I want a brand new conifer for Christmas

Anyone remember the novelty Christmas hit single from 1953 titled, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas? It has remained one of my very favorites since the first time I heard it. It just doesn’t quite seem like the Christmas holiday season without hearing this song at least once.

I was trying out one of those new online services that let you listen to tons of music on your computer – for free. My wife requested an evening of Christmas music, so I did a search and created a playlist. Sure enough, I found Gayla Peevey’s old recording. As we were enjoying our evening, working on our hand-crafted gifts, my mind began to wander as Gayla’s voice filled the room – what if I changed the lyrics just a little bit to better fit my Christmas wish – here is the result:

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
Only a brand new conifer will do
Don’t want a bulb, no stinky Amorphophallus titanum
I want a brand new conifer to plant in my arboretum

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
I don’t think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won’t have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring it through the front door, that’s the easy thing to do

I can see me now on Christmas morning, creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise when I open up my eyes
To see a brand new conifer potted there

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
Only a brand new conifer will do
No Rhododendrons, no silly little crocuseses
I only like colorful coniferususes
And colorful coniferuses like me too!

May you all have a holiday filled with the people you love.

Conifer Lover

The cute little sister

One advantage to enduring the months of cloudy skies and rain in the Pacific Northwest is the ability to grow a vast assortment of plants, including many conifers that simply will not survive the harsher winter cold and blistering summer heat found elsewhere around the country. For example, many of my friends cannot even consider growing Cryptomeria japonica or any of its amazing cultivars.

The first cultivar of Cryptomeria that I was introduced to, way-back-when, was ‘Elegans’. This intermediate growing tree was quite a beautiful sight to behold – long, soft billowy foliage that softly swayed in the breeze like layers of feathers. When I met this tree while working for a landscaper, it was early spring and it still retained some of its winter copper/plum color. Within weeks it would return to the bronze-green of its warmer season color, lasting until the cold winter temperatures would return.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a delightful dwarf sculpture for any of today’s gardens.

Although ‘Elegans’ truly is an elegant specimen, it may get too big for today’s smaller gardens. Fortunately, she has a little sister that is quite a beauty herself. Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a wonderful dwarf form of the Plume Japanese Cedar. Growing 2-4 inches per year in my garden, she definitely won’t overgrow even the smallest garden anytime soon. I love her irregular, almost sculpted looking, mounding form. With foliage that is typical of Cryptomeria with succulent, awl-like needles, growing in dense clumps, mounding and layering upon itself, every plant is its own unique creation. Like its big sister, ‘Elegans Nana’ will provide an interesting purplish/reddish/orange color through the cold winter months. In my garden this year, that winter color lingered well into the later months of spring.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'

A close-up view of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’

Purchased as a young plant, ‘Elegans Nana’ is a great candidate for the container garden on the patio or urban balcony. My friends in those colder winter climates might even consider growing many of the dwarf and miniature Cryptomeria in containers if they are able to move them into a protected garage or other structure, remembering that they are rated at Zone 6.

Unique, compact sculptural form, tantalizing soft foliage, color that changes with the seasons, and just being plain cute, I can’t imagine why everyone wouldn’t love to have an ‘Elegans Nana’ in their conifer collection.

Conifer Lover

The girl with the Black Dragon tolerance

You know your visit is going to be interesting when the conversation goes something like this:

“See, Ed. This is exactly what I am talking about. This… Crypt… Crypt-o – I mean, who named this thing, an undertaker?”

“That’s Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’ – I thought you would rather like that one.”

“Well, the last name is cool… but…”

“Oh c’mon, just admit you like it – I won’t verbally tell a soul.” And with that, she knew she was in trouble.

With her wry smile, she looked at me briefly and then back at the plant, “I suppose you’re going to blog about me again aren’t you?”

“Well, you do inspire discussion about why I love conifers.”

It had been a while since The Flower Girl had paid me a visit. She was disheartened with our long and wet spring, the incredibly short summer and the quick return to a wet autumn. All the rain and cool temperatures this year prevented her usually glorious flower garden from performing its best. She had mildew and fungus and blight, oh my!

Cryptomeria japonica 'Black Dragon'

Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’

Her sunflowers were half their normal height, the zinnias and marigolds were sparse and thin as were the other flowers that normally thrive in hot and dry summers. She found that she needed to dead-head the flowers more frequently because the cool wet weather would quickly turn them into dark brown mush.

I listened to her frustrations as we walked around my garden and the light sprinkles fell from the sky. I looked to the west, and noticed the sky was incredibly dark – I had a feeling that, momentarily, we would be in for a big shower. As we rounded the path that returned us past the ‘Black Dragon’ and back toward the house, she did admit that she found the plant to be somewhat tolerable (which I have come to understand translates into her actually liking the plant).

“Of course you do.” I thought to myself with a slight smile.

‘Black Dragon’ is a great conifer that has quite a lot of natural appeal and yet it is unusual enough to keep my interest too. As a young plant, it can grow somewhat vigorously with a rather narrow form. With some maturity, it seems to slow its upward extension and puts more of its energy into filling in and becomes a little broader at the base (kind of like me). As ‘Black Dragon’ ages, it will acquire a very nice semi-broad pyramidal form with a combination of slightly open branching and dense clusters of its soft, awl-like, dark green foliage. Hardy in Zone 5 and warmer, this one won’t survive the colder regions (although I have seen on online reference which states that one is growing in Keota, Iowa). In the hot and humid south, some conifers experience a “melt-down”, but not ‘Black Dragon’. Possibly its more open habit allows for better air flow.

As we settled into the comfortable chairs near the woodstove, my wife had already brewed the tea, and we chatted about how well the conifers had performed during our unusually cool and wet season. We talked about the change of seasons, the soon-to-come brilliant display of autumn foliage color and the excitement that a new season of gardening will bring.

Conifer Lover

I love my Twinkle Toes

Since the local weather forecasters are all predicting that we will warm into the lower 80s today, I thought I’d better get to my favorite garden center early while it was still cool. (And by cool, I mean that we were totally covered with clouds and there was a very fine but steady mist falling.)

I arrived at the GC with really nothing in mind to purchase, I suppose I just wanted to hang out with the plant folks there, see what was new and exciting, and maybe even find something on sale. What I ended up with has really got me excited! I found something so new, so rare that I don’t know how I was able to find it. First though, let me run through some of the other goodies I found. Yes, I know, I already have some of these in my garden, but… well, I think you know; I’m a hopeless conifer addict (that’s a good thing, right?)

I found the cutest little Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’. I had always thought that ‘Butter Ball’ would remain in its ball shape – the two little guys I’ve had for a couple years have stayed that way. But this one is larger to begin with – even larger than the two I have now – and it appears more like a soft serve ice cream cone with a bit of a pointed top. So I called my friends over at Iseli, and sure enough, as they mature and get a little size to them (which, being minatures, I’m talking less than 18 inches in any direction) they do begin to become somewhat broadly conical in shape. This little fella is on its way now and is quite the cutie!

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gemstone'

I also found a beautiful Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gemstone.’ Now this one I know is supposed to be a miniature upright grower, and it is off to a great start. Its tiny dark green foliage and compact, irregular  form make it a gorgeous companion to the ‘Butter Ball’ – I’ll be planting them near one another in the rock garden.

Finally, (I am so excited I can hardly type) I found a brand new plant called, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Twinkle Toes’. This is one that Iseli has been evaluating for a number of years under the name of C.j. [Tansu Yellow Sport] because it was discovered as a mutated branch growing on a larger ‘Tansu’. With very tight and congested foliage, this golden irregular upright is somewhat of a conically shaped plant and will be a real treasure in my garden. I had seen this plant during its evaluation years at Iseli, but I didn’t know that they had named it and had begun to release a few for sale. I’m glad my favorite local garden center was willing to experiment with something so rare and unusual. Apparently one of the employees was trying to wager a bet with the others that I would snatch this thing up the moment I saw it – she was right!

Cryptomeria japonica 'Twinkle Toes'

'Twinkle Toes' makes my toes curl with excitment!

Good thing my birthday is coming up, I’m sure I can convince my wife that these great new plants will negate any responsibility she may feel to purchase me a present. Otherwise I may have to give up my autumn garden budget since the spring and summer plants purchases have already slightly surpassed their allocated funds. It’s all worth it though – I love conifers!

Conifer Lover

Gardening: a lifestyle choice

We have been enjoying an amazing sneak peek into spring these past several days. Sunshine, blue sky and a view of Mt. Hood completely covered in a cloak of white snow – and temperatures mild enough to spend time in the conifer garden.

Where I live, we are on the outer edge of the east wind influence that jets westerly through the Columbia River Gorge. Although our winds are nothing when compared to what my Troutdale friends must endure, we can have some strong gusts that will bring weak branches down out of the towering Douglas Fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii) that enclose one corner of my property. I don’t mind the extra work it makes since I just cut the branches into lengths perfect for our little fire pit to be enjoyed this summer. My wife loves a campfire and simply cannot resist the temptation to roast a marshmallow or two.

As I was sorting out the fallen branches by size (small stuff for the chipper/shredder and larger for the campfire) I was happy to be outside spending time in my garden. I see signs of new life as bulbs and perennials begin to emerge from their winter resting place beneath the soil. I hear birds singing all around me and watch the family of squirrels, that have claimed my little acre as their own, scamper along doing whatever it is that keeps them so busy.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Sekkan'

Conifers provide a great habitat for the many little creatures with whom we share our property

I am reminded of the hummingbird nest that I spotted nestled inside the long branches of my Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan’ as one of these fascinating creatures flies right up to me, hovers for a moment, looks at me eye-to-eye, and then buzzes away with lightning speed. I am pleased that the several species of birds, and the squirrels, the neighbor’s cat and my wife and I can all co-exist peacefully on this bit of property. Yes, it’s true, the squirrels and the scrub jays don’t get along very well, but I wonder how much of their arguing and chasing one another is primal instinct and how much is just something fun to do on a sunny and warm late winter’s morning.

My conifers provide a wonderful habitat for my wild little friends. The larger trees provide ample shelter for many birds and squirrels and all of the trees mature enough to produce cones, provide food. Even the smaller dwarf and miniature conifers provide useful perches for the hummers as they stake out and protect their territory when guarding the precious nectar produced by my wife’s flowers.

Gardening is truly a lifestyle that has many positive effects – not only for humans, but also for the many other creatures with whom we share our earthly home.

Conifer Lover

Ever see a cold Mushroom?

We recently had a hint of warm weather. I spent the day planting some new containers for the patio garden and planted a few flats of flower seeds for my wife. I was hoping that we were going to move out of our late winter weather pattern, but the latest word is that we can expect snow showers on the valley floor this weekend! We’ve been holding at temperatures 10 degrees or more below our average, so that one warm day last weekend was welcome indeed.

Many conifers will change colors from their normal greens to shades of plum and bronze during the winter. This is a nice additional feature to my conifer garden and its four seasons of color. I’ve been expecting those color changing specimens to return to their green color, and I am surprised to see so many of them refusing to turn. One that really stood out to me today is Cryptomeria japonica ‘Mushroom’.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Mushroom'

‘Mushroom’ is a nice little Japanese Cedar with a compact habit that mounds into the shape of a large mushroom cap. During the growing season and until temperatures drop in late autumn, ‘Mushroom’ is a very lively green. With the drop in temperature, it takes on an orange bronze color that actually brightens our cold gray days here. Today as I was taking a stroll through my garden, I realized that I wasn’t the only one feeling the cold – my ‘Mushroom’ still had its winter color as if it was January!

I really am looking forward to the warmer days of spring and the color change that several of my conifers will make back to their lively green colors. C’mon spring!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli Nursery for the use of their photos!

All aboard!

I remember as a young boy growing up with the Sears® Wish Book as my most read publication for pretty much the entire month of December. I would pour over the pages looking and dreaming and strategizing how I would talk my parents into just the right gifts.

These days, I still have a wish list, but my catalogs of choice have changed from toys to garden plants! Of course I’m always interested in conifers, but almost any dwarf or miniature plant has a chance of getting on my list. I also have a wish project. I am hoping to take a small section of my garden and turn it into a miniature garden railway. That way, I can satisfy the wishes of my inner-boy as well as the conifer loving old man!

Creating a great railway garden will take a lot of research and planning. One inspirational publication I’ve found is Garden Railways Magazine. I’m inspired by the folks that create the most realistic scale railways you could imagine. Many of these gardens utilize dwarf conifers to create the natural looking forests and other trees to fit the right scale for their trains.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Tansu'

One conifer that I think will work great in my railway garden is Cryptomeria japonica ‘Tansu.’ Rated at Zone 6, it won’t do for every garden, but here in the PNW, it will thrive. When young, it can be pruned and trained into a very natural looking forest tree with its small scale-like leaves in perfect proportion with a miniature railway. Left to grow naturally, ‘Tansu’ has a very compact, irregular growth habit, forming a rounded globe shape to a very broad pryramid with age. With its neat and tidy habit, it can be useful in a broad spectrum of garden styles.

Whether your desire is a garden railway, container plants as part of a patio garden or a great specimen for a rock garden, ‘Tansu’ is a premium choice that you need to put on your wish list too!

Best wishes

Conifer lover

Thanks again to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links!