Diarmuid Gavin gardening... 40 shades of evergreen
Conifers may be somewhat out of fashion but they provide a backbone for any planting scheme
It was 1979 and I had three years left to go in school before I made decisions about what career awaited me. I'd always been garden orientated, fascinated by the developments at the front and back of houses on the road we'd moved into in the early years of that decade. Popular at the time were rockeries and dwarf conifers, miniature worlds being created with small plants - possibly a subliminal echo of where the residents of these concrete boxes would like to be living, somewhere much more rustic and naturalistic.
I was obsessed with any changes in the garden and a devotee to the style of the day. That Christmas I received a book called A Year-Round Garden by Adrian Bloom. It was about the makeover of a garden on a suburban street in England. In minute detail, it charted how Adrian put an advertisement in his local press looking for a garden, a blank canvas which he would change, and provide the plants, the equipment, the compost and the labour. He charted the initial development of the garden and how it grew, how it should be maintained and how it looked as it reached maturity.
Between this book and Percy Thrower's activities creating the BBC's Blue Peter garden, I was captivated. Within a few years I was travelling the roads of Dublin creating rockeries by the dozen, with my favourite garden book tucked underneath my arm.
I hang my head in shame recalling some of the abominations I made and can only hope they are long since gone. Some of the "dwarf" species, I'm sure, were no more dwarf than King Kong! But, I suppose, we all have to start from somewhere.
Conifers are not so trendy any more but are nonetheless part of the backbone - and occasionally the shining stars - of our planting palette.
And though conifers have come in and out of gardening fashion, almost four decades after A Year-Round Garden was published, for me it's telling that I still know exactly where to find it in my packed gardening library.
Below are my top 10 coniferous favourites. Some of these plants are suitable for planting in your own garden, while others are ones to watch out for on garden visits.
1 Common yew (Taxus baccata). Seen in grand homes and graveyards throughout the land, a great choice for formal hedging or topiary as it can be clipped quite hard, tolerates a variety of soils and will do well even in the shade. Like other evergreens, October is the perfect time to plant it.
2 Irish yew (Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'). This is an elegant upright form of this plant, forming a column-like tree.
3 Dwarf Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo pumilio). This is a lovely low-growing, bushy plant with dark green needles. Originating in the Alps, it would be good for a rock garden - plant in full sun in well-drained soil.
4 Juniperus 'Skyrocket' If you need a slim upright accent in the garden, try this plant. This Rocky Mountains' juniper will generally prefer sun and is an easy trouble-free plant.
5 Gingko biloba This is an unusual conifer that dates from the prehistoric era. It doesn't have the typical needle or scale-like foliage of most conifers - it has very unusual fan-shaped leaves that go a delicious buttery golden yellow in autumn. If you have room for one of these - they do grow large - choose a male variety as the female fruits stink!
6 Blue rug juniper (Juniperus horizontalis 'Wiltonii'). An evergreen conifer can provide excellent ground cover - try one of the prostrate creeping junipers, such as this one, which spread out close to the ground.
7 Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens Pyramidalis). The tall, pencil-shaped Italian cypress is a beautiful plant, evocative of Italianate and Mediterranean gardens. It's a very tempting plant but I would advise against buying one as it is prone to brewers droop, which is not a great look! So enjoy it on your continental holiday, but not for growing at home.
8 Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica glauca). For the big statement tree in a rolling landscape, it's hard to beat. There's a beautiful specimen of this cedar tree in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. It has lovely silvery-grey needles but it does need room to stretch out its branches.
9 Swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum). I'm definitely not recommending planting this in your back garden as it's a very large tree but do go and see it. Often planted by water, as its name suggests it loves swampy moist, positions. Look out for aerial roots at its base, called knees, that help it survive in drenched soil. It's a deciduous conifer, its needles turning a rich orange brown in late autumn, creating a great display.
10 California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Final mention must go to one of the most majestic trees in the world - and the tallest at up to 379ft! A natural wonder of the world to put on your list if you ever get to America's Pacific coast.
The few butterflies that are still around are having a feast from the pollen provided by the late summer flowers of Sedum spectabile. It is very easy to propagate and a real cheer-you-up plant!
This week in the garden:
Autumnal leaves are beginning to fall. Collect these and add to your compost heap.
It’s a great month for planting just about everything — bulbs, herbaceous, trees, roses, shrubs and hedges. Take a visit to your local garden centre and treat yourself to something you’ve always wanted.
Fed up with your lawn? It’s a good time to roll out new turf. Prepare ground well, removing all weeds and rake to a fine tilth, before laying new turf.
Lift gladioli corms before the winter frosts and place in a dry place. Clean off and store in trays.
Plant out spring cabbages and winter lettuces.