Conifers: An Interview with Jon Merrill

Jon Merrill, BB Barns General Manager, has the fun job of buying conifers for the store. He's as passionate about conifers as he is Duke football (well, almost) and consequently, the store carries some unusual conifer specimens that hail from the West Coast. Their evergreen appeal and low maintenance care make conifer gardens popular. The variety of color, shape, size and texture make designing a conifer garden super easy. Read on for tips from Jon on designing a conifer garden and using them in the landscape.

Let's start with the basics. What is a conifer? 

Not all evergreens are ever "green."

Not all evergreens are ever "green."

A simple definition is a plant that bears cones.  Like every definition, there are some exceptions to the rule, such as junipers and yews that produce berries or fruit.

So, what's a conifer garden? 

Conifer gardens are put together to show of the various colors, textures and growth patterns that these wonderful plants exhibit.  Unlike other gardens, that use masses or multiples of plants, conifer gardens typically use one of each plant.  Each plant is its own specimen when viewing, but the best way show off each plant’s individual characteristics is by having plants around it that have a different look, either in growth habit, color, or texture – sometimes all three. 

Do you need tons of space for a conifer garden or tons of money?  

Conifer gardens don’t have to be very expensive. Many of the true dwarf and miniature conifers can have a big price tag, but the garden doesn't have to be filled with them.  Conifers don’t require lots of attention like a perennial garden.  So, even if the initial cost of installation is a little more expensive, the yearly maintenance and time is much less.  Conifer gardening can be in any size or space you choose.  

Will I tend to my conifer garden differently?

Tending your conifer garden, once established, is pretty easy. Keep the weeds out (like any garden), some fertilization is always helpful, then grab a glass of wine and admire.  Conifers don’t need annual pruning or cutting back.  No dividing necessary.  Once they get their roots out, as a general rule they are very drought tolerant.

In Western North Carolina, where there is no shortage of slopes, why not consider a conifer garden?

In Western North Carolina, where there is no shortage of slopes, why not consider a conifer garden?

What are the cultural requirements of a conifer garden?

Conifers need well drained, acidic soil, (5.2-5.8 ph), and the majority want lots of sun, 5-6 hours of direct sunlight. To me, they usually look best when planned and implemented on slopes or contoured garden beds.

What is your staple for a conifer garden?

This may sound funny, but every conifer garden needs a Japanese Maple or other dwarf deciduous trees. The ever changing colors on many of the dwarf forms of maples adds some needed structure and foliage contrast.

Any issues we need to know about?

It varies depending on the type of plants. There are some needle and twig blights that can cause dieback on some spruce, juniper and Leyland cypress.  The main insects to scout for are spider mites and bagworms.

Do you design conifer gardens?

I am not a master at conifer garden design, but I do work with customers daily when they are looking for the “Jappalachian” garden. I love the term because we can mix in many of our natives with conifers for a wonderful garden.

Unlike other gardens, that use masses or multiplies of plants, conifer gardens use one of each plant.

Unlike other gardens, that use masses or multiplies of plants, conifer gardens use one of each plant.

Thank you Jon! For a tour of our gorgeous conifers, drop by this spring. We're open 10-6, Monday through Saturday. For more information on conifers from the American Conifer Society, click here.

Written by Cinthia Milner, OSA, Garden Coach, blog writer.

BB Barns serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.