Moving past my fear

Many years ago, when I was a very young man, I had the opportunity to work for two different landscape companies. Both were small companies where I was the only regular employee. One focused on maintaining the landscapes surrounding commercial properties while the other had its niche in the gardens of homeowners.

One of the very first jobs I had was to clean the trash that had collected in a very long row of Tam Juniper (Juniperus sabina var. tamariscifolia). This was also essentially my first formal introduction to working with conifers, and more specifically with Junipers.

Juniperus communis 'Compressa'
The “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ is perfect where a tall, narrow plant is desired.

Now, you may be familiar with this particular form of Juniper since it has been used in the landscape and listed in catalogs for a great number of years. In fact, I found that it had been introduced to Britain in 1562 and had specific uses in the medicine of the day. In more recent history, for a number of years, it was one of the most over-planted conifers in landscapes in the USA because it was easy to grow and inexpensive to purchase. It may also be the single most influential reason for folks to decide that they dislike conifers. It is very prickly, quickly outgrows its space, is very painful to prune and is very deep-rooted making its removal a tremendous undertaking.

My first experience certainly did not endear me to the plant and it definitely gave me a bias against the entire genera of Juniperus. I was working hard at the task described earlier, removing trash that had blown in and under the long row of plants that had, at this time, attained a height of four feet and a spread twice as wide. There must have been thirty of these in a long row separating two sections of a parking lot. I was carefully pulling out the trash, reaching deep as I could reach into the extremely sharp and prickly foliage that smelled as if every dog (and cat) in a square mile had marked the hedge with their scent. Half way through this very uncomfortable job, I was attacked by a Yellow Jacket wasp, which suddenly flew out of the foliage and stung me on my left cheek, just an inch away from the corner of my mouth. This was when I learned of my sensitivity to wasp venom.

Juniperus communis 'Corielagen'
‘Corielagen’ is an ideal groundcover with extreme hardiness into Zone 3.

Fortunately I was not allergic – as in go into anaphylactic shock – though the left side of my face swelled up, hurt like heck, and itched for days afterward. Yes, that was the day which began my strong dislike of Junipers in general, and the Tam Juniper specifically.

As they say, time heals all wounds, and as I mentioned earlier, I am beginning open up to the fact that there really are some great garden junipers! There is one species in particular that I am finding I am quite fond of. This species of Juniper includes dwarf plants in a number of shapes and forms and colors – some even changing colors through the seasons.

Juniperus communis 'Oblonga Pendula'
Juniperus communis ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a stately specimen with wispy weeping branches.

In the past, I have mentioned Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ for its striking, wispy form and dramatic color show, check out that post here. I also want to mention a great ground covering form called ‘Corielagen’ with its deep, rich green foliage and wide-spreading, ground-hugging form. ‘Gold Cone’ is a beautifully dramatic pillar of gold. In my area, I find that a light shearing once a year helps keep this one in top form. One of the best spire shaped conifers that you can find is ‘Compressa’, whose narrow, upright form is clothed in bluish-gray-green foliage, depending on the time of year. It is one of the most narrow conifers, and it may be considered the “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens. Finally, ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a magnificent specimen with grass-green, weeping foliage, which takes on plumb tones during the cold winter months. It may be a bit of a character when young, with fringed arms splaying this way and that, but as it begins to mature it becomes a stately specimen that may be planted as a focal point, or in a group or row to make a very pleasant background for other smaller conifers and specialty plants.

Conifer Lover


Every new year brings new possibilities

I think it was pretty good planning on the part of those ancient calendar makers to have the new year begin in the dead of winter. From this aspect, everything seems possible. Plans can be made, changes implemented, wrongs can be set right. The new year brings endless possibilities in life – and in the garden.

Happy New Year!

My friends at Iseli Nursery created a printed, limited edition, 2012 calendar for their current wholesale customers. They have also made available to the rest of us, a beautiful PDF version of that calendar, which is available to download from their website. I’m happy that I hadn’t already purchased a calendar for the new year, because I printed this one out, taped it together at home, and it looks great!

My hope for the new year is that more and more folks will begin to use my favorite dwarf, miniature (and full-size) conifers in their garden projects. Seriously, how else can you fill a garden with such a diverse pallet of year-round color, structure, texture and wildlife habitat?

See you next year!

Conifer Lover

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas

Anyone remember the novelty Christmas hit single from 1953 titled, I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas? It has remained one of my very favorites since the first time I heard it. It just doesn’t quite seem like the Christmas holiday season without hearing this song at least once.

I was trying out one of those new online services that let you listen to tons of music on your computer – for free. My wife requested an evening of Christmas music, so I did a search and created a playlist. Sure enough, I found Gayla Peevey’s old recording. As we were enjoying our evening, working on our hand-crafted gifts, my mind began to wander as Gayla’s voice filled the room – what if I changed the lyrics just a little bit to better fit my Christmas wish – here is the result:

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
Only a brand new conifer will do
Don’t want a bulb, no stinky Amorphophallus titanum
I want a brand new conifer to plant in my arboretum

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
I don’t think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won’t have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring it through the front door, that’s the easy thing to do

I can see me now on Christmas morning, creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise when I open up my eyes
To see a brand new conifer potted there

I want a brand new conifer for Christmas
Only a brand new conifer will do
No Rhododendrons, no silly little crocuseses
I only like colorful coniferususes
And colorful coniferuses like me too!

May you all have a holiday filled with the people you love.

Conifer Lover

Grafting goodness into the garden

The past couple of winters I have enjoyed adding a few new conifers to my collection through the process of grafting. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to graft thousands of new conifers, professionally and just for fun. Although, for an assortment of reasons, my grafting years came to a sudden halt some time ago. In recent years I have enjoyed propagating a few sought after treasures in my little hobby greenhouse.

Picea omorika 'de Ruyter'
Originally a seedling selection in 1938, 'de Ruyter' is a slow-growing tree with unique characteristics.

I planted a number of those treasures in my garden this past summer, and I am terribly excited to watch them grow and become mature specimens. One of those new conifers to my collection is one I have been interested in for a number of years. It has a very unique texture in its growth habit, and is one of the finest of the silvery/blue/greens to be found due to its prominent white stomatic lines on the underside of each needle, which are held on their branches in such a fashion as to light the tree up with their bright waxy brilliance.

Picea omorika 'de Ruyter'
As a frost covered winter specimen, or a silvery spruce in the summer garden, 'de Ruyter' is worthy of the hunt. It might be a good idea to special order this one through your favorite independent garden center.

The Serbian Spruce is known for this feature of bicolored foliage, and its cultivars, in their various shapes and forms, all display it to one degree or another. Picea omorika ‘de Ruyter’ is unique in its growth habit on this otherwise relatively “normal” broad, upright conical form. Each year the terminal cluster of buds – whether at the apex of the tree or at the tips of each branch or branchlet – will push forth a dominant central extension of new growth. At the base of this six or seven inch terminal growth are a thick cluster of buds, which also burst forth their new growth, becoming smaller branchlets of just two to three inches in length. All of this new growth is covered with varying lengths of blunt-tipped needles, longer at the base of the branch, held at an outward angle, while becoming shorter and lying more closely to the branch as they approach its tip.

My little tree is essentially just a terminal stem and its first cluster of branches at this point, and it will be many years before is becomes a notable specimen in my garden.

Although grafting is not for everyone, I intend to add a few new cultivars to my collection each year. I suppose I should begin to make my list for this winter’s fun!

Conifer Lover

A tasty crystalline crust

Brrrr…. Our normally mild Pacific Northwest weather has turned foggy and frosty. It is unusual that we have a good little frost like the one this morning, although frost and fog make for a very pleasant stroll through the conifer garden.

When I first peeked out between the curtains, the sun had yet to lend much light to that morning hour. By the time we enjoyed our morning tea and I stoked up and added wood to the fire, I could see that we were immersed in a rather thick fog, which was just beginning to brighten enough for me to note a dandy little frost had added a tasty crystalline crust to all my plants.

Winter in the Conifer Garden
Winter in the Conifer Garden is as inviting as any other season.

Winter can be a very pretty season in the conifer garden. While many of my friend’s gardens, with this sudden frost, have been reduced to many piles of spent-perennial brown mush with the occasional bare-twigged shrub along with an evergreen or two, my conifer garden is full of visual brilliance composed of varying shades of blue, green, gold, mauve and orange. Color, of course, is simply one part of the winter conifer garden equation, and looking out upon my garden, I see all of the wonderful shapes and forms from very large, towering trees, to smaller and more compact broad pyramids, to slender fastigiate forms and conical shapes. Also to be found are an assortment of colors and textures, along with weeping plants (both deciduous and evergreen) and spreading ground-huggers. The conifer garden is as much a thrill to encounter today, as any in summertime.

Winter in the Conifer Garden
Winter shows off the structure of Japanese Maples resting in the conifer garden, while the conifers provide color, structure and texture.

The crisp air was unrelenting against my exposed skin causing my morning walk to be quite brisk. My discoveries were too great to be bothered by the cold as I marveled at the patterns of the frost clinging to and heaving from all of the plants in my garden. I loved the way the frost encircled the small branches of my Japanese Maples as if they had been dipped in glue and rolled in diamond dust. Even in the dim, fog-diffused morning light, the frost caught a glimmer that managed to give off a little sparkle here and there. Winter’s magic was at work.

Winter in the Conifer Garden
Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Barabits Requiem’ stands as a sentry in the frosty conifer garden.

May your winter garden be filled with conifers, and other exciting plants, to delight your eyes and draw you out for more morning walks – if not this year, then in years to come.

Conifer Lover