Urban gardener, Cleve West: Vertically challenged

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The Independent Online

One would suppose that anything small, well-behaved and evergreen with a wide range of colour would be ideal for a low-maintenance urban garden, so why do the words 'dwarf conifer' have the power to make a gaggle of garden designers wet themselves

laughing? I asked several designers and writers about them at the Garden Writers Guild annual lunch recently and found it impossible for anyone to take me seriously. So maybe this is a trend, last popular in the island beds of the Fifties and Sixties, lurking in the shadows waiting for a chance to make a comeback.

At flower shows you might well see the full range of different varieties on a specialist's stand. All well and good. But using the same mixture in a show garden never really comes off and serves only to accentuate the 'toytown' baggage that haunts them, with the plants themselves secretly wishing for a model train to come tooting out of a small tunnel to temporarily divert attention from their acute embarrassment.

Growers claim that dwarf conifers are a good substitute for trees and shrubs that can get too big for small gardens - and therefore help maintain some sense of proportion with the given site and architecture, without having to be checked by pruning. It's a valid point, especially in front gardens, but requires a certain amount of planning in terms of plant associations and, of course, patience, the one thing that is decidedly lacking these days with semi-mature shrubs and trees at our disposal. Couple that with our passion for perennials and the notion of the 'instant garden', it's easy to see how dwarf conifers are mostly ignored.

A vertically challenged conifer suggests it might have evolved to suit certain inhospitable conditions, such as a mountain or rock face, so it's little wonder it can look like a fish out of water on a makeshift rockery in the larch-lapped enclosures of suburbia. The truth is, however, that they are dwarf either because they are extremely slow-growing (the dwarf variety of the pine that grows to 30m, is Pinus strobes ' Nana' that in time will reach five or six metres), or because of their genetics. Trees occasionally produce mutant buds often seen as a dense thicket of twigs on a trunk or branch, and by grafting these on to seedling stock it's possible to produce quite a range of dwarf conifers. So are they really as dull as people imagine, or is it simply a case of misunderstanding what it is we're trying to say with them?

For the minimalist, dwarf conifers might be just the ticket to accentuate a sense of control, or for a landscape where too much deviation in terms of scale might spoil the intended feel for the space. Japanese gardens are very adept at this, either creating landscapes by manipulating essential elements in enclosed spaces, or 'borrowing' from the surrounding landscape where there is a view. Again, control is everything. In a small courtyard, a limited palette of dwarf conifers, either in pots or in scree with ornamental grasses, heather and seasonal bulbs, can provide more than enough contrast without having too many varieties of conifer vying for attention. Don't forget that small materials, dimensions and indeed plants often do nothing more than accentuate a sense of smallness. Verticality, provided that the tree's canopy is not too overbearing, is always welcome in urban spaces, so if there is room for a larger tree, (conifer or deciduous), it will improve the garden's dynamics considerably.

But if dwarf conifers float your boat - and your 'collection' is far more important than trying to make an aesthetic statement - then who am I to try to put you off? While conceptual artists and gardeners could make great use of their Lilliputian characteristics by throwing any notion of scale into disarray, I simply haven't found the right environment, or client, to use them with confidence. This is partly to do with a walk high in Yosemite National Park where ancient Bristlecone Pines ( Pinus longaeva) needed little else but sedge, blueberries and glacial rock to set them off. Of course, it's quite ridiculous to use such dramatic landscape as a benchmark but it has, nevertheless, left a sort of blind spot that may never heal. Stay close to the city ... it's a dangerous world out there. www.britishconifersociety.org.uk