Silhouettes define a conifer’s shape
After deciding what size conifers to use, I had to start thinking about using them in combination with each other. Doing it well can be difficult; conifer colors are subtle, and their shapes never really change. A conifer shaped like a Christmas tree looks like a cone whether it’s 5 years old or 50 years old.
For a designer, those unchanging shapes are both charming and challenging. The trick is turning those static forms into dynamic compositions. It’s almost like creating a sculpture. For me, the whole secret lies in juxtaposing shapes so that the individuality of each tree or shrub is accentuated by its nearest neighbors.
That’s not as difficult as it sounds. It’s just a matter of mixing shapes. And luckily, nearly all conifers take one of four basic shapes. Except for weeping varieties and a few irregular cultivars, most conifers can be roughly classed as flat, round conical, or cylindrical. “Roughly” is the key word; I always allow for some variation. But for simplicity’s sake, I still think of both a ball-shaped false cypress and a moundlike ‘Blue Star’ juniper as being basically round.
To make understanding the shapes even simpler, I find it useful to think of them as silhouettes. Then I need consider only the straight or curved lines that define their margins. If the plant’s lines are horizontal, it’s a flat, ground-hugging variety, such as a ‘Blue Carpet’ juniper. If they are upright and nearly parallel, the tree is a cylinder, like a ‘Moonglow’ juniper. If the lines form an upside-down “V” and are simply a pair of slanted straight lines, it’s a cone-shaped tree, one that looks like a Christmas tree. Finally, if the silhouette is composed of curved lines that form a circle or oval, the conifer is one of the round varieties, like a ‘Montgomery’ blue spruce. Once you understand the shapes, making eye-catching combinations is easy.