Dear Deer, Please stay away

Ever since my friend sent me the photos of his natural defense against deer damage in his garden, I’ve been giving fresh thought to the fairly wide selection of deer-resistant conifers. Last winter I approached this topic with fairly broad generalities, simply referring to conifer species that have shown resistance. Today, I’d like to take another look at deer-resistant conifers from a regional perspective by listing conifers that have been successful in different parts of the country.

Pinus mugo 'Tannenbaum'
Deer prefer that taste of the Eastern White Pine over the Christmas tree shaped ‘Tannenbaum’.

A great example is from my friend in the Mid-west. In his experience, living in rural eastern Iowa, Picea pungens cultivars have been very deer resistant. That includes both the larger and dwarf forms such as the larger, ‘Fat Albert’ and ‘Hoopsii’ as well as dwarf forms such as, ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ and ‘St. Mary’s Broom’. He also noted that although the deer absolutely love his Eastern White Pine cultivars (Pinus strobus), they seem to stay away from Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’, an intermediate sized, broad tree-form of the Mugo Pine. In his area, the deer also tend not to bother with Thuja plicata (Western Red Cedar).

My friend on Long Island, New York has found that all of the Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) are resistant to deer damage. Unfortunately, some conifers that folks in others regions have had success with, such as Cephalotaxus and Thuja plicata ‘Green Giant’, seem to taste just fine to the deer in his area.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Black Dragon'
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’ shows some resistance to browsing deer.

My friends living in various locations along the mid-Atlantic area have found cultivars of Thuja plicata to be resistant to the herds in their region. They have also noted little damage from deer on the cultivars of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cedar) such as ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Kitayama’, or ‘Sekkan’. The Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis) shows resistance in this area whereas the Norway and Colorado spruce (P. abies and P. pungens) only somewhat. Cephalotaxus (Plum Yew) and Thujopsis (Staghorn Cedar) show some resistance in this region.

Sciadopitys verticillata 'Joe Kozey'
‘Joe Kozey’, an excellent cultivar of the highly resistant, Sciadopitys verticillata.

One conifer that none of my friends have ever seen bothered by deer is Sciadopitys verticillata (Japanese Umbrella Pine) and its cultivars. (Update: one of my friends does report some deer damage to Sciadopitys in her section of Connecticut. See comment below.)

Of course all of my friends emphasize that it depends on the size of the herds, the severity of the winter and availability of other foods. As noted in my previous post on this topic, natural defense can go a long way to prevent deer damage. Man’s best friend can also be a deterrent to deer entering the property – many dogs love a good chase after four-legged trespassers.

Conifer Lover

What did you plant in 1999?

The year was 1999. Some happy new homeowners had just moved onto their brand-new property with a blank slate ready for a landscape. One of their number one priorities was to install a fish pond, followed by a nice patio and then landscape plants. Spending most of their budget on the new pond, a collection of colorful Koi, and a very nice covered patio, there was little left for the landscape plants, so they did what many new homeowners do – they spent as little as possible to purchase the largest plants they could afford at the local big-box discount store.

Now, twelve years later, I receive a call from a young friend.

“Hey Ed. I wonder if you’d like to come over and check out our new house. It’s got a cool pond and a whole bunch of big trees – I think some of them are conifers!” He said as if trying to bait this old man’s interest. “I think we’re going to need to get rid of a bunch of these trees and I’m hoping you’ll give me some advice on what to keep.”

Sure enough, my young friends had purchased a nice home, built in 1999, with a fish pond, a nice covered patio – and a collection of species forest trees that were planted to screen the neighbor’s homes which had, in just twelve years, consumed a great portion of the backyard.

Miniature Conifers
Dwarf and miniature conifers, with their managable size, great color and texture and low-maintenance nature make them perfect companions to the natural setting of the backyard pond.

“We’d like to put a veggie garden in over here” my friend said pointing to an area that, because of the number of large trees planted, would receive less than two hours of direct sun per day in the summer. I doubt that much of the backyard will see any direct sun before May, and it will be back to mostly shade by mid September.

“You did say that you wanted to remove some of these large trees, correct?”

Thankfully, my friend is ready to remove most of these trees, opening up his property for a grand vegetable garden and a wonderful collection of dwarf and miniature conifers to complement the pond and make that space a delight. Since the neighbor’s trees have grown over the years as well, the selection of conifers I will recommend will make a much more tidy looking (and easy to maintain) living fence that will not out-grow its space while they regain a great portion of useable real estate and allow much more sunlight into their garden.

I drew up a quick design for my friends, showing them how to implement the plan in stages so that they can plan and budget for each phase of the project. They are excited to fire up the chainsaw and open up their space, and I’m excited that I’ve found a future source of firewood perfect for the fire pit in my own backyard.

The moral to my story is that bigger and cheaper is not always better when it comes to purchasing your landscape plants. It’s always a good idea to have a landscape plan and some understanding of the plants that you are purchasing. My friends are off to a good start and will have a premium garden to pass on to future homeowners, should they decide to sell and move, in another twelve years or so.

Next time I’ll talk about the pond design and my recommendations of dwarf and miniature conifers to complement that space.

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

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