About a hundred years ago, when I was in the 7th grade, I took an art class. There we learned various basic techniques of drawing and painting. My teacher encouraged us to pay attention to light and shadow and how one affects the other on objects of assorted shapes and textures. From what I remember, one of his favorite exercises for us was to draw or paint three geometric shapes; a cone, a column and a sphere. Those three basic shapes helped us learn how light and shadow fell across objects and changed in tone as it moved across the curved surfaces of those shapes.
Basic geometric shapes are seen throughout history in all kinds of art from ancient clay pots to modern abstract art movements. Basic geometry can be found throughout nature in the formation of seashells, the bi-directional spirals found in sunflowers, patterns of a honeycomb, the dimensions of the human body, and more simply, in the general forms of conifers. The basic shapes or forms of many conifers are reflected in those three basic shapes I attempted to draw and paint all those years ago.
As I was sitting near the woodstove during a recent shower of mixed snow and rain, I gazed out the window which overlooks the main section of my garden and I began to think about combinations of conifers that would make a feature that might appeal to artists. I sketched those three simple shapes and envisioned a circular planting space in which the three shapes were growing. I thought about placing them so that light and shadow would move across the plants throughout the day much as it did in the classroom when my teacher slowly rotated the table where he had placed the geometric shapes. I considered how the plants would grow over the years and eventually, if one planted them in limited space, they would begin to merge together into one larger sculpture.
Of course, using geometric shapes in garden design is nothing new. In fact, training garden plants into geometric shapes has been in practice for hundreds of years. The art of topiary can be very rewarding if you have the time for it since it will require dedication to spending time shearing your plants two to three times a season to create and maintain their shape. Since many dwarf conifers already grow naturally in neat and tidy geometric shapes, the gardener will not need to keep a regular routine of shearing the plants — and cleaning up the mess afterward.
So, I’m thinking about three distinctly different shapes — a column, a cone and a sphere — that will look great growing together as a feature. They should have similar texture and growth rates, though their colors can be different. They should be reliable and relatively easy to grow so that the gardener can essentially plant them and then just enjoy the sculptural grouping as they grow and subtly change over the years. They should be hardy and usable in as much of the country as possible since, who knows, maybe someone else will think this is a great idea and try it at home in their own garden!
For the column, I have several conifers in mind, but I believe Picea pungens ‘Iseli Fastigiate’ will be the best choice for this project. It has a narrow, upright form, and it grows at an intermediate rate pushing an average of 8-10 inches of growth per year.
The cone was an easy choice for me, Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’ is a perfectly compact, bright blue, cone-shaped plant growing 3-5 inches per year.
I am very excited about the sphere shaped conifer that I have chosen. Picea pungens ‘Roundabout’ is a new introduction from Iseli Nursery and it is perhaps the most perfectly round, sphere-shaped Colorado Spruce I have ever seen. It is a slower grower than the other two plants with annual growth of 2-4 inches per year, but I think it will scale well with the others as years go by. ‘Roundabout’ has a very unique color, it is not one of the bright powdery blue spruces, but it is by no means simply green either. Several years ago when I was first introduced to this exciting new cultivar, before it had even been given its official name, I told my friends at Iseli that they should name it, ‘Viridian Orb’. As a smart marketing decision they decided to call it ‘Roundabout’.
Now all I need to do is find someone willing to take me up on my design idea and plant this group in a special place in their garden!