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DWARF conifers arouse strong feelings. They are the sort of plants that you either love or loathe. In the Fifties they were popular architectural features. Lanning Roper, a favourite designer of the time, used spreading junipers often, but never perhaps as much as some gardeners do today. Their stiff shapes and colours that survive all seasons make them a favourite with people who want the garden to look rigorously tidy all year. From an overkill of conifers, I used to be against them, but recently I have begun to look again.

Used sparingly, not as a substitute for gentler plants but as a reinforcement, junipers can be a pleasure to look at, especially in winter. The smell of juniper leaves (which look rather like those of the cypress) is very desirable. Their berries can be thrown into the stew if you have forgotten to buy juniper berries in the supermarket: with enough of them, you could make home-grown gin. At a time of year when every green branch is welcome, juniper provides something to put in a vase with the sparse flowers of winter iris or hellebores and it lasts for ages indoors.

Junipers come in all shapes and sizes. The common juniper is a spreading bush. The Irish juniper, a narrow vertical tree, will grow as tall as 20ft but is more often seen at around half that height. Slimmer and bluer is Juniperus virginiana "Skyrocket". Both these could provide the same drama in cold gardens as the Italian cypress brings to Mediterranean ones, but even though Skyrocket can survive hard weather it does prefer a place in the sun.

Of the spreading forms, Juniperus x media "Pfitzeriana" is probably the most familiar. It grows into a flat tiered shrub never much higher than a person. Because of the way it grows, it has proved useful for hiding manhole covers and septic tanks, which can make it seem both serviceable and sinister. Given a proper, important place, planted in pairs near an entrance, perhaps, or to mark the start of a flower bed, I think it deserves a second look.

Less bold in outline is another spreading shrub, J. virginiana "Grey Owl". This is greeny blue and graceful, almost like a rosemary in colouring. It is a plant to choose for a difficult bank, where it will get the good drainage that all junipers prefer and will hug the ground so closely weeds will have no chance. The golden junipers need to be in sun if they are to keep their colour. J. x media "Pfitzeri-ana Aurea" is a strong shape but less bright than "Old Gold". They are difficult shrubs to place. In winter, gold is a treat, but under a high summer sun it can turn to relentless brass.

The juniper that is most intriguing was the 17th-century favourite, J. sabina or common savin. Old gardeners seem to have used this juniper, found on high mountain ranges, almost more than holly or box. It has a strong smell and the form "Tamariscifolia", which our ancestors would not have known, makes a handsome tiered bush with finely cut leaves.

All junipers like limey soil and dislike being waterlogged, but they are otherwise undemanding. True, they can be difficult to place in a garden. One bush of juniper with its pungent leaves and strong shape would be enough to provide plenty of pleasure in the cold months of the year. Any more and the summer garden would suffer, and criticisms of the dwarf conifer would be justified again.

Mary Keen