Colours with conifers

On a glorious day in mid May, I visited an arboretum in Great Yeldham in north Essex. Those who know the area will understand what a challenge it is to create an interesting collection here because they’ll likely have the evidence all over their boots: boulder clay. Soils have a strong influence on what you can grow and many of the plants that arboreta prize (such as Rhododendrons and Magnolias) struggle here, meaning that at a time when places like Ray Wood or the Isabella Plantation are at their glorious best, gardeners here have to think more creatively once the cherry blossom passes.

Planted in the 1960s and 70s, the arboretum was described as one of the finest modern arboreta in the UK by Alan Mitchell and it didn’t take long to realise why: the garden holds many interesting selections and even at a time when many gardens in north Essex are just starting to come into leaf, this was a master class in how to design with trees. I find one of the greatest challenges in developing a garden or landscape is how to combine conifers and deciduous trees- it feels easier to concentrate on the deciduous trees because they give you conspicuous flowers, dramatically changing colours through the seasons and a wide variety of forms and textures to play with. By contrast, conifers can seem a little boring with the result that if attention is not paid to maintaining diversity, a garden can feel unbalanced.
The arboretum has been very carefully laid out, making the most of the 4 acres and is immaculately maintained with a truly diverse collection of plants (especially the Fagus collection) but it was the conifers that quietly stole the show. Here, as in so many gardens, they are principally used to give structure to walks around the collection and to stage views of deciduous trees, but even though they were designed to play a supporting role, the range of colours, texture, form and size took my breath away.

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