Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Golden Highlights using Conifers

Total plant lust - my new best friend 'Louie' Eastern white pine
Photo credit; Karl Gercens III

I’ve been busy planting a new border this week, which measures approx. 100’ x 50’. With a huge, dead (but beautiful) maple tree and a relocated cedar cabin as the dominant features I have been adding layers of trees and shrubs to create year round interest. I have been able to rescue assorted orphans from other parts of the garden so had an abundance of basic filler plants such as barberry ‘Rose glow’ (Berberis th.), daylilies and assorted Abelia. What I was lacking, however, were those key plants to catch your eye, around which I could build combinations. Being a large border (I was told it was larger than my friends entire New York apartment!), and often seen from a distance this is no place for wimps. I need some serious star quality. So as I walked around the nurseries today I just allowed my eye to roam until something grabbed me. It was the golden conifers which stood out amongst the sea of green, not just for their color but also because their foliage, whether needles or sprays, made such a vivid statement. Of course there are dozens to choose from and I daresay we all have our favorites but here are a few I have chosen (or are still on my “maybe I can squeeze it in” list).

Definitely huggable - 'Louie'
Eastern white pine

‘Louie’ Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus ‘Louie’ ) is a golden teddy bear of a pine tree. From a distance it positively smiles at you with its twinkling highlights on ultra-long soft needles. Grey skies only seem to make it shine brighter. Hardy to zone 3 this beauty will eventually make a nice pyramid 6-8’ tall in 10 years.

Golden Japanese Cedar has scale
like foliage held in flat sprays.
Photo credit; Briggs Nursery
Golden Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-Sugi’) is rather gawky as a youngster but a stunning teenager and mature adult. After a few years in container gardens I transplanted two into the garden where they seem to grow 10-12” per year, the new growth being a brighter shade of the soft buttery yellow for which it is known. This conifer does best protected from direct afternoon sun in my experience. Mature height is in the region of 30’.

'Skylands' spruce lights up the garden
Photo credit;  

It was my husband who picked out the golden oriental spruce ‘Skylands’ (Picea orientalis) for its cool purple cones! (Who was I to resist?) I have planted it where it will be seen against the dark green backdrop of mature cedar trees. The only disadvantage that I can see so far is that the cones are so heavy on the young plant that I have to stake the leader or it will droop. Slow growing to 10’h x 4’w in 10 years and hardy to zone 5.

Arborvitae 'Forever goldie' makes a color
splash with 'peach flambe' Heuchera
and assorted annuals.
My design

Many golden conifers scorch in full sun but Arborvitae ‘Forever Goldie’ (Thuja plicata) is scorch resistant and keeps its gorgeous golden tones year round. I have used young plants in large containers but have also just added one to my new border as a winter highlight. By planting red twig dogwoods nearby I hope to have the start of a nice looking vignette. How colorful this will look peeking out from the snow! This is most definitely not a dwarf conifer, since it has an ultimate height of 60-100’. However that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it in a container when it is small, or in my garden until the deer find it.

'Gold strike' juniper is said to do best with protection
from hot afternoon sun.
Photo credit; Iseli nursery

One of the neat things about being a garden writer is that I get invited to trial all sorts of fun plants. A few don’t make the cut but I love to share my findings with you when I come across a great new cultivar or introduction. Such is the case of the groundcover juniper ‘Gold strike’ (Juniperus horizontalis) by Iseli nursery. I brought a baby 4” plant home in my suitcase from Dallas last year, squished it into a corner of our vegetable garden and left it to its own devices. One year and minimal watering later is has doubled in size, glows like a beacon year round and has been ignored by insects and rodents. In other words it passes the ‘Karen test’ as being worthy of inclusion in my garden – and recommended for yours. The growers suggest a mature size of 6-8’ wide and 3-4’high; mine is just 10” wide and about 2” high…..

Companion planting – it’s easy to get carried away with purple and gold combinations so consider a few alternatives. 

Coral/orange tones look fabulous with gold e.g. ‘Oregon sunset’ kaffir lily (Schizostylis coccinea) or ‘Apricot sunrise’ hyssop (Agastache aurantiaca) perhaps bordered by the dark foliage of bugbane ‘Hillside black beauty’ (Cimifuga simplex syn. Actaea) for high contrast.

Bright red Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ resembles red fireworks against gold.
Blue and gold combinations are always winners – try rich blue Californian lilac (Ceanothus sp.) for a backdrop to golden groundcovers or a mass of the annual Victoria blue sage (Salvia) in front of upright conifers such as the arborvitae ‘Forever goldie’ (Thuja plicata) .

Now you have another excuse to go shopping – make the most of the end of season sales and buy a little bit of sunshine for the grey days ahead.


  1. Absolutely gorgeous post my friend. The containers were sumptuous and artfully detailed. Way to go!

  2. Thanks Christina - praise indeed from a fellow designer. Golden conifers are so much fun to work with in containers,being especially valuable in winter and fall designs to add a little sparkle.

  3. Oh how I love seeing more folks blogging about conifers!

  4. Edremsrola, I have gained a far greater appreciation of the value of conifers in the garden over the past 10 years. I think when we are shown how to use them it makes all the difference.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.