Lace and the bright light

I suggest that you find your sunglasses before you continue reading this post.


I have a conifer on my wish list that is very possibly the brightest, the most intense yellow I have ever seen in a plant. So far, I have only seen small specimens – the largest is close to three feet tall – but I can imagine how this might look as a large tree. I have a feeling, when I do find one of these beauties, and it has grown in my garden for five to ten years, it may very well become my only outdoor light source – I really think it must generate its own light!

This new conifer was discovered in 1987 as a yellow sport growing on one of the Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Graciosa’ in the production fields at Iseli Nursery and has been given the name, ‘Sunlight Lace’. If you are familiar with the cultivar, ‘Graciosa’ and its characteristically lacy foliage, then you should be able to imagine the foliage of ‘Sunlight Lace’ with its wide, flat sprays of foliage that may remind you of intricate lace work found on a fine gown that your great-grandmother may have worn many years ago.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Sunlight Lace'

'Sunlight Lace' is a newcomer with great potential to be one of the finest yellow conifers in your garden. This specimen shows a hint of winter bronzing in the foliage. As temperatures warm, the bronze tint will disappear, leaving only the brightest yellow foliage you may have ever seen.

This small tree appears to grow at a rate of six to eight inches per year with an open, airy habit. It should grow into a medium-sized tree with a broadly pyramidal form, but with some annual pruning, it could be shaped and encouraged to grow with a more compact form for many years in the smaller garden. If acquired as a small plant, it would very likely be ideal for growing in a nice container on the deck or patio for many years before it would need to be transplanted into the garden.

The brightest, most intense color will be produced when grown in full sun, but the bright yellow and white foliage can be susceptible to sunburn, so growing where it will receive some afternoon shade would be a good idea. The specimen pictured here receives some direct sun, off and on throughout the day during the growing season, which seems to be growing in an ideal mix of sun and shade because it is a beautiful color with little to no sunburn whatsoever.

I can imagine this bright light glowing in my garden with a groundcover of the bright blue Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’ and other blue and green conifers planted nearby creating a garden space filled with dazzling year-round color. Plant this beauty near the deck or patio and I imagine that with just a little moonlight, it will be bright enough to read a book by at midnight.

Conifer Lover

Friendly fishing

“Conifers? Yeah, I learned about them in my science class years ago, they’re those sticky, prickly bushes that grow into huge trees. Why would I want to plant any of those things in my yard?” was the question coming from my new friend in line at the DMV.

“Oh… conifers are far more diverse and exciting than that.” I replied. “There are conifers that are as small as that paperweight on the counter over there, that can be grown for years in a container on your patio. Besides being very slow growing, they can be found in an assortment of colors, from the lemon yellow of Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Sprite’, to the rich blue of Picea pungens ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’, in shapes and sizes from a pincushion, to a wide spreading low carpet, to mid-sized sculptural forms, to giant trees.

I sensed that I was beginning to lose the subject of my coniferous proselytism, so I changed tactics.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Sprite'

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Sprite' is an excellent choice for the rock garden, containers on the deck or patio, or in miniature theme gardens.

“I’ll bet your wife loves growing flowers in her garden, right?” He offered a slight nod and I continued, “She loves all that color during the spring and summer, and then I’ll bet you both look forward to dealing with all the dead brown debris in the late fall and winter as all those pretty flowers wither and die leaving you an unsightly yard with quite a lot of work to do to clean up that mess!”

“Huh – yeah, right!”

Picea pungens 'Lundeby's Dwarf'

Picea pungens 'Lundeby's Dwarf' is a tremendous dwarf blue conifer that will provide year-round color and never require pruning to maintain its small form.

“With dwarf and miniature conifers, you can enjoy all kinds of color and texture in your garden with almost no maintenance whatsoever. No pruning, no deadheading to encourage more flowers, no constant fertilizing to encourage more growth and blooms, and once established in your garden, very little additional irrigation. In fact, if you reduce your lawn to a few paths meandering through beds of conifers, your workload will drop and your water usage will plummet.”

“So, a conifer garden could actually save me money?”

The hook was set, now all I had to do is reel him in. In mere moments he was called to the counter and that was the last I saw of my new convert.

A conifer lover’s work is never done.

Conifer Lover

Golden light or dark snowy skies

They’ve been warning us for days now of the huge snowstorm that is going to blast us with several inches of snow down to the valley floor. For those of us who love a little snow from time to time, of course, want to believe. Really, we do. Those of us who have lived in western Oregon for most of our lives have learned that usually the first or second panicked reports from our local news-casters are false alarms.

Sure, get the kids all hyped-up about snow and their heads filled with visions of days off school, building all kinds of snow sculptures, snowball fights, sledding, and in general, just having a great time! While parents, on the other hand, need to make child-care plans should the schools actually close. Sure, there are some snowflakes falling from the sky – if you are fortunate enough to find yourself above 500 feet in elevation – but it’s just a tease, it is not near cold enough to stick and accrue any reasonable accumulation.

Snowy Conifer Garden

The conifer garden looks fantastic in the midst of dark, stormy skies and a blanket of snow.

I would love to see my garden in a blanket of snow. What is it about a garden full of trees and shrubs, of all shapes and sizes, either sprinkled lightly or heavily covered in snow, that brings such a sense of peace and happiness? I haven’t had that pleasure since 2008, which turned out to be quite an unusual snow year for us with a big fluffy blanket of snow in January, and then again in December, in what possibly became the largest snow event in 40 years!

The Sunny Conifer Garden

The conifer garden glows in the low winter sun.

Winter in the conifer garden is a beautiful time of year. We have had one of the driest Decembers in recent memory, and with that dryness, we actually had many days that were filled with sunshine! Oh, how beautiful are the conifers, dressed in their winter colors with the low, golden winter sun illuminating the scene in a hue of warmth; which brings to the soul, hope of the coming spring.

OK local weather forecasters, just keep teasing us with promises of a big snow event, I’m ready to enjoy the transformation of beauty it will create in my garden. But, rain or shine, snow or silver thaw, the conifer garden will be a place of beauty to be enjoyed, not only by me, but by all the critters that have made this little garden their home.

Conifer Lover

Conifer Garden Tour

Three years ago, I was involved in the creative process of designing the new addition to the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli nursery. In nine days, the American Conifer Society will be touring the gardens at Iseli Nursery as part of their National Meeting being held at the Oregon Garden Resort in Silverton, Oregon. If you have not yet joined the ACS and have some time to spare, I think you should join now and register for this event!

Understandably, this may not be a reality for most folks, so I thought it might be fun to feature photos from the Iseli gardens in this post. Enjoy!

Conifer Garden

This is one of the first views as guests arrive at the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon.

Conifer Garden

One view of the first stage of the Memorial Garden designed and planted in Jean Iseli's honor, shortly after his death in 1986.

Conifer Garden

This view is near one of the entrances of the new addition to the Memorial Garden, planted in the summer of 2008.

Conifer Garden

Intermediate, dwarf and miniature conifers planted with other exciting garden plants in section of the 2008 addition.

Conifer Garden

Another view of the original Jean Iseli Memorial Garden planting.

Of course there is much more to see for those who are able to attend the tour with the American Conifer Society next week.

I hope to see you there.

Conifer Lover

Snow in the summer garden?

I know, that last thing many of you want is more snow this year! For those of us in my corner of the Pacific Northwest, with our daily morning drizzle, a little snow would at least be a change of pace. But, that’s not the kind of snow I want to talk about today.

With all the shades of green, blue, and even bright golden-yellow in the conifer garden, I also love the conifers with a more subtle approach to their color scheme. There are two conifers that immediately come to mind that should be useful in just about every region of the country. Some folks will be able to grow both of these plants in their gardens, while others, depending on their location might be better off choosing one over the other.

Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite'

Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite' is a bright spot in the garden all year long.

Cedrus deodara ‘Snow Sprite’ is definitely one of my favorites. This is rated as an intermediate grower by the ACS growth rate standards, but its growth is on the slower end of that scale and in my garden it seems to grow five to six inches per year. I do like to prune my plant to encourage a more fuller, more formal shape, so that can have some influence on its annual growth. What is truly exciting about this conifer is its color. As its name suggests, it is a very light-colored plant with its new growth emerging an almost white, buttery-yellow color. As the foliage matures through the season it does darken a little, but ‘Snow Sprite’ will always be a bright spot in the garden – even in the dead of winter. This Zone 7 tree won’t survive those harsh mid-west winters, but it does quite well along the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards where marine air moderates the winter cold. In the south, cultivars of Cedrus deodara are known to do quite well. I even have a report of ‘Snow Sprite’ surviving happily as far south as Austin, Texas.

Tsuga canadensis 'Summer Snow'

Cool off this summer with a Tsuga canadensis 'Summer Snow' planted in the garden.

For folks in those colder winter areas, Tsuga canadensis ‘Summer Snow’ is a fantastic intermediate sized tree that is hardy into Zone 4. Again, it thrives in other moderate areas, but struggles in southern regions. ‘Summer Snow’ flushes its near pure white new foliage every spring which contrasts nicely against the older foliage that has matured to a medium green. Naturally growing into a fairly large tree, it does respond very well to annual shearing which will encourage a fuller form thereby intensifying the effect of its white foliage. Planted against a backdrop of dark green conifers and it will really stand out. Grouping with other colorful conifers and exciting companion plants will give your garden a multi-season appeal with a full pallet of color.

May your garden flourish with all the colors of the rainbow, and may the winter snow truly be many months away!

Conifer Lover

Raise your hand if you remember the ’80s

Jean Iseli

Jean Iseli was a visionary with a passion to bring the world of the conifer collector to the everyday gardener.

The 1980s were a fascinating time for conifer lovers. It was the decade that saw the obscure conifer collectors and the nursery industry begin a kind of partnership that is very influential in the contemporary dwarf conifer movement. One of the early gurus of the movement, Jean Iseli, was a very good friend of mine and made a huge impact not only on my life, but the lives of many others before he passed in 1986. 

Some of those he influenced were the young men and woman that he gathered and inspired – the workers who dedicated their lives to growing and bringing to market premium dwarf conifers that earlier had only been known to collectors. Most of those same hard-working individuals are still the driving force behind the products grown under the Iseli name today.

I have had the pleasure of knowing these fine folks all these years. They are always kind enough to allow me to wander the gardens to learn about new and exciting discoveries long before they will ever make it to the marketplace.

Multiple conifers in one plant construct

'Rheingold' x 'Heather Bun' x 'Rhiengold' - imagine a "wall" planted in a checkerboard pattern of alternating orange and green - Just one of the creative constructs to come from the encouragement of Jean Iseli.

There was a time in the ’80s (and carried well into the ’90s) when Jean’s eccentric creativity and quirky sense of humor inspired the Art Form Division of Iseli nursery. Back in those days, employees were encouraged to create some extremely unusual creations through the technique of grafting several different cultivars onto a common, large, rootstock. Some of the more successful creations were combinations of dwarf or miniature conifers of different colors and or textures grafted either as a tiered construct or a multi-branched sculpture. These things were truly remarkable.

I have often wondered what happened to all of those hundreds and hundreds of unique works of art that were sold and shipped all across the United Sates. There were a few forms that were very popular and were created and shipped for a great many years. Did they survive? Were they cared for and maintained? Are they neglected and forgotten oddities, overgrown and ignored? Who knows?

Multi-generic constructs

Multi-generic constructs were the combination of cultivars of different genus and or species into one colorful conifer. In this case, a Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea' floated above a Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' which floated above a Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold'.

What I do know is that those were amazing times in the world of conifers. We wouldn’t have the incredible selection of dwarf and miniature conifers available today, from many growers all over the world, if it hadn’t been for the inspiration and dreams of people like Jean Iseli. I miss him.

Conifer Lover

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