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Conifers keep the garden color going

Winter is when I most appreciate conifers. Whether it's gray or sunny, needle evergreens offer an array of color and form to console us in the quiet season.

With little in bloom, the blue, green and gold foliage of spruce, cedar, fir, pine and juniper gives us satisfying beauty outdoors. Yew, hemlock, cypress, incense cedar and Japanese cedar round out the conifer tribe. Many are embellished by cones that add texture to the winter garden.

Even in a container, a conifer can become a focal point in a small space. I've been growing 'Blue Ice' Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica 'Blue Ice') in a large plastic pot for seven years. It sits beside the greenhouse door inside a turquoise glazed container that hides the plastic. A 'Yuletide' camellia grows inside a twin container on the other side of the door, so whenever I approach the greenhouse, I get a double dose of winter cheer.

Bound within a pot, 'Blue Ice' stands about 6 feet tall. Planted in the ground, it becomes a 30-foot tree. The needles are an ethereal shade of blue-gray, and if I brush up against the branches they emit a refreshing scent that brings me memories of my mother's cedar chest. To me, 'Blue Ice' cypress is the essence of serenity.

For a warmer color palette, consider 'Gold Cone' junipers. Sun-loving and drought-tolerant, they make lively exclamation points in the landscape.

Three mature plants at Seattle's Miller Garden stand about 6 feet tall, glowing gold on a sunny hillside. The densely pyramidal shapes lend a formal touch to a landscape, especially dramatic when contrasted with horizontally spreading heaths and heathers. Tall and skinny 'Skyrocket' junipers make riveting columns where you need vertical emphasis. Their needles are a cooler shade of blue-green.

I first encountered plume Japanese incense cedar (Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans') on a hillside at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was a cold February afternoon, sunny with a clear blue sky, and the cedar was wearing its russet winter coat. It stood out in strong contrast to the green and blue-green conifers nearby. As spring approaches, the needles turn fresh green and remain green through summer and fall.

This 20-foot-tall plant can be treated as a small tree or a large shrub. You can plant it as part of a privacy screen or hedge, along with more of its brethren or mixed with evergreen cousins. I grew one in a container for years, hoping to plant it later, but found the bronze winter color frightening Ñ from a distance it looked dead. I gave it to a friend who didn't mind.

On a recent visit to New York's Wave Hill I couldn't take my eyes off 'Zebrina' Himalayan pine (Pinus wallichiana 'Zebrina') with 8-inch-long needles that drooped gracefully from curving branches. The needles were striped with gold Ñ the tree sparkled as if it were lit up. This is an airy tree, with space between the branches for a companion. At Wave Hill, a neighborly beautyberry bush with purple fruit had intertwined with the pine.

In the same garden, 'Skylands' spruce (Picea orientalis 'Skylands') offered a splash of gold. Short needles covered branches that curved upward like a ballerina's arms. Strongly defined lines give it an architectural presence.

Just as interesting, Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo) has short, stiff, blue-green needles that stick out all along the stems like a hedgehog. I always find myself drawn toward this tree for a closer look at the texture.

A standout in our own Japanese Garden, Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) has long needles arranged in whorls, resembling the spokes of an umbrella. Dark green, dignified and distinctive in pattern, it's slow-growing but worth the wait.

Flashier 'Silberlocke' Korean fir (Abies koreana 'Horstmann's Silberlocke') has short needles that curl upward, revealing a bright silver underside that makes the tree luminous. It looks almost white from a distance, and the needles cling snugly to each other along the stem as if they've been woven. More expensive than most conifers, it's also irresistible as a focal point, growing to about 20 feet in maturity.

As with all trees, before you commit, learn about the mature size and shape and allow your plant enough breathing space. Even one conifer placed well will give your garden a winter lift.

Garden events

• Northwest Flower and Garden Show, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9-13, Washington State Convention Center, 800 Convention Place, Seattle. For complete information, visit www.gardenshow.com/nw. This show is a must for gardeners of all levels. Don't miss it!

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