“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.”
This quote from the book, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach, has stuck with me for over thirty-five years. I have found encouragement from these words many times as I’ve encountered one challenge or another. Although, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes it is good to understand our limitations so that we don’t stumble through life with false expectations. I have met quite a few people with false expectations regarding dwarf conifers.
For example, here are three actual quotes from friends I have encountered recently:
“I’m looking for a dwarf conifer that will grow to five feet tall and not too wide at maturity.”
“I need something that will grow fast to screen the neighbor’s junk, but the trees need to stop at ten feet so we don’t lose our mountain view.”
“I read about this dwarf conifer that max’s out at three feet – that sounds perfect for filling in under the window.”
One of the really cool things about conifers is as long as they are alive, they keep growing. None of them will grow to a specific “mature” size and then just stop getting larger. Conifers do grow at different rates, or perhaps more accurately, they put on different amounts of new growth each year. Some grow two or three feet per year while others just two or three inches (or less), they push their genetically pre-designated annual growth, whether it be feet or fractions of an inch over the same period of time. It’s just that some put out a much greater amount of new growth than others. We tend to say that they are faster or slower growers because in the same ten, fifteen or fifty year time period, some become very tall trees while others might remain comparatively quite small.
This is a great opportunity to discuss a group of plants whose characteristics allow them to fill a great number of needs in the garden from filling in low spaces to screening the undesirable while preserving important views as well as standing alone as a premium focal point. The wonderful group I’m referring to is The Weepers. (No, not that new pop group that cries throughout their overly dramatic performance of sorrowfully sad love songs.) I’m talking about cool conifers that without a little help from their gardener friends, would be essentially sprawling ground-covers.
Fir, Hemlock, Juniper, Pine and Spruce all include at least one great weeping form that may be available from your local independent garden centers, but I’ll be mentioning a just few of my favorites here today. First off, one of the hardiest, most versatile and most readily available may be Picea abies ‘Pendula’. This cultivar is generally found in the local garden center trained up a stake to four or five feet tall. Once the central leader is no longer trained, it will fall over and join all its other branches in their cascade down to the ground. Younger trees may be found that are not as tall and could be allowed to sprawl at whatever height the gardener desires. With proper training, Picea abies ‘Pendula’ will make a densely clothed screen to block an unsightly view and yet be easily maintained at whatever height one might desire without the need for shearing like more conventional hedges.
Tsuga heterophylla ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ is a fine textured alternative which could also be planted and trained as a living fence, but I prefer this one as a stand-alone focal point which would meet the needs of my first friend quoted above. This “Cousin Itt” plant could easily be trained to any height and it will simply grow as a slender mound, slowly filling out over the years as foliage builds up. Once the branches fall to the ground, they will begin to spread becoming a dense carpet. Of course, the branches could be trimmed to prevent the spread if one desired.
Another favorite that is perfect for filling in under a window is Pinus strobus ‘Stony Brook’. This mounding and sprawling Eastern White Pine has an irregular mounding form which, as it grows, will spread and sprawl along giving a water feature effect without all the trouble and mess. Usually found in the garden center trained just a foot or two off the ground, ‘Stony Brook’ will remain low growing and fill the need of my third friend.
Even though each of these friends had something else in mind, once I spent the time discussing growth rates and the pros and cons of buying an extremely slow-growing form in a really large size to fill their need, they began to realize that cost would be prohibitive for them. By helping them think outside the box and by choosing weeping conifers that filled their needs, they were very satisfied with the investment they made in each of their gardens.