Whether you favor blue undertones, a tidy round mound, or a cascading form, there is an unusual conifer (or several) that will stand out in your garden, establishing form and texture year-round.
Conifers and evergreens shape the landscape year-round. Some of the more quirky varieties—as embraced by this South Carolina collector—add personality with their drooping or wind-swept forms or colorful needles.
“Iwant the funky, the weird, the different,” Mary Alice Woodrum says. She and her husband, John (known as Bear), have studded their Zone 7–8 South Carolina property with weeping bald cypress, blue atlas cedar, and other offbeat conifers. Together they embark on plant-finding pilgrimages, stopping at every little nursery and off-the-beaten-track garden center to look for something new and bizarre. Then they haul the trees home and give them a try.
Mary Alice has been doing so for almost 20 years, and their 5 acres now have an exotic appeal that draws garden tourists—who collect the cones scattered beneath the conifers—and regional plant experts. Aside from the conifers, which may number 100, visitors will find fancy palm trees riffling in the wind, rosy clusters of pitcher plants, and communes of ferns assembled in the dappled shade. They’ll also find her eclectic artwork—perhaps a baobab tree, the African “Tree of Life,” made of rusted metal, or a curving border fashioned from inverted wine bottles.
Weaving throughout are collections of conifers. Many of the unique evergreens originate in Asia. “We can only project how they will do here,” Mary Alice says. “None of us really know till we test-grow it.” Before trying out a tree from Japan or Korea, for example, she advises gardeners to do their research. Know the Zone recommendations and understand how tall and full the tree will become at maturity. Also, leave space for sufficient airflow or nearby structures can get mossy and the foliage will turn brown. “I hate to see unhappy plants that are not in the right spot,” she says. Mary Alice also recognizes that sometimes gardeners make mistakes. When this happens to her, she simply relocates the misfitted plants to more appropriate sites.
Working the soil also helps create happy plants. “I came to live in this place where all the top soil had been graded away, leaving what looked like beach sand—so bright it was blinding—until I could coax some things to grow. Water just pilled up and ran off and if it managed to soak in, it just kept going!” says Mary Alice. Luckily, Mary Alice and Bear live on a ridge with forests of long-needle pine, which supply an abundant source of compost made with chips from a local tree cutter mixed with paper and leaves that people set out along the street, “very nicely bagged, too!” Mary Alice uses the pine needles as mulch in her garden and gives them away for birthday and holiday gifts to friends and family. “The ground looks so nice when it’s frosted with pine straw,” she says.
Despite her best soil-building efforts, the weather often decides the fate of Mary Alice’s trees. Some Northern conifers fail during prolonged months of heat or drought. And several years ago, an ice storm brought down several of her trees. Mary Alice and her husband sat outside and listened to the branches of the long-needle pine trees breaking under the weight of the ice and heavy snow. It was a heartbreaking experience for a tree-lover but one that opened new possibilities. For a gardener who has planted “right up to the asphalt,” any losses present fresh opportunities.
“There is always a challenge, some intrigue, and a spark of interest to try something new,” Mary Alice says. “Start in one corner and pick a plant focus—you don’t have to do the whole yard in it.” Mary Alice advises other gardeners to start small, pick a few types of plants to explore, and get to know them better. “It’s all trial and error. It’s the flow of life.”