich green throughout the year. Mature, it reaches 20 to 50 feet. Zones 3 to 9.

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides): A deciduous conifer with ferny foliage, it gets wonderful fall color that varies from salmon to rust. The dawn redwood, which can grow 4 feet a year, tolerates very wet conditions. Once established, it can take dry conditions as well. It grows to 40 to 50 feet in cultivation. Zones 4 to 8.

Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum): A native deciduous tree with lacy foliage and good fall color. There are narrow forms available that are good for public landscapes, Bitner says. And there’s a cascading version that is spectacular. In cultivation, it can grow to 50 feet. Zones 4 to 11.

English yew (Taxus baccata): One tough conifer, it can live for centuries. It’s toxic to most hooved animals, except deer, which will eat it until it’s reduced to a stick. Bitner says it shouldn’t be used as a foundation planting because it’s high maintenance and needs to be trimmed often. The result: a chopped-up mess. Zones 6 to 8; the cultivar “Repandens” is hardy to Zone 5.