Springtime blues

I can remember way back when I was a young lad, just beginning to learn about the amazing beauty of conifers, and specifically blue conifers. When I think of blue conifers, I immediately think of different cultivars of the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens). Although there are other groups of conifers that do have a few blue colored members, I think the most common and most prolific producers of stunning blue plants are the Colorado Blue Spruce. There are incredible full-sized trees such as, Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’, ‘Fat Albert’, ‘Bonny Blue’ and ‘Avatar’ to name a handful, but there are stunning dwarf forms as well. One of the most popular is ‘Montgomery’, but other great dwarf forms are, ‘Sester Dwarf’, ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’, ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ and ‘Procumbens’ which actually has a fairly vigorous growth rate, but it sprawls along the ground creating a bright blue ground cover.

A new dwarf, globe-shaped blue spruce in the foreground is being evaluated while Picea pungens ‘Avatar’ grows nearby. Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ can be seen in the distance in another section of the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden.

Since the vast majority of plants available for our gardens have foliage which is essentially some shade of green, the inclusion of additional color creates a lot of interest and helps draw the eye (and feet) into and through a garden—which really is the point of having a garden anyway, right? Even yellow, gold and variegated plants can appear as just different shades of green and adding a stunning, bright blue conifer can break the monotony, add a wonderful contrast and increase the feelings of well-being that gardens naturally tend to induce.

Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ is a stunning blue addition to a garden filled with green and yellow conifers and other colorful plants.

A few blue conifers placed some distance apart along a visual plane can draw the eye, and the viewer’s interest, deeper into the garden. With a well thought out design, this technique can also give a deeper sense of depth to the garden while providing several focal points to a vista view. Interspersed with other conifers of dark and light greens, yellows and golds, and the red foliage of Japanese Maples, Beech, or other ornamental plants, the blue conifers are a perfect complement to the well-planned, colorful garden.

This detail shot of the lush, soft, fresh blue foliage of Picea pungens ‘The Blues’ shows off the delicious color of the springtime blues.

This time of year, as the many cultivars of Colorado Blue Spruce push their fresh, colorful new foliage, is perhaps when the blues are at their peak, before the harsh summer sun hardens the foliage and autumn and winter rains slowly erode away some of the white waxy coating which gives these amazing plants their intensely beautiful blue color. The springtime blues are a happy blues!

Conifer Lover

Revisiting an old and reliable friend

One of the first conifers I wrote about, nearly five years ago when I began this blogging adventure, was Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’. My own specimen was fairly young (in conifer years) in my garden and the oldest one I had ever seen was growing in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery. Over the past five years, my small tree has filled out nicely and seems very happy in my garden. During my recent visit to Iseli, I was drawn to the wonderful old specimen of this slow-growing blue spruce with its symmetrical form, compact habit a bright blue color.

Picea pungens 'Sester Dwarf'
Of course, I have seen this same plant on many occasions over the past five years, but the sun, in its lower autumn position, must have been hitting it just right, because it seemed to stand out more prominently than I had noticed in the past.

I have always been impressed with this beautiful blue tree, from the time many years ago when I saw a row of them growing in the field under evaluation at Iseli, to the time I finally obtained my first little plant, and especially during that recent visit as I gazed upon the elegant beauty of this dwarf conifer. It is trees such as this that inspired my early love of dwarf conifers back when I was but a young lad just beginning my journey into the amazing world of conifers.

The specimen pictured above is nearly eleven feet tall and about five feet across its fairly uniform breadth. Putting on six to eight inches of new vertical growth per year, I am going to presume that this tree is approximately 25 years old, making it perfect for just about any of today’s smaller gardens.

Perfect conical shape, tremendously hardy (USDA Zone 2), brilliant blue color, slow-growing and behaves well in a container for many years; I simply can’t think of a reason more folks don’t have at least one of these pretty trees in their gardens.

Conifer Lover

Return of the Flower Girl

A while back I shared with you all a conversation I had with a dear gardening friend of mine. This gal loves her herbaceous flowering plants the way I love my conifers. I hadn’t heard from her for several months, but my last blog entry inspired her to give me a call. Apparently she thought my need for an intervention was a victory for her “side” of the gardening world and this would be a good time to rub it in.

“So, your conifers are giving you some trouble, huh?” she asked in her playful tone.

“Oh, I don’t know that they were the cause of my trouble.”

“You called one of them a “bully” didn’t you? And you had to move all that other stuff – I would’ve just got my chainsaw out and taken that big bully down!” she said with a bit of a chuckle.

“Yeah, I suppose I did lay some blame on that poor, misunderstood ‘Montgomery’.

I went on to explain that my beautiful, mature, stately ‘Montgomery’ was behaving exactly as is was genetically designed to. My erroneous expectations were the cause of my trouble.

You see, I was wanting one dwarf conifer to behave like another. I should have allowed it to be itself and not something I wanted. Afterall, there are other excellent (and even more dwarf) cultivars of blue spruce available. As it turns out though, once I relocated the plants being crowded by my faithful and trusty ‘Montgomery’, it immediately was transformed from bully to nobility.

Picea pungens 'Lundeby's Dwarf'
‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is an excellent, slower growing alternative to ‘Montgomery’ in todays smaller gardens.

Back when I originally planted my ‘Montgomery’ I was very well aware of its potential size. But that was a long time ago and I was younger, and perhaps a little more ambitious. I had planned on annual or semi-annual pruning to keep its size under control – which worked well for the first 10 or 15 years. Since then though, I’ve allowed it to grow without my direct influence. If I had planted a different cultivar, one with less annual growth and a natural form more suited to my original design, perhaps I could have prevented a lot of work.

Two marvelous dwarf cultivars of blue spruce immediately come to mind.

Picea pungens ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is a fantastic alternative if height is a concern. It has an annual growth rate of about half of what I experienced with my ‘Montgomery’ so it will take many, many more years to attain a height of ten feet. It has more of a mounding habit, so it will tend to spread a little more while remaining comparatively low.

Picea pungens 'St. Mary's Broom'
‘St. Mary’s Broom’ is perfect for small spaces, the rock garden or in containers.

Another favorite of mine is Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’. Still officially in the Dwarf growth range with an annual push of just over an inch in my garden, this little beauty will be a very well-behaved blue mound in the garden for a lifetime.

There are other wonderful dwarf blue spruce of varying growth rates, forms and shades of blue that may also be considered. A creative designer could use an assortment to build a beautiful boundary that might mimic nearby hillsides or the mountain ranges of faraway lands.

Dwarf conifers are so versatile and beautiful that I don’t mind the few challenges they may induce. What other group of plants can be both foundation and centerpiece, border and boundary, filler and cherished specimen all while providing year-round color in the garden?

Conifer Lover

An intervention

The past few years I’ve been in denial. Just recently some of my best gardening friends believed it was time for an intervention – and I was the subject of their rescue. Well, perhaps not me personally, but a portion of my garden.

It seems that I had allowed myself to become co-dependent with one of the oldest and most favored conifers in my garden. It was getting so bad, that this big bully was crowding out several of my smaller plants and I was unable to take the steps needed to solve this problem on my own. Thankfully, I have friends that were able to see the negative effects on my garden and through their wise counsel and strong backs, we were able to work together to set things right.

Picea pungens 'Montgomery'
Cute when small, these plants will soon outgrow their space.

28 years ago, I purchased a cute little blue mounding Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ and gave it a prominent place in my garden. At six or eight years old, this small mound of year-round bright blue fit well in my young garden. Over the years though, ‘Montgomery’ continued to grow, becoming a wonderful compact blue pyramid. Nearby, I had planted several different things over the years including perennials and other dwarf and miniature conifers. Space began to fill in and the perennials were moved to new homes while the conifers slowly matured.

Picea pungens 'Montgomery'
In time, ‘Montgomery’ will become a large stately specimen in the garden.

Actually I knew better than to plant my other treasures so close to my ‘Montgomery’, but I always believed it would be easy enough to move things later. Well, later arrived a few years ago, and like I said, I’ve been in denial. As much as I love my large ‘Montgomery’ (which had grown to nearly twenty feet tall and at least twelve feet wide), deep inside, I knew something had to be done.

Thanks to the intervention of some good friends, I was able to dig and transplant the surrounding conifers. Even though they were all true dwarf and miniature conifers, they too were fifteen to 25 years old and had become too large for me to manage by myself. Now I have a new garden bed to design with one large specimen as its anchor.

There are two morals to this story: First, plan your garden carefully to avoid the need of a garden intervention. Second, as you grow older, be sure to continue to make friends with the younger generations. You never know when you may need extra hands with strong backs!

Next time, I’ll talk more about some excellent alternatives to the stately ‘Montgomery’ with reduced growth rates. In the meantime, you might like to take a look back at my thoughts on the Blue Dwarfs in my garden.

Conifer Lover

Sester Dwarf

Now this one is a real thing of beauty. Think of the bluest Colorado Blue Spruce you’ve seen growing in the mountains, and then shrink it into a compact, formal, blue cone-shaped specimen perfect for even my mother’s tiny garden. If I only had room for one blue spruce, this would likely be the one to have, Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’. (Well…honestly, I’m too far gone for that – I’d find room to plant more – one way or another.)


Picea pungens 'Sester Dwarf'

Conifer Lover