How to grow conifers
Conifers come in all shapes and sizes from large specimen trees to cascading ground cover and fast growing hedging plants. Most are evergreen and add valuable structure and colour to the garden, especially on darker winter days. With such wide range of plants to choose from, there will be a conifer suitable for most soil types and situations, here’s all you will need to know to grow them successfully.
- Easy to grow
- Mostly evergreen, with a range of foliage colour
- Come in all sizes so will fit in any garden
- Great choice to make hedges when pruned
- Most are fully hardy
- Plant conifers in October and March
- Make new plants from cuttings or seeds
All you need to know
What is a conifer?
Conifers range in size from majestic specimen trees to spreading ground cover plants and miniature plants for rock gardens. Conifers produce cones; these cones vary from typical woody cones seen in the pines to the fleshy berry-like fruit of yew (Taxus).
Conifers are characterised by their foliage, which is either scale-like for example in pines or short, spiky and needle-like as in junipers. The foliage comes in various shades of green, gold, silver or blue and variegated combinations; some such as Cryptomeria japonica take on reddish hues in winter.
Most conifers are evergreen adding year round structure and colour to the garden, a few such as European larch (Larix) and the maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) are deciduous (lose their leaves in winter)
To get the right look here are some things to consider:
- Size and shape — eventual height and spread are prime considerations, conifers can range from minature plants of only 30cm (1ft) to towering specimens eventually reaching 100m (328ft) in height. As you’ll be buying a small plant that is less than its mature size, make sure you buy a conifer that won’t outgrow your space, block out too much light or cause a nuisance to neighbours. Do be aware that many plant labels state the size after 10 years so it can be worth seeking (such as in the RHS Find a Plant tool) for the eventual height to be sure it will fit in.
- Rate of growth — how long will it take the plant to reach the desired height and spread? This is particularly important when choosing conifers for hedging, fast growing plants will provide screening quickly but will need regular trimming to keep them in shape. Even many slow growing conifers can also become very large in time so bear in mind the ultimate height.
- Foliage colour — this can be various shades of green, blue and yellow, as well as variegated. Some plants such as Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ and Microbiota decussata take on red hues in winter. See our list of conifers for smaller gardens for suggestions with various foliage colours.
- Evergreen or deciduous? — the majority of conifers are evergreen, which is great for year round structure and privacy. There a few deciduous conifers, for example European larch (Larix) that will change in appearance across the year, marking the different seasons and creating renewed interest. See our list of deciduous conifers for more suggestions
- Hedges — conifers make good hedges, when choosing plants for a hedge take into account the rate of growth and eventual height to ensure plants don’t outgrow the space available. Conifer hedges especially fast growing cultivars need regular maintenance and won’t tolerate clipping into old wood. See our list of conifers for hedges for suggestions
- If you are keen to grow native plants there are three conifers native to the British Isles - common juniper (Juniperus communis), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and yew (Taxus baccata)
How and what to buy
Conifers are available all year round in containers, from garden centres, nurseries and online suppliers. Most conifers for sale in garden centres and nurseries are small plants, usually in 2-3 litre pots; these settle into the ground well and will soon put on growth. You can buy large, specimen plants which, although costly, will give an instant effect. These semi-mature plants are harder to establish and require extra care in planting and watering.
Here are some things to consider when selecting a plant.
- Look for plants of a balanced shape, with a number of evenly spaced branches
- Avoid those showing signs of stress or disease (yellowing or browning of foliage), or damage, like those with broken branches
- Check the rootball, if you can – roots should be developed enough to be visible through the holes in the base of the pot, but not be so congested that you can't see any soil
You can also buy some conifers as root-balled or bare-root plants in autumn and winter, usually by mail order. These plants often cheaper and avoid the use of plastic pots, but the choice may be more limited. They’re a good option when planting in quantity, such as for a hedge.
Buying: garden centre plants
Buying: mail order plants
Buying: trees and shrubs
How to choose healthy plants
Where to get ideas and advice
- Visit gardens and arboretums to see which conifers you like best. All RHS Gardens feature plenty of conifers, which are labelled, so you can note down your favourites
- Ask at local garden centres, which should stock a range of conifers to suit local conditions
- Go to RHS Find a Plant – search for ‘conifer’ to browse the photos and plant descriptions, and find out where to buy them. You can refine your search by specifying preferences, such as foliage colour and ultimate size
- Browse our lists of recommended conifers
Where to plant
Bearing in mind that conifers can live for many years, with some growing to a large size, make sure you choose a site for your plant where it won’t cause problems in the future. See our advice on trees near buildings trees and the law and nuisance and overgrown hedges.
Many smaller conifers are ideal choices for containers.
Most conifers are fully hardy and can be planted outdoors however; a few are frost tender such as Araucaria cunninghamii and should be grown with protection over winter.
When to plant
The ideal time to plant all conifers is late Oct and early November or March. However, anytime between autumn and early spring, whenever your soil isn’t waterlogged or frozen is also a great choice.
- Container-grown conifers can be planted at any time of year, but avoid planting during hot or dry weather unless you are prepared to water well
- Root-balled and bare-root conifers are available in late-autumn and winter and should be planted as soon as possible after they arrive
How to plant
If the soil in the planting area is compacted, dig it over to loosen it – this will encourage the conifers’s roots to spread out. With heavy or sandy soils, dig in organic matter, such as garden compost, over a larger area (rather than in the planting hole) to improve the soil structure.
There is no need to stake conifers most conifers you buy - they rely on the movement in the wind to produce robust supporting tissue in the stem and a strong root system. However, if you buy a large specimen, they still need sturdy stakes to prevent them being blown sideways initially.
Planting a conifer is easy, but worth doing carefully to ensure it settles in well and thrives for years to come.
Check out our selection of planting guides, for all you need to know:
Once they have settled in, most conifers need very little attention.
During the first two years after planting, new conifers need regular watering to ensure the soil stays moist, particularly in dry and hot spells. Once established, most cope without watering, except in prolonged droughts and heatwaves. Conifers in containers need regular watering, including during dry periods in winter.
Reduce your use of mains water by installing water butts on all your down-pipes – not just on your house but on sheds, garages and greenhouses too
Most conifers will thrive without additional feeding. However, for optimum performance, you can apply a general-purpose granular fertiliser in late winter at the rate recommended on the packet.
Conifers in containers need liquid feeding from early spring until late summer. Check our guide to container maintenance for full details.
Grass and weeds compete with young conifers for water and nutrients in the first five years after planting. If you plant a conifer in a lawn, leave a circle at least 90cm (3ft) in diameter without turf, to reduce competition for nutrients and moisture that can hinder the conifer’s establishment and subsequent growth.
It’s best to lay a mulch of well-rotted manure, garden compost, bark chippings or leafmould around the base all conifers especially newly planted specimens. This will suppress weeds, provide nutrients, hold in moisture and improve the soil conditions.
Apply mulch when the ground is damp, ideally in late winter after adding fertiliser, but any time from autumn to late spring is fine. Avoid placing the mulch directly against the stems of the conifer, as this can cause rot.
Looking after conifers in containers
Plants in containers need watering and feeding, and repotting into larger containers every 2-3 years as they grow. See our guide to container maintenance.
Pruning and training
Specimen conifers need very little pruning. If pruning is required, conifers are best pruned between April and the end of August. Browning of foliage is more likely if you prune at other times. Most conifers will not regrow from brown dead wood if you prune into this; notable exceptions include yew and less reliably Thuja.
You can control the size of conifers to some extent by trimming and pruning.
- Trim the green foliage in the same way you would a hedge leaving a green leafy finish, just make sure you don't prune into the old brown wood
- If a conifer is too tall you can remove the growing tip and it will make little further upward growth just a few wispy shoots that are readily trimmed
- Where conifers have grown too large for their situation, replacement is often the best option
Variegated conifers may produce occasional shoots with leaves that are not variegated. These shoots tend to be very vigorous and can eventually take over, so remove them promptly. See the RHS guide to tackling reversion for more information.
Conifer hedges such as × Cuprocyparis leylandii (Leyland cypress, Leylandii), Chamaecyparis lawsoniana (Lawson cypress) and Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) need regular pruning to keep them looking smart, see our guide for details.
For details of how to prune yew see our guide to growing yew.
Propagation of conifers
You can take cuttings of most conifers, this method is a good way to produce a number of identical plants, ideal for a hedge.
- In late summer to early autumn, take semi-ripe cuttings
- In mid-autumn to late winter, take hardwood cuttings
You can raise many conifers from seed, although if the conifer is a cultivar, the offspring may differ slightly from the parent.
Experienced gardeners may also enjoy the challenge of propagating cultivars by grafting using a side veneer graft.
Conifers are usually easy to grow and trouble free. However problems can sometimes occur. Brown foliage on conifers can have a number of causes but often results from adverse growing conditions such as drought, frost, waterlogging or cold, drying winds.
There are specific diseases like thuja blight on thujas or sirococcus blight on cedars and hemlocks (Tsuga). If the browning and dieback affects most or all of the foliage, a root disease such as honey fungus or Phytophthora root rot could be responsible. Newly planted conifers have their own set of problems.
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