A dazzling beauty

A few years back I mentioned my Christmas list for that year, on it were three exciting conifers. All three were forms of the Serbian Spruce, a tree once quite widespread throughout Europe. Now native stands of Picea omorika are limited to a mountainous region in western Serbia and eastern Bosnia. One of the cultivars I was hoping for, I found in my local independent garden center, one I was able to obtain some scion wood to graft my own new trees, and one remains on my wish list. 

The silvery white side of the needles catch every bit a daylight and shine brightly against the contrasting green side for a dazzling effect.

I grafted four specimens of Picea omorika ‘Kamenz’ back in 2011. I am growing one of those grafted plants in a container,  two I planted in my garden and one I gave to a good friend. When young, ‘Kamenz’ is a low growing bun-shaped plant that begins to spread wider than tall, but in time, it looks like it may want to send a shoot or two in a more upward growing fashion. I suppose one might choose to allow their specimen to grow taller, but it is easy enough to prune out any upward growing shoots to encourage the low, spreading form.

Along with its great form, I love the silvery effect of the waxy coating which covers the undersides of the needles. Common to the species, ‘Kamenz’ has bi-colored needles with a glossy green top and the silvery-white underside. The natural angle of branching and the way the needles are held on each branch allow for a great view of the silvery color which make this stunning specimen literally shine in the garden.

Great low-growing, compact and spreading form is just part of the appeal with ‘Kamenz’.

As I mentioned, I am growing one of my own grafted plants in a container on my patio. For some reason, this particular graft is showing a tendency to grow with a single leader. I may give it a little encouragement with a plant stake and some pruning to see if I might be able to influence its form into more of a compact Christmas tree shape. If successful, I think it will make a delightful little holiday decoration for the front walkway someday.

Keep an eye out at your favorite independent garden center, I have a feeling this one is becoming more popular and it should become easier to find. Of course you could always ask your favorite IGC to make a special order for you!

Conifer Lover

Peace and tranquility in the conifer garden

I am really itching to be outside so that I can enjoy the garden from a closer perspective. Although I do quite enjoy the view of my garden from the picture window near my woodstove, I prefer to feel the warming rays of the sun on my face as I sip my morning tea. I know those days are coming… just around the corner.

What could be more calming than enjoying one’s garden? Whether working in the garden, doing seasonal chores, or taking time to sit back and relax, the conifer garden is a divinely tranquil place to spend one’s time. Occasionally I like to slowly stroll through the garden, pulling the start of a weed here, brush a fallen leaf or two off of a miniature conifer there – I just love to hang out with my conifers.

Conifers in the garden
There is a vast diversity of color, texture, shape and size in the conifer garden.

Sometimes when I am sitting quietly while listening to the sounds of the garden, one or two of the local birds will come and hop around nearby taking care of their business. Once in a while, if I’ve forgotten to check the bird feeder, the braver of the birds will cautiously do what it takes to get my attention until I become aware of my negligence and fill the feeder with the appropriate seeds. Overall, it is very tranquil and calming to spend time in the garden.

One of my long-time friends loves coffee just about as much as I love conifers. I was having one of those tranquil mornings when he stopped by with time to kill between appointments. Apparently, I didn’t hear him knock on the front door, so he decided to come looking for me around back. What really struck me as funny, was that in one hand he had one of those travel coffee mugs and in the other he had a large cup from the local coffee shop.

“Ed! Hey Ed! Ed, you around here?” I could hear him shouting as he made his way around the path to the back, startling away the critters that had been keeping me company.


“I’m over here” I said without getting up – not out of rudeness, I’m just not as quick to become fully upright on command as I once was.

We exchanged greetings and I didn’t hesitate long to comment on his two-fisted approach to his morning coffee.

“Oh, that – well, I like to start the day with a couple cups of coffee from home, but I really needed a double-caramel macchiato before my next meeting.” I was immediately reminded of Stan the Java Man, one the past characters from MAD TV, and I chuckled quietly to myself.

Conifers in the garden
The conifer garden offers a huge selection of distinctive plants in a low maintenance, year-round color package.

I sat quietly and listened to his morning adventures, the assorted topics of his first meeting, and the unusual characteristics of some of the other attendees. Then he quickly went on about his latest business plan, and before I could get a word in he commented that all my little bushes looked the same, as his head darted quickly back and forth, barely getting a glance at some of the dwarf and miniature conifers in the immediate vicinity.

“Really, they all look alike to you?” I asked hoping to get him to take another, more in-depth look at the plants.

“Yup, well they are different sizes – I guess that’s because some are older than others – but other than that, they all look pretty much the same.

I wondered if that was how life appeared to my friend, just a blur of similar looking objects – a blindness fueled by too much caffeine, too busy a schedule and never allowing himself time to actually see the world around him. I can’t help but wonder if many of today’s struggles are self-inflicted because people are too busy to spend time seeing the incredible beauty of the natural world all around us. I believe that every moment of tranquility we can find in our lives will give us a better perspective to guide our choices during life’s unwanted stressful events.

I hope that I can talk my friend into slowing down just a little and take some time to enjoy the calming and tranquil effects of gardening. I know that if I can get him started with low-care dwarf and miniature conifers, his transition into the gardening world should be an easy one. (Maybe he can even grow his own coffee beans.)

Conifer Lover

A tale of twelve Norwegians

Thirty years ago when I was a young fella with boundless energy, I planted my own first real conifer garden. Prior to that, I was on a piece of property that was so large, and I was so busy with work and life and home repair/re-modeling projects that I just didn’t have much time for gardening. Well, at that time I was more of an organic vegetable gardener. We had a huge garden filled with enough vegatables for us and our city-dwelling friends. Then we experienced some of life’s changes and we moved to a city lot. Much smaller, more manageable and the back yard was a clean canvas of a weedy lawn.

Picea abies 'Pendula'
Picea abies ‘Pendula’ can be trained to any height and/or allowed to mound and sprawl, covering the ground in hardy green waves.

I had almost forgotten, but back in those days I was a huge fan of the dwarf and miniature cultivars of Picea abies (Norway spruce). Honestly, I don’t think I’ve become less of a fan over the years, I’ve just added many more plants to my list of favorites. One of the main areas I created back then had a combination of 12 different cultivars with varying size, shape, and textural characteristics. I had drawn out a traditional overhead-view design of the garden with both the planted sizes and my projected 20 years sizes. Then I also sketched out more of an eye-level view to give me more of a real-world perspective. I mention all this because I still think that plant selection was great for any beginning conifer gardener. They are easy to grow and extremely hardy and adaptable into a great many climatic conditions.

What I like about the cultivars that I chose for this project was that they all have distinctive shapes as they grow and mature creating a multi-leveled, three dimensional, sculptural bed of varying shades of green. This menagerie of shape and texture would become the year-round foundation to the garden bed which also included my first experimentation with assorted perennial flowers and some broadleaved shrubs. Over the nine years that we lived at that place, I did fill in with other conifer acquisitions and everything grew together nicely. As we sold the place and moved on, the landscape was beginning to have the “feel” I was seeking in my original plan by screening the garden shed and the neighbors directly behind us. I can only image how nice it must be now. If I were to do the project all over again, I would include more dwarf and miniature cultivars in an assortment of genera which would widen my pallet of color and texture – essentially taking the place of all those bothersome short-season perennials.

Picea abies 'Witches Brood'
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’ is a cheery sight with its covering of bright green new foliage each spring.

Here is the list of those original conifers. These should be relatively easy to find (or special order) at your local independent garden center and will be great selections to anchor any new garden plan. Fill in spaces with whatever your heart desires from companion small trees, shrubs and flowers to herbs and vegetables. As the seasons change, your garden will have the stability and beauty of year-round color, texture and an assortment of shapes from tall columns to broad pyramids, varying sizes of rounded, mounding forms and undulating waves of weeping groundcover. Have fun!

Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana Stricta’
Picea abies ‘Cupressina’
Picea abies ‘Elegans’
Picea abies ‘Gregoriana Parsonsii’
Picea abies ‘Little Gem’
Picea abies ‘Mucronata’
Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea abies ‘Pumila’
Picea abies ‘Sherwood Compact’
Picea abies ‘Thumbelina’
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’

Conifer Lover

My coniferous valentine

My wife really knows how to tickle my love button on Valentine’s day. She announced this morning over breakfast that my special gift this year would be going to the Portland Yard, Garden and Patio show on opening day!

Oh baby!

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to a garden show so this is a real treat. I really do love going to these winter garden shows. We’re expecting a long week of cold, dark gray rain, so spending a day wandering around the great landscape displays and garden ideas, pots, books and all those wonderful plants will be a special delight. I can almost smell the flowers and hear the water features just thinking about it.

Just to make sure that the show will be complete, I called one of my friends active in the local chapter of  the American Conifer Society to confirm that they will be there. Sure enough! Not only will they be there, but they will have on hand, for sale, hundreds of conifers in those cute little 4″ pots. I tried to get him to tell me exactly what they would have available, but he steadfastly held his tongue.

Dwarf and miniature conifers
Dwarf and miniature conifers combined with other amazing companions make a beautiful garden scene.

“C’mon, you can tell me… I can keep a secret.” I assured him.

“Nope, I’m not going to spill the beans! You just need to get down there early and see for yourself.”

“Hey we’ll be there when they open the doors on Friday – just give me a hint, will ya?”

“Well… we’ve got some Fanciful Gardens packages coming in.”

“Ok, that’s a start. Can you be a little more specific?”

“Oh, all right, I think we’ll have some of the Garden Gems, Miniatures, Railway, and Fairy Garden packages. Satisfied?”

Yes. That is very satisfying news and I think it will make our special Valentine’s Day adventure even more exciting. It’s a good thing that we are planning to arrive early – I expect that these little guys will sell quickly. This is a great way to buy a few great little conifers while benefiting the American Conifer Society at the same time. Maybe I can find a good deal on a couple high quality containers too – I wonder if my local Pot Lady will be there?

I don’t know if there are any garden shows coming up where you live, but if so, with all the cold weather and snow in much of the country, I hope you have a chance to get an early glimpse of spring in your area. Maybe your local American Conifer Society chapter will be available with special treats for you too!

I hope I’ll see you there.

Conifer Lover

Lovin’ the classics – part II

What is it about classics that make them so appealing? There is something pleasant and enjoyable about watching a really good old black and white film from the late 1930s or ’40s. I get much the same feeling when I have an opportunity to spend some time with my antique car restorer friend. My old heart begins to pound with excitement when I am invited to go for a ride in his 1915 Model T Ford. Of course I can easily become lost in the mesmerizing wave of tones and melodies and rhythms of classic composers like Albinoni, Haydn, Handel or Grieg. Even the older conifers – those that have been available in the trade for a great number of years and are sometimes overused – offer that same kind of nostalgia.

Just because something is old, doesn’t mean that is has lost its appeal or value. One old conifer that withstands the test of time is Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. This is simply one of the most beautiful and versatile conifers available. Its young branches are long and flexible allowing the creative gardener to train it into any shape imaginable. Most often, ‘Pendula’ is found with a nursery stake and the plant trained up to 3-5 feet. Very mature specimens can be seen at some of the older arboretums around the world and they have mounded and layered upon themselves creating large weeping mounds of dark green beauty.

Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'
Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' adds a unique sculptural effect to any garden.

In my garden, I staked mine to just about seven feet tall with a gentle curve to the main stem to give it a little character. Then I’ve pulled a few of the side branches up in a more horizontal position, alternating around the plant, adding more interest. Essentially, I’ve given my relatively young plant a head start on what its natural character will develop in many, many years. You may remember me describing how an old specimen can be trained into a living tree house a couple of years ago. Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ is one classic conifer that will always be a garden winner!

Abies balsamea 'Nana'
Great for containers or the garden, Abies balsamea 'Nana' is an old favorite.

Another great plant that I first became acquainted with back in 1977 is Abies balsamea ‘Nana’. This is a small-needled, dark green, compact mound that is great for the partially shaded space. In spring, its new foliage will push out a very bright green color which contrasts well against its own dark green mature foliage. As the season flows from spring to summer, the new foliage hardens and becomes a glossy dark green. Soft to the touch and the eyes, ‘Nana’ looks great planted near Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ and the other three classic conifers on my list.

Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold'
The brilliant orange color and soft texture of Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' make it a valuable addition to the garden.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ is one of the most amazing conifers in any collection. Its foliage is soft and orange – bright orange! In the spring and summer, as the foliage is flushing fresh, its color is the most intense. With the colder temperatures of winter, the orange darkens to an almost brown color – not a dead-brown, more like a dark orange. When young, it produces soft juvenile foliage. If allowed to grow naturally, it will become a broadly upright tree and the foliage changes to what is called, adult foliage. The color remains, just the overall texture changes. This is one plant that I definitely recommend giving an annual shearing to encourage full compact growth and the production of juvenile foliage. Responding very well to shearing, ‘Rheingold’ could be a great candidate for topiary if one were so inclined. I like to keep mine as a rounded mound.

With the two conifers I described last time, and the three on today’s list, a new conifer garden enthusiast would have a great combination of plants to begin their own collection. All five plants should be readily available at your local independent garden centers and they will all play well with the other plants in your garden. Include a couple Hosta and Lavender plants, a few spring and summer bulbs and a dwarf Japanese maple, and you’ll have a fairly good-sized garden bed that will be the talk of the neighborhood.

Conifer Lover