If you fall off the horse…

Several years ago I became friends with a gentleman who’s gardening experience was limited to mowing the lawn. Over the years he has recognized that gardening is a passion of mine. He began to ask questions and once a year or so he and his son would help me with some of my larger gardening chores. More recently he has become interested and actively involved in taking care of the garden in his small city-lot. Happily, he is becoming conifer-curious!

Picea glauca 'Pendula'
This thirty-something year-old specimen of Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ is a little over 30 feet tall in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden. Perfect for smaller gardens where there is much more vertical space available than horizontal.

A few years back, he called me to let me know that he purchased one of those oak half-barrels folks use for container gardening. I had a small tree that he had admired for a few years and I offered to plant it in the pot for him. He and his wife planted a few flowers to fill out the container and soften the appearance of the old barrel. As it turned out, I didn’t explain watering practices sufficiently and he and his boy pretty much created a bog-in-a-barrel and eventually everything died.

That was three years ago. Earlier this week I asked my friend if he was ready to give his container garden another try (his previous difficulties set his container gardening enthusiasm back a bit). He had filled the container with a fresh batch of good, coarse, composted potting soil and was ready and waiting for advice as to which plants he should try this time.

Back in 2010 I grafted several conifers including a few Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ in my little hobby greenhouse. This year I’ve been planting some of those little cuties in open spaces around my garden. Of course I don’t need all of the new plants that I have propagated, so some of my friends and family have been the happy recipients of the extras. I thought that one of these ‘Pendula’s would be a perfect tree for my friend’s container.

This small tree (with proper watering and care) should thrive happily in its new home on my friend’s patio. My plan is to allow it to grow in this container for several years and by the time it requires more room for root growth, I will help my friend dig a proper hole and plant it in his landscape. This will be a fun way for him to regain confidence in his gardening ability and also provide a nice larger specimen for him to plant into the new garden I have designed for him (filled with conifers, of course).

I believe I may have a new convert.

Conifer Lover

Ps, Here are a few things to remember when growing conifers in containers. First, please do not make the same mistake my friends made by over watering. Plants need to breathe too. One good guideline that I use is to check the moisture level with my finger.

Push your index finger into the soil and if the soil is dry, give the container a good soak, if it is moist, don’t. Now, I consider dry as approximately the moisture content that most packaged potting soils are when you first cut open the bag. If the soil becomes too dry, you will have a difficult time re-hydrating. New out of the bag soils soak up water very well.

Frequency of watering will depend on your weather conditions and how full your containers are of plant roots. More plants = more roots + hot temperatures = more frequent watering. Again, please check your moisture content with a simple finger check. When it comes to conifers, smaller, slower growing plants use less water, larger plants that produce more annual growth, use more water.

Too much water = bog-like soil that most plants do not enjoy. Too little water = arid desert conditions, also not good for most plants. Don’t fret about it, you’ll get a feel for watering your containers before long.

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

Fairies and fighters

My wife and I recently had an opportunity to visit our favorite great-niece and great-nephew. They visited us nearly a year ago when they were five and seven years old. Both of them loved running around our garden, their active imaginations leading them in all kinds of adventures. I remember walking them down the initial paths, their eyes wide with curiosity, as they had their first experience in the conifer garden.

It took very little time for them to feel comfortable in exploring on their own, and in no time at all, as we sat on the patio sipping our iced tea, we could hear the sounds of their adventures. Our great-niece would tend to be the conversationalist, telling the story while interacting with the imaginary characters. Alternatively, our great-nephew would provide the sound effects. His jungle sounds and hurricane winds along with gunfire and explosions followed by the painful screams of fallen foes seemed out of place with her occasional words like, “magic rainbow,” “flying unicorn” and “queen of the fairies.”

Miniature Conifers
Miniature conifers are perfect for any mini theme garden whether it feature fairies or fighters.

Being that both of the children celebrate summer birthdays, we wanted to make sure to bring them each a gift so we could celebrate with them during our visit. I decided that the kids were old enough to begin to enjoy miniature container gardening, and my wife approved as long as I let her purchase some accessories to go along with the dwarf and miniature conifers I would select. Now, my wife, being of the feminine persuasion, opted for cute little Fairy Garden accessories; fanciful fences and furniture, little light-posts and lawn sculptures (including a miniature pink flamingo) and tiny paving stones.

The kids seemed just a little confused when we announced that we had brought them birthday presents, and then presented them with ceramic pots and miniature conifers. My wife, of course, wrapped her little accessories so that each child would open two or three small packages – looking a little like toys, their moods began to brighten. Once I explained that I was going to help them create their own miniature versions of my garden, they actually became very excited.

We began with the young girl. She delighted in helping to place the small plants in the pot and she began to tell a story of how the fairies planted the garden many years ago so that they would have a beautiful place for the Queen of the Fairies, should she ever happen to visit. Meanwhile, my great-nephew’s mood seemed to darken.

“I don’t want a fairy garden, those things are for girls” he said as he folded his arms, slumped down in his chair and made a classic pout-and-frown face.

His mother told him to straighten up and try not to hurt uncle Ed’s feelings. I began to think that perhaps he would have some small toys in his room that might be suitable to a miniature garden – in a theme that he would enjoy.

“Hey buddy, how about you show me your room?” I asked and he jumped out of his seat sparing no time to get away from all this fairy silliness. After showing me his collection of model fighter planes spanning about 50 years of military history, I noticed a bag of army-men on the shelf next to his bed. “Hey, I had army-men just like these when I was your age” I told him.


“Yeah, I used to take them out into my parents garden and play with them for hours out there.”

Before long, we decided that his miniature conifer garden would be really cool if, instead of fairies, we set some of his army-men in with the plants and rocks. He dug under his bed until he found an old shoebox filled with rocks he had collected and chose three that he thought would be perfect for his garden.

As we sat on the deck listening the children play with the characters in their own personalized miniature container gardens, I had a certain satisfaction that these two young family members would one day become confer lovers and go on to inspire another generation of Remsrola’s to do the same.

Conifer Lover

Back from the dead

Early last year I was given a great new conifer by a local grower friend. He had been growing this particular dwarf Sitka spruce for a number of years while harvesting scion wood off of it for his propagation purposes. My friend was in the process of re-working a large area of his landscape where this specimen was located, and since I had admired this particular plant for some time, he dug the plant and plopped it into a plastic pot as a special gift for me. I had been out of town at the time and about a week or so after he dug the plant I picked it up and brought it home to plant.

Of course, it was very cold and rainy, and I put off getting this great specimen into the ground for a couple of months. Once planted, I was careful to make sure it had plenty of water. Late last spring it finally pushed a small grunt of new growth. I was happy to see that it had survived, not expecting much from it that first year – especially since it had been neglected from the time it was dug.

Picea sitchensis 'Silberzwerg'
Tough as nails, Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ has a great dwarf habit, excellent color and is useful in gardens throughout the country.

We had a bit of a hot spell, and I must not have put quiet enough water on this new planting, because most all of the new growth suffered from sun-scorch. I mentally kicked myself a few times and did my best to give this dwarf spruce better care through the remainder of the year. Unfortunately, as the year progressed, the worse it looked.

It seemed unchanged through the winter and then as my other conifers all began to push this spring, my poor neglected spruce just sat there. I looked the plant over carefully, and it did seem to have some viable buds – they just weren’t swelling yet. Time went on, and it continued to decline. I thought I had lost this new friend.

Then, seemingly overnight, as if it had come back from the dead, my Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ popped its first bud, and then another, and another until the plant was covered, somewhat sparsely, with newly pushed foliage! Somehow, through my neglect, this great specimen has survived. I am even more determined to see to it that my ‘Silberzwerg’ not only survives, but puts on a good bud set for next year.

Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ is rather new to the nursery trade and I think it will prove to be a great garden conifer. When healthy, it should put on 4-6 inches of new growth per year. When young, it will grow in a mounding, globe shape, but as it matures, I believe it will put on more definite top growth and become a very broad rounded upright mound of green and silvery-blue. The undersides of its very sharp needles have a prominent waxy covering making them near pure white, while the needle tops are a bluish-green color. With a great percentage of the undersides of the needles turned upward, exposing their bright undersides, gives the plant an overall silvery-blue appearance.

Dwarf habit, great color, Hardy to Zone five (and the ability to withstand some neglect on my part), I think ‘Silberzwerg’ has the potential to be an excellent addition to any garden.

Conifer Lover

The cute little sister

One advantage to enduring the months of cloudy skies and rain in the Pacific Northwest is the ability to grow a vast assortment of plants, including many conifers that simply will not survive the harsher winter cold and blistering summer heat found elsewhere around the country. For example, many of my friends cannot even consider growing Cryptomeria japonica or any of its amazing cultivars.

The first cultivar of Cryptomeria that I was introduced to, way-back-when, was ‘Elegans’. This intermediate growing tree was quite a beautiful sight to behold – long, soft billowy foliage that softly swayed in the breeze like layers of feathers. When I met this tree while working for a landscaper, it was early spring and it still retained some of its winter copper/plum color. Within weeks it would return to the bronze-green of its warmer season color, lasting until the cold winter temperatures would return.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a delightful dwarf sculpture for any of today’s gardens.

Although ‘Elegans’ truly is an elegant specimen, it may get too big for today’s smaller gardens. Fortunately, she has a little sister that is quite a beauty herself. Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a wonderful dwarf form of the Plume Japanese Cedar. Growing 2-4 inches per year in my garden, she definitely won’t overgrow even the smallest garden anytime soon. I love her irregular, almost sculpted looking, mounding form. With foliage that is typical of Cryptomeria with succulent, awl-like needles, growing in dense clumps, mounding and layering upon itself, every plant is its own unique creation. Like its big sister, ‘Elegans Nana’ will provide an interesting purplish/reddish/orange color through the cold winter months. In my garden this year, that winter color lingered well into the later months of spring.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'
A close-up view of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’

Purchased as a young plant, ‘Elegans Nana’ is a great candidate for the container garden on the patio or urban balcony. My friends in those colder winter climates might even consider growing many of the dwarf and miniature Cryptomeria in containers if they are able to move them into a protected garage or other structure, remembering that they are rated at Zone 6.

Unique, compact sculptural form, tantalizing soft foliage, color that changes with the seasons, and just being plain cute, I can’t imagine why everyone wouldn’t love to have an ‘Elegans Nana’ in their conifer collection.

Conifer Lover