Problem or opportunity?

As my story began last time, I mentioned what a magnificently lovely morning I had awoken to. I prepared myself to spend a good couple of hours out in the garden and I went for a stroll in the early morning sunshine. I was surprised by how active the birds were with their morning songs. It had been months since I had heard that kind of singing in the morning and it contributed to brightening my heart and soul as I wandered my garden paths. As you may recall, there was something about my Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Reis Dwarf’ that had caught my attention, and I left the story there to tell you a little about that cultivar.

So, there I was, looking closely at the dried and brown clumps of foliage in what appeared to be a somewhat random arrangement throughout the small tree. Now, this is a fairly common occurrence among some of the dwarf types of Chamaecyparis obtusa. Sometimes areas of the tightly congested foliage will die back. This does not appear to be caused by any type of disease or insect, but more likely a natural result due to environmental conditions – which may include human or animal interaction, brushing up against a more delicate branch causing a break, or simply the older foliage being shed as the plant ages. Of course anytime you have suspicious behavior among your conifers, it is a good idea to give a close inspection to see if you might have a more serious situation to contend with.

Older foliage often will naturally die back, especially with some of the more dwarf and miniature types of conifers. Taking time to occasionally remove the dead foliage will open airways which is healthy for plants.

I want to remind you, all plants shed older foliage. While deciduous trees to it annually, and they often put on a big production in the process, most conifers tend to be subtle – they like to shed their foliage less frequently, only dropping their older, inner foliage once every few years, while they still have plenty of younger foliage to keep themselves covered up. Of course, there are deciduous conifers that do shed all their foliage every autumn, but I have discussed the exhibitionist habit of those plants in previous posts.

After simply removing the dried, older, dead foliage with my hands, the plant will benefit from increased airflow and light penetration. Further pruning could be performed if one were feeling creative (see last weeks post).

So, I’m looking over my ‘Reis Dwarf’ thinking that it was the perfect day to clean out the brown foliage and begin to expose some of the branches, very much like the specimen I featured last time, from the gardens at Iseli. I reach in with my gloved hands and begin to carefully crumble the old, dried patches of foliage and lightly shake and brush the brown stuff off of the plant. Doing this simple cleaning exercise begins to expose some of the older branches and I imagine how I might use my small pruners to trim away small dead branches from the interior of the specimen. As I work the tree, I clean an area, step back and look over the whole tree, and clean out another area, always keeping in mind that goal is to slightly open the tree up, exposing more of the older branch details while keeping an aesthetic balance of healthy, rich green foliage.

It will be quite some time before my little tree looks anything like the one pictured in my previous post, but that beautiful specimen was first pruned by my friends at Iseli in 1989 when it was approximately 10 years old. By cleaning out the older, dried and brown foliage,  I actually encourage good health by allowing a freer flow of air and light through the plant. I also gain the pleasure of creating a truly unique, living garden sculpture, that I will enjoy for many years as it continues to grow with its unique habit, and I encourage it to develop an aesthetic form.

Conifer Lover

A great day for conifer gardening

I knew I was dreaming, and I was aware that I was about to awaken, but I didn’t want to.  I had a strong desire to stay right where I was, in the midst of a dream, where the sun was warm and bright, and any troubles were worlds away. As I sat – or stood, now I really don’t recall – I perceived that the light was becoming brighter and engulfing everything around me. I knew I was waking up and BAM – I was awake.

My room was bright. I hadn’t seen this much light, this early in the morning in a long time. I made my best attempt to jump out of bed and instead sort of hobbled over to the window. Sure enough, the sky was clear, and the low rising sun was intense. “It should be a great day to spend some time with my conifers.” I thought to myself.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Reis Dwarf'
The natural habit of Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Reis Dwarf' lends itself to creating delightful garden sculptures for growing either in a container or among other plants in the garden.

After a quick breakfast I strapped on my hand pruners, grabbed a small pruning saw (just in case), queued up a playlist on my mp3 player, stuffed my gloves in my back pocket and headed out to see what fun chores I might find to do out in the garden. Once outside, I began making mental notes of the more tedious and less enjoyable things to do like picking up all the fallen debris from the recent storms, pulling the early-season weeds – that sort of thing – while I looked for an activity that would be a little more fun.

Eventually, I found myself in the front garden scrutinizing my Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Reis Dwarf’. Now, before I go on with my morning adventure, I suppose it would be a good idea to tell you a little about this particular cultivar.

‘Reis Dwarf’ is the clone of a seedling selected by Joe Reis back in the 1960s. This cultivar has a very unusual growth habit giving it a tremendous amount of character as it grows and matures. Initially, it grows very slowly with small, scale-like foliage on tiny branches in a low mounding form. It does, however, randomly shoot out much more vigorously growing branches from time to time. The gardener may choose to snip these occasional growths out as they appear, or if a larger, more upright plant is desired, simply allow this accelerated growth to continue on its own. The longer growth will then begin to fill in with smaller, slower growing clumps of foliage – much like the original small plant – adding tremendous character and opportunity to this unusual specimen.

Next time, I will continue the tale of my encounter with my ‘Reis Dwarf’ on this sunny winter morning. Until then, may your gardens be filled with the year-round color and interest of these landscape gems.

Conifer Lover

Losing touch with normality

I had an opportunity to sit down with a long-lost friend at the local coffee shop the other day. Don’t you love it when you haven’t seen an old friend in quite a long time, but when you do finally get together it is as if no time has passed at all. That was how this meeting went.

We talked about all the usual things; family, jobs, religion, politics and gardening. Rest assured, we pretty much solved all of the world problems in just that one visit. Of course my favorite part of the conversation was when we began to talk about gardening – and specifically, conifers!

“Ed,” my friend began in a very serious tone, “I believe I’m beginning to lose touch with normality.”


“Really – and I think I have you to blame for it.” He continued very seriously.

“I don’t understand. I’m a pretty normal guy.” I said with a straight face. “They don’t come much more normal than me.”

“HA! Ed, you are absolutely NUTS about conifers, how can you claim to be normal!” My friend said, now laughing out loud. “And you’re the reason I’m a conifer nut now too!”

Picea abies 'Pendula'
This Picea abies ‘Pendula’ living fence partially encircles a section of the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery. Planted in 1986, it was staked to a height of approximately eight feet and trained horizontally at about four feet.

We laughed over that as my friend and I shared our experiences with growing more and more conifers in our gardens. Conifers, with their grand assortment of colors, from multiple shades of green and blue and yellow (some a mixture of all three), along with their many forms, from giant trees to tiny little buns, weeping and trailing and mounding and layered, we questioned, “What is normal, anyway?”

After that great visit with my old friend, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite conifers, that upon first introductions, people might find rather unusual, but have become very normal and important additions to my garden. These are plants that I often suggest to folks when they ask me what they should add to their gardens – even though their initial response is frequently less than immediately embracing.

Picea abies ‘Pendula’ has become very common and should be available at any independent garden center. If this tree were grown without a support, it would sprawl along the ground, mounding and layering upon itself in delicious waves of dark green, coarsely textured foliage. Most often you will find this plant staked to a height of three to five feet. It only takes a couple of years for the staked main stem to harden and support the plant, so a stake will not be needed for its entire life. Once you arrive home with one of your own, you may choose to let it do its own thing and flop over, and begin to weep toward the ground. As an alternative, you could continue to stake the leader up higher and higher to create a tall slender “waterfall” specimen in your garden. Either way, as the foliage grows down to the ground, it will begin to spread as I described above, adding to the waterfall effect.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni'
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’ can become a wonderful golden sculpture in the garden, complementing other conifers and ornamentals.

Another fantastic cultivar that has become “normal” to me, but might seem unusual to those new to conifers is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’. This excellent dwarf cultivar of Hinoki Cypress is notable for its sturdy golden foliage and its naturally sculptural form. Fairly slow growing at two to three inches per year in my garden; ‘Verdoni’ is great accent to any garden because of its bright golden color. Planted as a single specimen to highlight its sculptural characteristics, in a container alone or as part of a grouping, or in the mixed border, this small conifers will be a gorgeous addition to gardens of all sized and themes.

Let me know if these two selections are common normalities, or unusual oddities, from your perspective.

Conifer Lover

I love the classics: movies, cars, music and conifers!

I was talking with a new friend about his new garden. He and his wife want a little space to grow some veggies, maybe a dwarf fruit tree or two, an area large enough for a swing-set or climbing structure for the kids and a bed or two of dwarf conifers. He loves the idea of having a garden with year-round color that is as low maintenance as it is beautiful. As we were walking around my garden, I was inclined to show him some of my most recent acquisitions – some of which are really far too rare for a newbie to look for. As we took our stroll, I noticed that he was very interested in some of the conifers that I started with many, many years ago. Conifers with great characteristics and value to the garden, but because I’ve known them for so many years, I’ve almost snubbed them for their familiarity. Silly me.

Today I’ll present to you the first two of five classic conifers worthy of a home in any garden, whether you are a conifer newb or an old-timer like me. Next time, I’ll follow-up with the final three. These five classics should be easy to find at your local independent garden center and will make a very nice combination in a new conifer bed. These same five plants will also be a joy to grow in containers, on the deck or patio, for a number of years when small plants are purchased.

Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star'
Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' is a premium dwarf conifer with tremendous blue color and a nice coarse texture.

My first selection really is a great dwarf conifer. Its blue foliage and low, rounded, spreading form is very useful near other colorful conifers, Japanese maples, spring bulbs, perennials – just about any companion plant. Unfortunately, this beautiful conifer has received a bad reputation, due in large part to its misuse in the landscape. Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’is one of the bluest and most readily available dwarf conifers you might find. Placed properly in the landscape, it can grow to a luscious full size adding unbeatable color and texture to the garden.

People are all too often enamored with this pretty little blue conifer and since it is labeled as a dwarf, they think it will make a great way to fill in the parking strip (that narrow space between the curb and sidewalk). At first, those little blue mounds look so good dressed up with a nice mulch of small river rock or bark. The bad news is that being small and low to the ground, they become prime targets for children on bicycles and the neighborhood dogs like to make them part of their regular routine. Then, once one dog marks the spot, they become targets for every dog in the neighborhood. Of course humans can be somewhat heartless as well when they pull up to the curb, open their door and step right out and onto the young plant trying to survive all this abuse. Before long the homeowner – and everyone in the neighborhood – detests the innocent plant that has had nothing but a life of abuse as it turns from its lively blue to shades of yellow and brown. ‘Blue Star’ is much more suited for a prime location near the front door mixed with an assortment of other colorful plants. There, it will thrive in a less disturbed environment, providing years and years of color and texture.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea'
Its golden yellow color and tidy, compact habit make Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea' one of my very favorite classic conifers.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ is one of the first golden dwarf conifers I met back in my youth while working for an old landscaper in the big city. This delightful dwarf conifer has soft sprays of brightly colored, golden yellow foliage. A young plant will add tremendous color to the mixed container or the garden bed. Growing just a few inches per year, ‘Nana Lutea’ will form a compact pyramidal shape and slowly grow from several inches tall in a one gallon container to nearly five feet tall and four feet broad at its base in about twenty more years. Placed near a ‘Blue Star’, their colors contrast beautifully in the garden and can make a wonderful foundation for other dwarf or miniature conifers  and other colorful companions.

I hope you’ll try these  two colorful beauties in your garden. They should be easy to find and easy on the budget as well. Keep in mind that dwarf conifers can live for many years in the garden and will slowly continue to gain size, a few inches per year, for their lifetime.

Conifer Lover

The big city

The other day, I had an opportunity to spend some time in the big city. Now, first of all, let me just say that I prefer not to visit the big city, but sometimes life throws you a challenge or two just to keep you alert.

So, I’m sitting in a fairly nice waiting room with big windows overlooking one of the busy main streets through this part of town. I’m thinking about all the people I see milling about, trying not to listen to the conversations of the others waiting in the same room, when I hear a woman begin to talk about a blog that she’s been reading by some old guy that loves conifers!

Suddenly, I am listening very closely.

After a little while, I excuse myself for interrupting, and mention that I enjoy conifers too and I point out some huge old trees out the window. Both the young woman and her mother seemed impressed, so I continued the conversation trying not to reveal my identity.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Confucius'
Whether you are an experienced Conehead or a conifer gardening Newbie, you're sure to love Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Confucius'.

“My husband planted some very special trees in my garden years ago, I had no idea at the time what they were,” the older woman told me, “We always just called them evergreens. A few years ago a very nice young lady spoke at my garden club and she told story after story about her flowers and how beautiful the garden can become when you include dwarf conifers. I was intrigued.”

I smiled and nodded quite a lot as she shared another story that sounded very familiar to me. It was then that I realized that my friend, The Flower Girl, had been speaking publicly (at least once) about the value of conifers in the garden!

This was really all-too-funny, I could barely contain myself.

I asked the younger woman how she began reading a blog about conifers. Her mother quickly said that she had started reading it first and her daughter was a conifer “Newb” and was just starting out. I smiled when the younger woman blurted out that she couldn’t believe her own mother called her a newb!

“Well, we all start somewhere,” I said and thought this might be a good time to change the subject.

Just then my wife appeared and was ready to go. I introduced my wife to the ladies and mentioned that we had been talking about conifers. My wife rolled her eyes and apologized, thinking that I had been giving unsolicited advice. At this point I tried to hurry her along when the older woman mentioned that she hadn’t caught my name. I nudged my wife forward, opened the door, turned back to the ladies and said, “My name’s, Ed” as I tipped my hat and hurried out the door.

Conifer Lover