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

I love the classics: movies, cars, music and conifers!

I was talking with a new friend about his new garden. He and his wife want a little space to grow some veggies, maybe a dwarf fruit tree or two, an area large enough for a swing-set or climbing structure for the kids and a bed or two of dwarf conifers. He loves the idea of having a garden with year-round color that is as low maintenance as it is beautiful. As we were walking around my garden, I was inclined to show him some of my most recent acquisitions – some of which are really far too rare for a newbie to look for. As we took our stroll, I noticed that he was very interested in some of the conifers that I started with many, many years ago. Conifers with great characteristics and value to the garden, but because I’ve known them for so many years, I’ve almost snubbed them for their familiarity. Silly me.

Today I’ll present to you the first two of five classic conifers worthy of a home in any garden, whether you are a conifer newb or an old-timer like me. Next time, I’ll follow-up with the final three. These five classics should be easy to find at your local independent garden center and will make a very nice combination in a new conifer bed. These same five plants will also be a joy to grow in containers, on the deck or patio, for a number of years when small plants are purchased.

Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star'
Juniperus squamata 'Blue Star' is a premium dwarf conifer with tremendous blue color and a nice coarse texture.

My first selection really is a great dwarf conifer. Its blue foliage and low, rounded, spreading form is very useful near other colorful conifers, Japanese maples, spring bulbs, perennials – just about any companion plant. Unfortunately, this beautiful conifer has received a bad reputation, due in large part to its misuse in the landscape. Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’is one of the bluest and most readily available dwarf conifers you might find. Placed properly in the landscape, it can grow to a luscious full size adding unbeatable color and texture to the garden.

People are all too often enamored with this pretty little blue conifer and since it is labeled as a dwarf, they think it will make a great way to fill in the parking strip (that narrow space between the curb and sidewalk). At first, those little blue mounds look so good dressed up with a nice mulch of small river rock or bark. The bad news is that being small and low to the ground, they become prime targets for children on bicycles and the neighborhood dogs like to make them part of their regular routine. Then, once one dog marks the spot, they become targets for every dog in the neighborhood. Of course humans can be somewhat heartless as well when they pull up to the curb, open their door and step right out and onto the young plant trying to survive all this abuse. Before long the homeowner – and everyone in the neighborhood – detests the innocent plant that has had nothing but a life of abuse as it turns from its lively blue to shades of yellow and brown. ‘Blue Star’ is much more suited for a prime location near the front door mixed with an assortment of other colorful plants. There, it will thrive in a less disturbed environment, providing years and years of color and texture.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea'
Its golden yellow color and tidy, compact habit make Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Lutea' one of my very favorite classic conifers.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Lutea’ is one of the first golden dwarf conifers I met back in my youth while working for an old landscaper in the big city. This delightful dwarf conifer has soft sprays of brightly colored, golden yellow foliage. A young plant will add tremendous color to the mixed container or the garden bed. Growing just a few inches per year, ‘Nana Lutea’ will form a compact pyramidal shape and slowly grow from several inches tall in a one gallon container to nearly five feet tall and four feet broad at its base in about twenty more years. Placed near a ‘Blue Star’, their colors contrast beautifully in the garden and can make a wonderful foundation for other dwarf or miniature conifers  and other colorful companions.

I hope you’ll try these  two colorful beauties in your garden. They should be easy to find and easy on the budget as well. Keep in mind that dwarf conifers can live for many years in the garden and will slowly continue to gain size, a few inches per year, for their lifetime.

Conifer Lover

Of mutants and pixies

A family of pixies has moved into my garden. It’s true, but perhaps not quite what you might be thinking.

Last time I talked about two miniature forms of the Dwarf Alberta Spruce. I gave a brief explanation of the horticultural terms, Sport, Reversion and Witches’ Broom, all referring to mutations – new or different growth forms –  emerging from their respective parent plants. This time I’ll present for you the family tree of an exciting group of dwarf and miniature conifers originating from the White Spruce (Picea glauca).

We learned last time that Picea glauca ‘Conica’ was discovered near the beginning of the 20th century in Alberta, Canada. This new form of Picea glauca is a dwarf version of the White Spruce with a greatly reduced growth rate and nice conical shape. Many new cultivars have been discovered as mutated growth emanating from a small percentage of the millions and millions of Dwarf Alberta Spruce clones growing around the world.

Picea glauca Pixie
Picea glauca ‘Pixie’

One of those mutations was propagated and named ‘Pixie’ for its miniature growth rate and tiny conical habit. One day at Iseli Nursery, an employee discovered that one, in a crop of ‘Pixie,’ had a variegated sport. In fact, by the time the employee made this discovery, the sport had become virtually the entire small plant. This mutation was evaluated for a number of years, found to hold true to its distinctive characteristic and became the “mother” plant for a new cultivar which became known as, ‘Pixie Dust’.

Picea glauca Pixie Dust
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’

‘Pixie Dust’ is even a little slower growing than ‘Pixie’ with the same nice miniature conical habit. What makes it particularly exciting is that mid-way through the growing season, it appears to be sprinkled with golden pixie dust with its golden colored second push of new foliage. Since not all the buds push at the same time, and since the golden color fades to rich green, ‘Pixie Dust’ makes me think of gold dust shimmering in the sunlight (in very slow motion).

Picea glauca Pixie Dust Sport #1
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ Sport #1

But the story doesn’t end there. A sport was discovered growing on a ‘Pixie Dust’ with faster growth but still within the dwarf growth range. This new sport has been propagated and is being evaluated at Iseli Nursery today. So far it is growing into a larger conically shaped plant with annual growth of 3 to 4 inches. Currently it is pushing its second flush and shows the same golden color as its parent.

So, we begin with a large forest tree that produces a dwarf cone shaped, highly popular cultivar, which itself produces a great many new cultivars through the magic of mutation. One of those mutations produces its own new cultivar, which at this time has also produced an exciting new form worthy of further evaluation.

Did you follow all that? Don’t worry, just enjoy the fantastic new conifers being introduced at your local fine garden centers and leave all the complicated science to the experts!

Conifer Lover

Looking sharp in the garden

One of the great native trees to my area in the Pacific Northwest is the Sitka Spruce. Picea sitchensis is the largest growing of the spruce family and has a history rich in the folklore of the native peoples in this area. One very large old specimen near the Oregon Coast had been known as the largest Sitka Spruce in the United States until the storm of December 2, 2007 brought the tree down. It was reported to be 200 feet tall and estimated to be 500 to 750 years old. A beautiful forest tree, but a little too large for the average home garden, Picea sitchensis has “mothered” slower growing cultivars that are more garden friendly.

Picea sitchensis 'Papoose'

Picea sitchensis ‘Papoose’ is one dwarf form of the Sitka Spruce worthy of a place in any garden. Its needles are bi-colored giving the overall plant a nice blue-green appearance. Upon closer inspection the bi-color nature of the needles is revealed. Be careful, those needles are very sharp to the touch. When the new growth emerges, the outer sides of the needles are visibly bright green. As the foliage matures and hardens through the season, the green color becomes darker and the needles expand and curve outward exposing their waxy coating on the undersides giving a bluish appearance. Growing only 2-3 inches per year, ‘Papoose’ remains compact and tidy in the garden. The beautiful specimen pictured here is approximately seven feet tall, eight feet wide and nearly thirty years old.


Conifer Lover

Thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links.

Fanciful garden gems

I’ve just been digging through some catalogs both online and in print, and I am getting pumped up and ready to plant some new dwarf and miniature conifers in my garden. There is no doubt that I love the large and stately trees that fill our forests and parks, but my special love is for the dwarfs and miniatures. Honestly, what’s not to love about these delightfully small, low maintenance, colorful and hardy conifers?

A simple Patio Garden using dwarf conifers and other exciting plants.

My rock garden area is getting full, and the tiny plants that I intend to acquire will be too small for other open areas in my garden, so I am going to focus on containers for these fanciful little garden gems. Miniature conifers are perfect with the current trend in container and patio gardens. Once I decide whether I’d like a more formal looking patio garden using manufactured ceramic or terracotta pots, or a rustic look created with handmade hypertufa troughs, my next task will be deciding on which of the wonderful miniature conifers to include in the design.

Hypertufa trough garden using dwarf conifers and other miniature or creeping plants.

I’ve compiled a list of miniature or dwarf forms for my new containers. In a few years when some of the faster growing cultivars are getting too large, I’ll find a place for them in my garden. In the mean time, these little beauties will add a lot to my patio space.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’
Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Cumulus’
Picea abies ‘Tompa’
Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’
Pinus leucodermis ‘Smidtii’
Pinus strobus ‘Sea Urchin’
Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Tuffet’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Betty Rose’

Come on SPRING!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli Nursery for the photo links!