Losing touch with normality

I had an opportunity to sit down with a long-lost friend at the local coffee shop the other day. Don’t you love it when you haven’t seen an old friend in quite a long time, but when you do finally get together it is as if no time has passed at all. That was how this meeting went.

We talked about all the usual things; family, jobs, religion, politics and gardening. Rest assured, we pretty much solved all of the world problems in just that one visit. Of course my favorite part of the conversation was when we began to talk about gardening – and specifically, conifers!

“Ed,” my friend began in a very serious tone, “I believe I’m beginning to lose touch with normality.”


“Really – and I think I have you to blame for it.” He continued very seriously.

“I don’t understand. I’m a pretty normal guy.” I said with a straight face. “They don’t come much more normal than me.”

“HA! Ed, you are absolutely NUTS about conifers, how can you claim to be normal!” My friend said, now laughing out loud. “And you’re the reason I’m a conifer nut now too!”

Picea abies 'Pendula'
This Picea abies ‘Pendula’ living fence partially encircles a section of the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery. Planted in 1986, it was staked to a height of approximately eight feet and trained horizontally at about four feet.

We laughed over that as my friend and I shared our experiences with growing more and more conifers in our gardens. Conifers, with their grand assortment of colors, from multiple shades of green and blue and yellow (some a mixture of all three), along with their many forms, from giant trees to tiny little buns, weeping and trailing and mounding and layered, we questioned, “What is normal, anyway?”

After that great visit with my old friend, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite conifers, that upon first introductions, people might find rather unusual, but have become very normal and important additions to my garden. These are plants that I often suggest to folks when they ask me what they should add to their gardens – even though their initial response is frequently less than immediately embracing.

Picea abies ‘Pendula’ has become very common and should be available at any independent garden center. If this tree were grown without a support, it would sprawl along the ground, mounding and layering upon itself in delicious waves of dark green, coarsely textured foliage. Most often you will find this plant staked to a height of three to five feet. It only takes a couple of years for the staked main stem to harden and support the plant, so a stake will not be needed for its entire life. Once you arrive home with one of your own, you may choose to let it do its own thing and flop over, and begin to weep toward the ground. As an alternative, you could continue to stake the leader up higher and higher to create a tall slender “waterfall” specimen in your garden. Either way, as the foliage grows down to the ground, it will begin to spread as I described above, adding to the waterfall effect.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni'
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’ can become a wonderful golden sculpture in the garden, complementing other conifers and ornamentals.

Another fantastic cultivar that has become “normal” to me, but might seem unusual to those new to conifers is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’. This excellent dwarf cultivar of Hinoki Cypress is notable for its sturdy golden foliage and its naturally sculptural form. Fairly slow growing at two to three inches per year in my garden; ‘Verdoni’ is great accent to any garden because of its bright golden color. Planted as a single specimen to highlight its sculptural characteristics, in a container alone or as part of a grouping, or in the mixed border, this small conifers will be a gorgeous addition to gardens of all sized and themes.

Let me know if these two selections are common normalities, or unusual oddities, from your perspective.

Conifer Lover

The colors of peace and harmony

I’ve been thinking about colors in nature and how color has an effect on the human psyche or spirit. Two of the most prominent colors found in our natural world are blue and green. For most of the day, when the sky is clear, it is a vast ever-changing gradient of blues. Then, when we are able to remove ourselves from the confines of large buildings, we can be surrounded by green. From large forest trees towering overhead to small blades of grass, at least for part of the year, we can be engulfed in a world of blue and green hues.

I’ve noticed that I feel much better when the sky is clear and blue and I am surrounded by plants. I began to wonder if color itself may have anything to do with those feelings of peace, harmony, kindness, etc. so I decided to see what I could find online. Sure enough, there is quite an abundance of information that suggests the colors we perceive have an effect on our overall health and mood.

It turns out that blue and green are rather healing in their nature. Green is said to support balance, harmony, love, and acceptance while blue increases a sense of calmness, love, peace, honesty, and devotion.

Abies procera ‘Glauca’ (Prostrate Form) not only makes a stunning statement in the garden, but may also provide a sense of peace and love.

No wonder I love conifers!

Our amazing world of conifers is made up of year-round therapeutic color. From the wide range of green tones through the vast assortment of blues, conifers could single-handedly transform your garden into a private wellness center. Even in the dead of winter, when the blue sky is often blocked from view by a thick layer of clouds and other plant life has dropped its foliage or withered away until spring, the conifer garden can provide a sense of well-being and inner peace.

When spring does arrive, the color of the conifers is renewed as fresh new foliage appears. Plus, with the addition of the yellows, orange, violet and red of various deciduous trees and flowers, the garden can inspire fun, humor, creativity, optimism, enthusiasm, imagination, intuition, vitality, stamina and passion!

No wonder I love gardening!

One really great conifer with a stunning blue color is Abies procera ‘Glauca’ (Prostrate Form). This is one bright blue conifer – it is a real stand-out in the garden. Plus, it tends to be a low spreading form that can cover a wide horizontal space. Probably not a true prostrate form, ‘Glauca’ does like to send up the occasional upward growing branch which can be easily removed to encourage its flat form. If an irregular, sculptural form is desired, one might choose to allow one or two of these upright stems to grow, but keep a close watch because in time those small upright stems could become dominant and revert the form of your low spreader into a large upright tree. Either way, the color will remain an extraordinary blue.

Until next time, may your garden be a tranquil respite from the stresses of 21st century life.

Conifer Lover

Dwarf conifers to the rescue!

One of my favorite independent garden centers had a big one-day sale last week. I had been looking for an excuse to give them a visit to see what exciting new plants they might have in stock, so I thought it would be fun to arrive just about the time they opened. What I found was a great number of people had the same idea, except they must have camped out because the parking lot was full and I had to park along the side of the rural road.

I made my way inside where I found a very long line leading from the cash register and along the north walkway, past the empty table that had been the display of the sale plants. The line continued along the east end of the building and progressed all along the south walkway.

I thought to myself that it really is still consistently too cold and wet for tomato plants to get a good start anyway, so I made my way to the new display of conifers. Honestly, I was a little disappointed that I would not be able to bring a prize home to my wife from my Big Sale hunting trip, but I thought I might at least find something new and exciting in the conifer section.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Fern'
Fantastic year-round color, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Fern' is a great dwarf conifer for most any garden.

Of course I was tempted by the Siren songs of all the new little conifers available in the four-inch pots, but I was being strong and found that I was able to resist those little cuties (this time). As I made my way toward a nice display of dwarf conifers, I struck up a conversation with a couple of ladies that seemed quite discontent about the lack of sale items available at the store. After all, the place had only officially opened twenty minutes ago. They seemed determined on being upset, so I mentioned that it was just nice to be out on such a lovely morning.

“Finding a great bargain is all fine and dandy” I explained, “but frankly, I’m happy that this sale motivated me to come to the garden center this morning. Don’t you just love all the pretty flowers in bloom – and look at these fantastic conifers!”

I really don’t know how to describe the look that these two ladies gave me at that point. It was almost like, “How dare you interrupt our displeasure with a positive outlook.”

Finally one of the ladies, not putting too much effort in hiding her being annoyed by me said, “Well, I do like the bright yellow color of that one over there.”

“Ahhhh, yes, the Golden Fern Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’) – that’s really a fantastic dwarf conifer! I love how the foliage really does look a little like a forest fern – and the bright yellow color of this one just can’t be beat. Don’t you love how dwarf conifers fit so well in the garden with other flowering plants, and yet in the winter when everything else is bare or gone, the conifers provide wonderful color and structure to the garden?”

'Golden Fern' foliage
'Golden Fern' foliage has a striking texture as well as brilliant color.

I seemed to have captured their attention.

“Oh, I’ve heard about these dwarf conifers” One of my new friends said.

“You know, I have a dwarf blue spruce in my garden” the other reminded her companion.

“There’s just nothing better than dwarf conifers – and there are so many different ones to choose from. Some grow in full sun, others prefer shade; some grow tall and narrow, others are short and round or weeping or even hug the ground. Not to mention the vast color selection.”

The ladies asked if I was an employee and would I receive a commission if I was able to sell them a plant. I explained that I just loved gardening and growing conifers in particular. We chatted for several minutes, and by the time we were finished, they had both picked out a couple of the small conifers to plant in containers on their patio and seemed to have forgotten all about the bad mood they almost insisted upon  harboring when we met.

May your garden shopping be filled with successes this spring.

Conifer lover

My dwarf turned into a giant

My wife and I were outside, enjoying a very nice spring day, trying to complete some important garden chores the other day. We hoped the rain would hold off as long as possible – at least until we were finished with one major project. While we were working in the front garden, one of our neighbors dropped in and began to slowly walk around the path, carefully observing every conifer as he passed. He had a distinct expression on his face as he wandered around – something between a sneer and a look of suspicion. Finally he made his approach.

“Ed,” he said, “I thought you told me these trees of yours were dwarf.”

“Yes, many of them are dwarf cultivars, though, some are miniatures and others would probably be considered intermediate growers—” I said before he cut me off.

“Then explain to me again how it is that my dwarfs have turned into giants!”

Fortunately for me, going through this lesson is much easier with the visual aids readily available in the conifer garden than, say, in a coffee shop.

First, I pointed over to the group of our native Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). I explained that these truly giant trees were very likely 80 to 100 years old. Then I walked him over to where I have allowed a few seedlings from these trees to grow for the past eight years. I showed him the length of last year’s growth. The central leaders of these young trees averaged 30 inches! Had I not been pruning these trees every year to encourage a nice Christmas tree shape, they would likely be 20 feet tall (remember that’s in just eight years). Then I walked him over to a nice old specimen of Picea abies ‘Sherwood Compact’. This tree is close to twenty years old and is just over ten feet tall.

Picea abies 'Sherwood Compact'
With annual growth of six to eight inches, 'Sherwood Compact' is classified in the Intermediate growth rate catagory.

“Ok, but how is that a dwarf then, it’s still too big.” He said, arms folded over his chest.

I took a deep breath and tried again.

I reminded him about the giant Douglas firs, their eight year old seedlings, and then I took him to a very special cultivar called Picea abies ‘Tompa’. This specimen is fairly young – about 15 years old – but it is less than three feet tall.

“See this one; it is just about the same height, after 15 years of growth, as just one year of growth of those young trees over there.” I said pointing back to the young Douglas fir seedlings. “The Douglas fir grows at an average of 30 inches per year. It continues to grow and grow over its lifetime into the giant forest trees you see at the corner of my property. This dwarf form will also continue to grow throughout its lifetime – just at a greatly reduced rate. Conifers don’t just grow to a certain size and then stop… if they do, they’re dead.”

Picea abies 'Tompa'
The dwarf cultivar, 'Tompa', may grow to be fifty feet tall... in 300 years!

“So, if this ‘Tompa’ grew for 300 years, it could be… 50 feet tall?” My friend’s eyes grew wide as everything began to make sense. “But Ed, when my wife brought home one of those conifers – at your suggestion – the tag said it would grow to 10 feet tall.”

“Well,” I answered, “depending on the grower, that listed size may have been for a 10 or 15 or even a 20 year plant. The better growers will give specific information. But remember, that’s not 10 years from when you buy the plant – you need to keep in mind that you may have just purchased a 5 year old tree.”

When considering a new conifer for your garden, remember that it will continue to grow throughout its lifetime. Upright growers continue to grow taller and taller, low spreading forms become wider and wider. Simple math skills are sufficient for anyone to gain a pretty good idea how large a particular conifer may grow. Determine the length of the growth of the central leader for the past year or two. Multiply a single year’s growth by as many years as you wish, and you will have a very good estimate at how large that conifer will grow in your garden.

A very large tree will grow at a rate of greater than 12” per year. Intermediate sized trees grow from 6” to 12” per year. Dwarf forms grow from 1” to 6” per year and finally, miniature conifers grow at less than one inch per year. If you purchase a true miniature conifer that is 15 inches in height or diameter, you have found a fairly old specimen and it will very likely cost you a good amount of money at the local garden center. On the other hand, an intermediate growing cultivar, that is 15 inches tall may only be three or four years old and to the uninformed, could seem like a real bargain in comparison.

Conifer Lover

The hunt begins

You may recall from past posts how much I enjoy the hunt for the first signs of tiny cones beginning to develop on my conifers. I must still be a kid at heart, playing a horticultural version of hide and seek, because I love looking for those colorful little signs that springtime has arrived. This year is definitely proving to be a week or two behind last year when it comes to my conifers beginning their spring flush of new growth and their display of male pollen cones and the female seed cones.

I believe that last year was an especially good year for cone production on the conifers in my area. Both my garden and the gardens and production fields at Iseli showed an abundance of cones like I’ve never seen before. It is still early, but by this time last year I was seeing more cone developement on more species and cultivars than I had ever seen in one season before. I asked my friends at Iseli what they were seeing this year, and their observation is very much like my own. Few cones developing on fewer plants. No doubt, for whatever reason, last year was an extraordinary year for the cone hunter!

Abies koreana 'Blauer Pfiff'
Abies koreana 'Blauer Pfiff' is a wonderful, low-growing form of Korean fir. One of it's wonderful features is that is seems to cone at a fairly young age.

But don’t let that stop you from getting out into your garden and taking a close look at your conifers. Take a strong magnifying lens or your camera with a quality macro mode, and you just might be surprised at the wonders you will discover.

I love the cone development on my Abies koreana ‘Blauer Pfiff’. The seed cones begin to develop shortly after the pollen cones and just prior to their spring flush of new foliage. The female cones will develop and mature for the next few months, becoming larger and slowly morphing from a spiraling column of reddish-pink pointed wings to a gradient of muted yellowish-green to pink stack of wings on an ever thickening body.

Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna'
Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna' is a great, compact, upright form with rich green foliage and colorful pollen cones.

Another favorite discovery right now is the colorful pollen cones of Pinus mugo ‘Big Tuna’ with their purplish tightly closed pockets of pollen awaiting just the right conditions to open and begin to disperse their fertile pollen into the air. As they mature and begin to elongate a little further, their color takes on some hints of yellow and red suggesting a tinge of orange before they fully open, empty themselves of pollen, and then dry and fade away after completing their important reproductive function.

I look forward to the next several weeks as the hunt will continue and I will discover more and more tiny treasures throughout my garden.

Conifer Lover