Yes, I experimented with grass, and now I know better

Several years ago, in one of my attempts to not be a total conifer snob, I experimented with quite an assortment of ornamental grasses. The funny thing is, even though I had some very specific reasons for avoiding them in the first place, they had become the latest, greatest craze amongst the garden experts I know, so I gave some of them a try, only to confirm after several years that all of my natural instincts about them would prove to be true.

Now, to be fair, I do want to say that there are some very attractive ornamental grasses available in quite an assortment of colors and sizes. I am even inclined to use a couple of them in containers mixed with other herbaceous plants that I have basically eliminated from the main garden. I definitely prefer the ultra low maintenance and year-round color, shape and texture of my conifers.

Thuja plicata 'Whipcord'
Unlike a large mounding form of ornamental grass, 'Whipcord' will retain its great color and texture all year long, adding to the multi-seasonal appeal of the conifer garden.

So, the other day we were having one of those blustery Pacific Northwest kind of days that begins with thick cloud cover and rain, then the wind picks up and blows the clouds away and the sun shines brightly, which is almost immediately followed by a big black cloud and more wind and rain, etc. As I was sitting next to my nice warm woodstove, sipping a cup of warm Blueberry Rooibos tea, my wife diligently clipping coupons from the Sunday paper, my phone rang.

“Ed, dude! You’ve gotta tell me you love all these cool ornamental grasses I just saw!”

My young nephew and his wife have been bit by the garden bug and have suddenly started watching every garden show they can find on TV or online video.

“These are like the greatest things I’ve ever seen. They’ll add lots of color and soft flowing texture and they move and sway in a gentle breeze!” He said as if trying to sell me on his new discovery.

“Yes, they are all that aren’t they.” I said trying not to squelch his excitement too quickly. “They also are prolific seeders and spread themselves all over the garden. Not to mention the lovely dead brown piles they turn into in the winter. Of course you could shear them all down to stiff brown stubs in November when it’s pouring down rain if you want.”

“Dude, you really know how to kill a guy’s enthusiasm.”

“I think I may have an excellent alternative for you.” I said and I invited him over for a little garden tour.

My nephew has been over many times, and I’ve done my best to convert him to strict coniferism, but there are many temptations out there, so I will need be patient.

Thuja plicata 'Whipcord'
Thuja plicata 'Whipcord' is also great grown as a grafted "standard" allowing its wispy branches to fall freely as they dance in the wind.

We walked around my garden during one of the brief sun-breaks and I led him straight to the plant I was thinking had the characteristics he admired in the grasses he had seen. Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’ is a very unusual form of the Western Red Cedar, a native forest tree in our area. ‘Whipcord’ was selected as a seedling among thousands and thousands of tiny little trees several years ago at a nursery here in Oregon and has become very popular ever since its introduction to the trade.

‘Whipcord’ is one of those unique conifers with very long, wispy cords of foliage that grows as a mounding form. The long branches grow upward and out arching and weeping toward the ground. The little branches will move and flow and sway in the slightest breeze providing much the same effect for which the ornamental grasses are touted. It’s broad mounding form is also similar to many of the grasses. One obvious advantage is that it is evergreen – it will provide its wonderful display of multi-seasonal color all year-long!

Great texture, interesting form, appealing movement, wonderful year-round color, great in containers and essentially maintenance free. Well, I’ve certainly convinced myself, I think my nephew is on track now too.

Conifer Lover

17 thoughts on “Yes, I experimented with grass, and now I know better

  1. I just saw ‘whipcord’ in my latest garden catalog today. I was thinking I’d try it….and now that it’s endorsed by you….I’m sure I will. Thanks


  2. I was glad to see this post because I saw a very similar plant a couple of weeks ago when I visited an arboretum here in Georgia. Unfortunately, it was missing it’s label so I wasn’t able to identify it. Are there other similar conifers?


    1. Hi Fred – Actually there are a few more common thread-branch type conifers. ‘Whipcord’ is fairly new, but should be available at your local independent garden centers this spring. A similar looking conifer is, Chamaecyparis pisifera var. filifera (the common Thread-branch cypress). Another very popular cultivar is C.p. ‘Golden Mop’ (which is bright yellow). The Chams have thinner “thread-like” branches where ‘Whipcord’s branches are thicker and more “cord-like.”


  3. Hi Ed, ‘Whipcord’ is one of my favorite little conifers (actually I’m hoping mine survived the brutal winter we had here in CT, not to mention the spring thaw we’re experiencing now) but I have to put a good word in for ornamental grasses too. One of the best aspects of native grasses is the habitat value they provide. Several clumping native grasses planted together can provide nesting, shelter and food for birds and small mammals. And, I do love the changing look grasses bring to my garden during each season. Like anything, they can be over used but I can’t imagine my garden without both grasses and conifers. Great photos of ‘Whipcord’, I especially love the standard look.


  4. Hi Ed,
    I am wondering if you can give me some advice or suggestions. I am planning on starting a new block and I would like to get a hold of some pictures of conifers when I do about related to them. Could you suggest a source that I could use?


  5. hello Ed, I’ve just found your blog and am fascinated by the variety of the conifers you show, I do not know much about them but have recently started to take interest as I think they are more suited to my northern coastal garden, I too do not like grass but for me it is the fight I have with the local common grass, I love this Whipcord conifer and hope I can found it and/or one of the others you mention, thanks for an interesting blog, Frances


  6. Hello, thanks for the great blog! Do you think Whipcord would grow under a black walnut? I have a brochure from Portland Nursery that says an Eastern Red Cedar is tolerant, but it doesn’t mention Western…


    1. Greetings! I have no experience with Black Walnut at all. I can tell you that the Eastern Red Cedar is actually a Juniper (Juniperus virginiana) and the Western Red Cedar is actually a Thuja (Thuja plicata), so they may very well have different tolerances to Black Walnut.


  7. Mr. Husband found this today at our local garden center-he was immediately drawn to it and asked me, “is it on the list?” (Meaning your list…I printed it out as reference, since I just found your site today!) Whipcord is now our first conifer! Hurrah for us! We bought two other conifers, as well. A new obsession begins….


  8. Luckily I found your site. I just purchased a Whipcord today. Now the other problem I have is that I have approximately 1 1/2 feet on either side of it and was wondering what other small conifer would emphasize it.


    1. 18 inches is not much to work with considering your Whipcord will likely spread and fill in that space over the next few years. You might consider a decorative rock or birdbath that could be moved as the Whipcord fills the space.


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