Autumn—So much life to live!

I love autumn.

More than any other time of year, I believe that autumn fills me with a consistent flow of peace, joy, happiness and anticipation. Even after having given this phenomenon a great deal of thought over many years, I still cannot explain it. Best just to accept and enjoy it, I think.

The other morning, just before sunrise, I stepped out onto my second story deck to breathe in the air of the new day and allow my mind to become stimulated by the sights, sounds and smells of that autumn morning. The deck was damp from the overnight rain, but I could see enough hint of light from the dissipating clouds in the sky above me that it appeared we would, at least for a little while, enjoy a break from the recent refreshing showers. The garden space, but a place of dreams at this time, was ensconced in a misty fog where I imagined maturing conifers filling beds, yet to be dug.

‘Chief Joseph’ begins his colorful show as daylight hours become shorter – usually, by mid to late October here in my corner of the PNW. As temperatures drop, his color becomes more and more intense through the winter months.

I breathed in very deeply, the misty air, and enjoyed the faint smoky-sweet scent of a neighbor’s wood-stove, while the hum of another neighbor’s heat pump reminded me that summer was truly, finally over. Sounds of far off traffic purred as commuters were busy about their morning routines and children talking and laughing at the nearby bus-stop reminded me of the special appointment I had that morning.

By the time I arrived at the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden, the sun had made its way above the neighboring stand of tall Douglas fir trees and gave the garden a very special morning glow. Light glistened off of the remaining rain drops which still clung to branches creating a spectacular sparkle to the garden as I made my approach up the long driveway which leads to this very special place.

Thankful for my long association with the folks at Iseli, allowing me my treasured visits to the display gardens; I climbed out of my truck and made my way in to the office to check in. Once I was welcomed, and set on my way to stroll the garden paths, I quickly began the inspiration absorption process.

Thankful for my long association with the folks at Iseli, which allows me my treasured visits to the display gardens…

So much to see there—I do believe I see something new with each visit. Being that I have had some input on the garden design over the years, it is particularly encouraging to see how specific trees and viewing vistas have matured over the 30 years since the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden was first planted. Seeing changes through the years and making note of what design and plant combinations worked and which ones didn’t has always been very helpful to me in making planting choices in my own gardens over those same 30 years. Now that I am in the early planning stage of creating a new garden, I am excited to draw on all those lessons.

One tree that consistently gives me a charge this time of year is Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’. I have mentioned this delightful, slow-growing tree over the years and it never fails to inspire admiration from most all who see it. Although photos of the tree are very nice, there is something very special about seeing this exciting tree, in person, in a beautiful garden setting.

As I stood, admiring the beauty of the large specimen planted at Iseli, my mind took me immediately back to that morning as I stood upon my deck, overlooking the small, foggy garden space. I imagined where I might place the good Chief in my new garden so that it would stand out through the autumn and winter months and yet be able to fade into the background during the spring and summer when it takes its rest and re-energizes itself during its light green color-stage.

Autumn, a season with so much to experience, so much life to live, I love it!

Conifer Lover

A lighthouse in the morning fog

This morning I awoke to discover one of the thickest fogs in memory. Only once, back in the early 1970s, do I remember a fog more thick than this one. A friend and I had been given charge of a mutual friend’s 1969 Camaro. I do not remember the series of events that lead us to have this responsibility, but I do remember that we were supposed to drive his pride and joy to his girlfriend’s house by a specific time. The fog, that evening, was so thick and the country roads were so dark that it took us well over an hour for what was ordinarily a 20 minute trip. We could not see the yellow lines of the road! We tried a number of techniques in attempts to increase our visibility, but nothing really helped much. I do not remember how we eventually made it to our destination, but we did arrive, albeit much later than instructed. We all had a laugh about the density of the fog and decided to hang out at the girl’s house for an hour or two. Eventually another friend arrived and his car was equipped with fog lights, so we all decided that he could lead the way out of the muck and back home to our side of town. This morning’s fog was not near as bad as that, but it was a close second.

The magnificent ‘Chief Joseph’ showing off his stunning winter color on a dark, foggy morning at the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden.

By the time I motivated myself to really begin my day, the fog had thinned out some and I took a stroll around my garden. I always enjoy my garden walks in the fog. There is just some measure of magic and mystery that the low light and reduced visibility gives to the garden. Weeping plants seem more alive as they take on creature features in the fog. Background distractions faded from view and the fog accumulated on the foliage and bare branches creating millions of tiny dewdrops, which in the light freeze, added a special sparkle to the garden as the sun brightened and burned a brighter spot into the fog.

Tiny, quick-frozen dew drops created a wonderful effect in the foggy morning garden.

As I wandered around the foggy garden, I thought back to that harrowing drive 40 years ago with my friend. As I turned and approached a curve in my path, I couldn’t see what was lying in wait and my imagination conjured all kinds of fantastic possibilities inspired by years of reading tales of hobbits, elves, gnomes, and dragons. What I did see as I made my way ’round the curve caught me just a little by surprise. It was my old friend, The Chief! Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ was standing tall and glowing his very bright golden yellow color. Nothing in the immediate vicinity was as bright and noble looking as The Chief. I was reminded of one very foggy visit to the Yaquina Head lighthouse on the central Oregon coast. It was so foggy that day that we could barely see the lighthouse, even up close, but its light shined brightly and was visible miles away! So too, ‘Chief Joseph’ was a bright light in my dark and foggy garden, lighting my way, and guiding me to the next bend in the path.

Conifer Lover

The colorful winter garden

We have been enjoying a surprising number of mostly dry and partially sunny days the past several weeks with only the occasional instances of pouring rain. Along with these dryer winter days come colder temperatures, which I don’t mind since the colder the winter garden, the more intense the colors become in several of my conifers.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to acquire a Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ as certainly by now seen the super-bright yellow of his winter glow. I’ve mentioned in the past that ‘Chief Joseph’ tends to sit quietly in the background through the growing season, when other plants are taking center stage. This is the time of year when the Chief quietly steps forward and commands full attention of anyone within view. The intensity of his bright yellow color seems to grow stronger as winter gets colder. He’s shining very brightly in my garden right now.

Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph'
Pinus contorta 'Chief Joseph' may be enjoyed in containers or planted directly in garden.

Other fun conifers to put on a colorful winter show are Cryptomeria japonica ‘Mushroom’ and ‘Hino’.  I mention these two specifically because they are tremendously attractive dwarf conifers that not only perform brilliantly in the garden, but they also make delightful little specimens in the container garden on deck or patio. Both will grow into nice rounded little mounding forms, but they do have distinctly different characteristics. ‘Hino’ has a somewhat tighter growing habit that grows into a more globose looking form. Its short, thick, awl-like needles give this great little globe a coarse texture.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Hino' - winter color
Cryptomeria japonica 'Hino' - winter color

‘Mushroom’ on the other hand, has a very slightly more open habit and longer (though similarly succulent-looking) needles that are surprisingly soft to the touch. ‘Mushroom’ also has a little less of a globe-shaped form and rather looks like a very large (stemless) mushroom cap. Both cultivars are shades of rich green during the growing season and take on a special, bronze, orange, plum blush in winter.

Cryptomeria japonica Mushroom
Winter color of the succulent needles on Cryptomeria japonica 'Mushroom' make a delightful winter show in the conifer garden.
Cryptomeria japonica Mushroom
With a form like an extra-large, stemless, furry mushroom cap, 'Mushroom' is an interesting addition to the garden.

Planted near other conifers of complementary colors will ensure that your garden is as delightful through the winter months as it is through spring and summer.

Conifer Lover

Anticipation keeps me waiting

After one of the mildest first two months of a new year, today our temperature is dropping to more winter-like crispness. Snow levels are dropping and we may even see sloppy wet snow mixed with rain at our elevation.  As much as I have enjoyed an early start to my garden chores, I am hopeful that the colder weather will extend my garden’s plant dormancy a little longer. If my Larix or Acers begin to push their tender new growth too early, they will very likely get hit with a spring-time frost that is typical in our area. On the other hand, I am in great anticipation for the onslaught of color that is coming soon to my conifer garden!

Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'
Good things come to those who wait, and the spring foliage of 'Taylor's Sunburst' is definately worth waiting for.

I am extremely enthusiastic about one conifer in particular. Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ is an amazing tree that will pick up where ‘Chief Joseph’ leaves off. I’ve shared my excitement about the good Chief in the past and I’ve described how tired he can become at the end of his winter show. Within weeks, ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ literally bursts into its glory as it begins to extend its spring candles of brilliant golden yellow. As the candles continue to extend and the needles expand, the color becomes a little less gold and takes on a tone as if a little cream were added to the mix. This creamy yellow color becomes very prominent against the dark green older foliage that was the sunburst of springs gone by. Place ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ near other dark green or blue conifers for a spectacular color display. Throw a deep red Japanese Maple into the mix and you will find it difficult to pull your eyes away from this special space in your garden.

Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'
'Taylor's Sunburst' adds a lot of interest to the garden

Discovered in the Rocky Mountains, high in Colorado, ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ is a hardy Lodge Pole Pine that requires a well drained soil. Generally an upright growing intermediate sized tree, it can become somewhat irregular in form. I like the rugged, mountain grown look it can provide. With a little careful pruning and candle pinching, it can become a manageable, compact pyramid of spring gold. As summer approaches with its longer days and warmer temperatures, ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ kicks up its chlorophyll production and its foliage becomes greener – possibly a natural defense against the sun scalding the more tender yellow foliage. Through fall and winter, this tree steps out of the spotlight in time for ‘Chief Joseph’ to shine bright.

I anticipate a beautiful spring garden and I hope you will experience the joy a conifer garden can provide.

Conifer Lover

Honored citizen

When we have an El Niño year, like this year, often our winter feels like spring with moderate temperatures and plenty of rain. This month, we’ve seen low temperatures in the upper 30s and 40s with highs in the upper 40s and 50s. While much of the central and eastern portions of our nation are enduring frigid arctic air, I’m feeling like I should be out digging in my garden.

Yesterday I took a stroll around my garden with pad in hand taking notes of some of the first projects I will need to address as the rains become showers and we begin to enjoy the occasional visit of the sun. As I am wandering around, I find that I am enjoying just being out and spending some quality time with my conifers. Oddly enough, they are like old friends. Some I have nurtured and enjoyed for longer than many of my human friends. There is one conifer in my garden that seems to be calling me.

“Ed…… Ed, over here.”


“Ed…… LOOK AT ME!”

“Hey, you don’t have to shout – I’m looking already!” I think to myself.

It’s then that I realize that my Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’  is just about at the end of his glorious display for the season.

“Oh, Chief… it’ll be ok, you’ll be back in top form soon enough.” I reassure myself as much as the tree.

You see, ‘Chief Joseph’ is one of those very unique conifers that provide an incredible color display in the winter. From mid-October until late winter or early spring, the Chief is absolutely stunning! He lights up the dreary winter garden like no other. But, since he is severely lacking in chlorophyll, he becomes very tired after his winter show and he seems to ‘poop out.’

'Chief Joseph'
‘Chief Joseph’ at the beginning of his season to shine in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery.

Maybe you’ve seen it happen – some years are worse than others, but ‘Chief Joseph’ tends to turn from his spectacular golden yellow winter color to a sad looking yellowish brown as many of his needles show signs of stress late in the season. There are many theories that attempt to explain why this happens and some interesting folklore on how to avoid it, but the fact is, in the early spring when other plants are beginning to look their best, ‘Chief Joseph’ looks to need a good rest. And who wouldn’t after being the lone headliner in the winter show for several months?

Just about the time you might be thinking you’ve lost your treasured friend, you’ll notice that his buds are swelling. Then you’ll see candles beginning to extend and new needles forming and expanding.

He’s alive – and he’s ready to take a back seat in the garden with his soft green foliage. ‘Chief Joseph’ will put on a few inches of new growth, drop his older brown needles and wait his turn to be the spotlight in the garden once again when many other garden plants have come to their time of rest in autumn and through winter. The Chief waits for that right mix of cooler temperatures and shorter daylight hours and WHAM! it’s like someone turned on his inner golden glow and it is intense!

‘Chief Joseph’ remains somewhat rare, but worth every penny when you find him. Just remember, everyone needs a little rest once in a while and with patience and understanding, The Chief will be an honorable addition to your garden.

Conifer Lover