My favorite cousin

I was looking through some very old pictures the other day and I was transported back in time. It must have been a combination of the scent of the old leather binding of the 60 plus year old photo album or the slightly faded and partially blurred look of the photographs themselves – whatever it was, I had returned to my childhood and was flooded with memories of the many visits to my grandmother’s small  two acre farm.

As I looked at pictures of the old barn I could smell the straw and feel the rough, splintery texture of the old wood. I could almost taste the tart-sweet juiciness of the plump, purple grapes growing on the arbor. I remembered the dreamy state as I swung slowly on my grandmother’s garden swing, the creaking, squeaking sound it made as it swung to and fro while the dappled shade created kaleidoscopic patterns of light on my closed eyelids. I remembered climbing the old oak tree and how proud I was when I was finally able to jump up to reach its lowest branch enabling me to climb up and into that grand old tree.

And then I saw it.

In the background of one of the family group shots – in the back corner of the yard – was one of the most graceful trees I had ever seen. Even as a young boy, I recognized the graceful beauty of Tsuga heterophylla, the Western Hemlock.

Back in the day, it was a huge tree – possibly the oldest at grandma’s house – it was a graceful giant. Tall and dark green with slightly down-turned branches full of lush, soft needles, this native forest tree is very possibly responsible for my initial interest in conifers.

Tsuga heterophylla 'Thorsen's Weeping'

'Thorsen's Weeping' looks an awful lot like my favorite cousin.

Many years later, when I began to pursue the amazing world of conifers on a more scholarly level, I came across a book written by John Swartley titled, The Cultivated Hemlocks. This was a fantastic reference to many of the unique cultivated varieties of the Canadian or Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Most of the garden hemlocks that have been discovered are variants of Tsuga canadensis, but over the years, a few wonderful new forms of the Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) have been propagated and made their way to collector’s gardens and into the marketplace.

One of my favorite hemlocks just happens to be a cultivar of Tsuga heterophylla called, ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’. This completely prostrate growing conifer, if left to grow naturally, will be a ground-hugging spreader which will create a rich green carpet of conifer. Its natural form will flow between large garden rocks and spill over walls softening hard architectural edges and give the suggestion of water flowing in the garden. Most likely, you’ll find it in the independent garden center staked to a height of three or four feet. Once in your possession, you could continue to increase its height by staking it as tall as you like, confident that when it reaches the top of the stake, it will turn and flow right back to the ground.

A staked ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ will grow in its weeping fashion, layer upon layer as it fills out to eventually look like Cousin Itt from the 1960s TV series, The Addams Family. You may then choose to allow its branches to trail along the ground, continuing to grow as a dense ground cover, or if you like the Cousin Itt look, you might prefer to keep the branches trimmed as they reach the ground. Either way, ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ is sure to become one of your most treasured and talked about garden conifers.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

I’m craving a Cream Ball

Some people have personal trainers or personal bankers. Me, I’ve got a personal baker. All I have to do is call with a special request an in no time, I can have, in my possession, any of a number of delicious treats that would cause my personal health care specialist great alarm if she knew what I was eating. Sometimes I think my wife and my doctor are in a conspiracy to make my culinary life dull and tasteless. Fortunately, my personal baker has a very high ethical standard so I can trust that any of our transactions are kept on the strictest code of confidentiality.

My wife was beginning to become suspicious the other day when she walked in on a conversation I was having with my personal baker. Honest, I was innocently talking with her about a great conifer for her front garden called, ‘Cream Ball.’ With a name like that, you can understand my wife’s suspicion.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball'

Great for the patio or deck in a container or featured in the garden, Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Cream Ball' is sure to add good taste to the garden.

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Cream Ball’ is a fantastic little conifer. This creamy colored little puff has very finely textured foliage that, depending on its environment, will have light green foliage tipped with light yellow or if grown in partial shade, it will appear more of a bluish-green with near white tips. Either way, this slow-growing Japanese False Cypress is a real delicacy for the garden, large or small.

‘Cream Ball’ is also a great choice for the container garden. When young, its slow growth rate and fine, brightly colored foliage will make a great accent when planted with other dwarf and miniature conifers and companions. As it gains some size, ‘Cream Ball’ will make a grand specimen on the deck or patio. Keeping it small is quite easy though, simply lightly shear the foliage in May or June with a good sharp set of grass shears. ‘Cream Ball’ looks great maintained in a ball shape, but since it sports fine textured foliage, it has potential to be used to create topiary for either garden or patio. ‘Cream Ball’ is great frozen too, rated at USDA Zone 4 hardiness, it can survive temperatures to -30°F.

Perhaps I can trade a nice ‘Cream Ball’ for some of my personal baker’s famous mini-cheesecakes. Then we both can benefit from growing this great little conifer.

Ed-
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.

Ed
Conifer Lover

The garden room

One great advantage of a conifer garden, should one have a desire for privacy, is that you can create very nice garden rooms where the neighbors can’t find you. The disadvantage is that if you’ve fallen asleep while sunbathing, your snoring may give away your location – to the parcel delivery man.

I’ve actually created a few little garden rooms. The one we use the most frequently partially encloses the patio just off the back of the house. I’ve planted a combination of a few slender upright conifers, mixed in a couple mid-sized, broadly conical forms, added a small Japanese maple and filled with lower, spreading forms that all work together to make a very nice colorful border to enclose the patio.

Picea abies 'Frohburg'

With the recent arrival of very hot weather, I thought it would be fun to relive the old days and lay out in the sun for a little while. Dressed in my shorts, flip-flops, hat and mp3 player, I dragged my favorite reclining lawn chair into position in my “secure” garden room. Full quart of iced tea at my side, I was ready to enter that state of meditation I achieve when lying in the hot sun. Some people call it a nap, but I wouldn’t dare fall asleep in this kind of hot sun, would I?

After watching the humming birds chase one another in a contest of territorial dominance, I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hat. Then, in what seemed like mere moments later, I began to hear someone speaking in some strange dialect.

Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone'

Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' is another great narrow upright conifer for use as a colorful specimen or as part of a screen for your garden room.

“Sir? Excuse me…? Uhhhmm… Sir?”

My mind slowly beginning to drift back to reality, perspiration dripping from all exposed skin, I wondered what strange lyrics these were to the music I was listening to.

“Excuse me, uhhhhmmmm, Sir – the note on the front door said I should bring this around back to you.”

“What?” I mumbled with the kind of snort and growl that accompanies the tail end of a deep snore. My wife must have gone somewhere.

“I’m sorry sir, did I wake you? – It’s just that…”

“No, I’m not asleep… I… What time is it? Who are you?”

“UPS, sir, the sign on the front door said I needed to bring this around to you….”

You get the idea. I was thankful I had decided not to fully return to the days of my youth and retained some sense of decency in what I thought was my “secure” space.

As a word of advice, no matter how private a space you may think you have created with the nearly endless selections of colorful conifers available today, you never know when you may need to accept a parcel delivery – or when the Google Earth satellites may be photographing your area from high overhead.

Ed-
Conifer lover

Variegated conifers are cool!

My wife and I have varying tastes in garden plants. She grew up enjoying annual flowers, bulbs, perennials and flowering shrubs. I, of course, prefer conifers. One thing that we both definitely agree on is our love of variegated plants. I even tolerate a few plants that I otherwise would have no interest in if their foliage were not variegated.

Generally, variegation refers to variety or variation of color. One great example of a common plant seen in gardens and as houseplants almost anywhere is Coleus. Who doesn’t love the brightly multi-colored leaves of the Coleus plant? Another of our favorites is Hosta. Many Hosta have large leaves that appear to have been brushed with two or three colors of watercolor paints. Happily, some of the coolest conifers also have variegated foliage.

Sometimes conifers will push their new spring growth of one color, like red or yellow, and then mature to their “normal” color of green or blue. Others will push their new growth a bright golden yellow and as the older foliage becomes shaded by the new, it can darken to green giving the overall plant a variegated appearance. Still others will have green or bluish needles on one side and appear silver or white on the underside due to a waxy coating, again giving the plant a variegated appearance. Beautiful as all these things are, this is not the variegation of which I am referring today.

Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'

Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'

Today I will share with you some of the most striking variegated conifers whose foliage is multi-colored due to interesting patterns of pigment (or perhaps more accurately, lack of pigment). First on the list is a fairly slow growing small tree, Juniperus chinenesis ‘Torulosa Variegata’ or the Variegated Hollywood Juniper. You might think of this as an irregularly shaped upright green conifer with splashes of yellow all over the foliage. Sometimes entire twigs of new growth will be yellow, other branches will have a mix of yellow and green in varying quantities giving the whole tree a very unique appeal.

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'

Another great example of yellow variegation in a conifer is Pinus parviflora ‘Ogon janome’ with its bands of buttery yellow variegation on its green needles. From a distance, the variegation is difficult to discern. One may perceive that this Japanese White Pine is a little more yellow than other nearby plants in the garden. Closer inspection will reveal a wonderful variegation on each and every needle providing this striking effect.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'

In most gardens, the two previous trees will perform their best in full sun, although ‘Ogon janome’ may enjoy light shade in the afternoon to protect it from the intense summer sun. The final conifer on today’s list is actually quite tolerant of shade. Tsuga canadensis ‘Albospica’ loves moist, rich, well drained soil and thrives in filtered sun to bright shade. Its new foliage will emerge nearly pure white with some tell-tale signs of green showing. As the foliage ages, its chlorophyll production will kick in and eventually become dark green. The contrast between the white new growth and the dark green mature foliage is absolutely stunning. ‘Albospica’ can become quite a large and open grower, so I like to keep mine pruned which encourages a fuller habit and more of the white new foliage to brighten its home on the north side of my house. I’ve seen a low hedge of ‘Albospica’ that has been regularly sheared and kept to a height of about four feet for many years.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica' - cone

Even the cones of 'Albospica' are variegated - that's cool!

These are just a very few of the many selections of conifers available with variegated foliage. I believe that no matter where you live, you will be able to find at least one variegated conifer that will thrive in your area. Keep an eye out for them the next time you visit your favorite independent garden center.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

I’m a changed man

I just realized that I have become somewhat of a cultivar snob – and I’m not very pleased with myself. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time searching the internet, looking for more information about conifers and I’ve come across websites whose educational focus is on Species trees. Generally speaking, these are the indigenous trees to specific geographical locations. I usually just roll my eyes and move along. I am extremely interested in the cultivated variants of these species – the genetically different or mutated forms that arise through naturally occurring seedling variations or foliar mutations which may occur in the form of sports or brooms.

Juniperus cedrus

The silvery blue foliage of Juniperus cedrus droops from upright gowing branches giving a light, whispy appearance.

I hadn’t realized until today that I have silently scoffed at the interest many have in these “pure” species trees. Aside from naturally occurring Pseudotsuga menziesii and a few Calocedrus decurrens, Thuja plicata, Picea pungens and Cedrus deodara that were planted on the property forty or fifty years ago, I certainly have not added any pure species tree to my garden. I’ve always considered the “native” trees to be far too large and unsophisticated for my personal tastes. I love the refined, tidy, compact growth rates of the dwarf and miniature conifers; the huge variation in color and texture; their relatively care-free nature and the fact that they are very unusual. Today I came to terms with my snobbery and am now publically admonishing myself. 

I feel better. 

What brought about this revelation? It was a tree that I have overlooked for far too long; a tree that is endangered in its natural habitat; a tree with a growth rate, color, texture and form worthy of the finest gardens. Unfortunately for some, it is a tree that is naturally limited to Zone 8-9 climates. The folks at Iseli have been grafting this tree for a number of years and have seen it survive single digit temperatures, so it is probable that it is hardy into Zone 7. The tree is, Juniperus cedrus, native to the Canary Islands at elevations from 1,600 to almost 8,000 feet. 

Juniperus cedrus

Over twenty years in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden and this specimen of Juniperus cedrus is less than twenty feet tall.

Yes, I know, it’s another tree with two common genus names (like Picea abies), but don’t let that cause you confusion or distress. This is a magnificent upright growing Juniper with silvery, blue-gray foliage that gently weeps and sways in the slightest breeze giving a delightful glimmering effect. This rare conifer should do well almost anywhere in the temperate Pacific Northwest and throughout Zones 7-9.

Go on, plant one in your garden – I dare ya! 

Ed-
Conifer Lover

The cloud parade

My wife and I have really been enjoying this extended sun break (it’s been over a week since we’ve seen any rain and we’ve had a few days in the 90s). Sunday afternoon we found ourselves lying in the lawn, head to head, gazing up into the sky which was beginning to produce a parade of puffy, cotton ball clouds – the kind that morph into all kinds of shapes right before your eyes.

“That one looks like a mamma duck followed by a couple of ducklings.”

“Looks like a row of dwarf conifers from my perspective.”

“Oooo… That one has a puppy face!”

“I think it’s more like a mounding hemlock.”

“Don’t you think of anything but conifers?”

“Yes…” (But this is a family friendly blog.)

Pinus strobus 'Louie' points to a "cotton ball" dragon.

Pinus strobus 'Louie' points to a "cotton ball" dragon.

As we reclined there on one of the last remaining patches of cool green grass in my garden, I couldn’t help but think about conifers. We were surrounded by them. I was enthralled viewing them from this unique perspective. The larger conically shaped trees seemed to point up into the parade route that the clouds were taking as if to point the way; their silhouettes were stunning against the deep blue sky. The intermediate sized conifers, in an assortment of shapes, sizes, colors and textures also looked new and exciting viewing them from this ground level point of view.

Remembering an old classic science fiction film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, I began to wonder what it would be like to be only a few inches tall in my garden. I decided that should I ever befall such a fate as the main character in the movie, I would have my wife make a small shelter and place it in the miniatures section of my rock garden.

My mind continued to wander as I heard my wife say, “Now THAT one is definitely a Teddy bear!” and looking at it, I had to agree.

Summer had finally arrived. While many of our neighbors are busy mowing and watering their huge lawns and dead-heading their flower gardens, we are enjoying the peace and quiet of our low-maintenance conifers.

Ed-
Conifer Lover