Rita Randolph is a nationally known garden writer and lecturer. She lives at her business home, Randolph’s Greenhouses in Jackson, Tenn., with husband Hamp, their 13-year-old lab-mix Ivy and equally old Venus the cat. randolphsgreenhouses.com.

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Creative Conifer Containers
by Rita Randolph       #Containers

This collection of small conifers is beautifully arranged in an oriental style. Small plants in tiny decorative containers can be grouped, stepped up  or rearranged until they need bigger pots.

This precious grafted conifer decorates a small area by a friend’s front door. A slow-growing, Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’, this plant should be a nice fixture for years to come.

When I was young, I didn’t have much patience for my father’s infatuation with rooting and growing conifers and various evergreens. I was more interested in faster-growing flowers and tropical foliage. Conifers and evergreens were simply too slow for me. But I took another look as my plant palette increased, and found small plants look simply darling in small pots. Then, as they grew larger, I could put them in a larger pot. Now after several years of collecting, many of my older plants decorate my yard.

What I love the most about using conifers and evergreens everywhere is that they always look great. They are just the thing for fall and winter plantings, and make a perfect evergreen backdrop to other plants year round. Often, when clustered together, evergreens and conifers create that “Alpine” look that is seemingly timeless.

Two Chinese hollies pruned into topiary forms in wooden boxes perfectly frame this bench near a private parking area.
One-gallon containers of Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, Euonymus ‘Blondy’ and Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ are combined with Helichrysum italicum ‘Icicles’ and Festuca glauca (sheep fescue) for an evergreen pot that lasts year round.

Juniperus chinensis ‘Plumosa Aurea’, golden Chinese juniper, is one of my favorite conifers. Its dynamic gold color is only eclipsed by its dense arching habit. It’s so structural and uniquely branched, I usually leave it alone in a container or use it for bonsai.

Many times a single specimen works best, especially under formal or contemporary settings. This weeping Atlas cedar has perfect lines and complements the architecture of this storefront.
Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' came to me in a 4 inch pot. Together with Juniperus horizontalis 'Mother Lode' and a little Juncus relative, Eleocharis 'Toe Tickler', they make a lovely small container.

A nursery bucket serves as an excellent liner for larger pots. The flexibility of the liner plus the air space between it and the container allows for freezing and thawing, and keeps your fragile containers from breaking. It also makes it easier to move the container around in the garden, by taking the liner and plant out of the pot, lightening your load.

Four large conifers fill this broken, leaky stone birdbath. The shallow growing space combined with rich compost and a gravel top-dressing make a perfect piece for this sidewalk entryway.

Whether I’m planning a garden or planting a pot, I usually choose the same method of combining plants. The main focus plant with some plants that are a little shorter and of a different color, or a backdrop behind the main plant, and others surrounding it with alternating shapes, textures and colors.

It’s a lot like choosing fabrics and pillow covers, or matching a necktie or scarf to your new suit. It’s all about creating a pleasing contrast. Never afraid of brilliant colors, I simply arrange them next to their counterpart, trying them on for size. If your combinations seem to say “NO,” then simply try something else. Many times I’ll take my plants for a walk, holding them up to each other to get results. It’s wonderfully satisfying when a couple of plants come together.

Choose conifers that are recommended for your area. An Alberta spruce or Colorado blue spruce may have limited use in the hot, sultry heat of the Southern states. Great plants, but you’d have to find a microclimate for them. Better or longer-lived choices might be Chamaecyparis spp. (false cypress), junipers, deodars and arborvitae. All of these come in slow-growing or dwarf forms that will prosper in a small setting longer, better suited for container gardening or small rock gardens. Faster or large-growing varieties need to be watched carefully, and moved into an open area to grow on before becoming too root bound or crowded.

Many conifer varieties boast bold foliage colors, some changing with the cooler winter weather, then greening up again the following spring. This change in hue can be used to full benefit when arranged with pansies or violas for a little flower power. Violas are my first choice because of their abundant blooms and dwarf habit. Perennial heucheras mix in well with their evergreen foliage of many hues, especially because they love the sharp drainage that a conifer mix should have. It’s all part of the same growing conditions that make these combinations work.

In the Southern states we are lucky enough to grow many of these evergreens in containers. The terra-cotta pot should not be used because of the possibility of breakage, but heavy, high-fired stoneware, concrete, epoxy resin, wooden crates and many other materials are perfect for year-round growing. Remember that anything can be a container.

If you choose a glazed stoneware container, it’s best to plan for a cold winter and insulate your pot. Bubble wrap works best, because it allows frozen water to expand, without breaking the container. Line the bubble wrap around the inside of the pot before adding potting soil. Always plan for drainage by placing a layer of pea gravel in the bottom. With the addition of “pot feet” you will better your chances that your container will not hold water and break out the bottom.

Another way to address putting conifers and evergreens into larger containers is to use a liner such as a plastic pot or a nursery bucket. This will also allow for expansion of root growth and freezing moisture as it swells in the winter months. A liner also helps if you decide to move your container. By lifting out a liner, you just reduced the overall weight considerably, making it easier to move. Liners come in handy if you want to take them to your local nursery to have them professionally planted for you.

Conifer planting mix should be rich with compost and very well drained. Conifers appreciate regular watering and a little bit of fertilizer during the growing season, but primarily don’t like wet feet, so gravel added to the mix ensures good drainage. Remember to water your conifers and evergreen containers in the winter months. Most of us forget that we need to water during this time, and heavy losses can be realized with a few hard freezes. The available water evaporates, leaving our designs high and dry.

After years of growing flowers and foliage of different kinds, I now find myself following in my father’s footsteps, rooting cuttings of conifers and evergreens, and keeping an eye out for nurseries that sell these smaller sizes. My acquired patience has turned into an all-out search, and I now understand the passion of many nursery men and women. We’re never done, there’s always something new to discover, and as they say … “So many plants, so little time.”

From State-by-State Gardening October 2009. Photos by Rita Randolph.


Posted: 01/16/13   RSS | Print


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