A lighthouse in the morning fog

This morning I awoke to discover one of the thickest fogs in memory. Only once, back in the early 1970s, do I remember a fog more thick than this one. A friend and I had been given charge of a mutual friend’s 1969 Camaro. I do not remember the series of events that lead us to have this responsibility, but I do remember that we were supposed to drive his pride and joy to his girlfriend’s house by a specific time. The fog, that evening, was so thick and the country roads were so dark that it took us well over an hour for what was ordinarily a 20 minute trip. We could not see the yellow lines of the road! We tried a number of techniques in attempts to increase our visibility, but nothing really helped much. I do not remember how we eventually made it to our destination, but we did arrive, albeit much later than instructed. We all had a laugh about the density of the fog and decided to hang out at the girl’s house for an hour or two. Eventually another friend arrived and his car was equipped with fog lights, so we all decided that he could lead the way out of the muck and back home to our side of town. This morning’s fog was not near as bad as that, but it was a close second.

The magnificent ‘Chief Joseph’ showing off his stunning winter color on a dark, foggy morning at the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden.

By the time I motivated myself to really begin my day, the fog had thinned out some and I took a stroll around my garden. I always enjoy my garden walks in the fog. There is just some measure of magic and mystery that the low light and reduced visibility gives to the garden. Weeping plants seem more alive as they take on creature features in the fog. Background distractions faded from view and the fog accumulated on the foliage and bare branches creating millions of tiny dewdrops, which in the light freeze, added a special sparkle to the garden as the sun brightened and burned a brighter spot into the fog.

Tiny, quick-frozen dew drops created a wonderful effect in the foggy morning garden.

As I wandered around the foggy garden, I thought back to that harrowing drive 40 years ago with my friend. As I turned and approached a curve in my path, I couldn’t see what was lying in wait and my imagination conjured all kinds of fantastic possibilities inspired by years of reading tales of hobbits, elves, gnomes, and dragons. What I did see as I made my way ’round the curve caught me just a little by surprise. It was my old friend, The Chief! Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ was standing tall and glowing his very bright golden yellow color. Nothing in the immediate vicinity was as bright and noble looking as The Chief. I was reminded of one very foggy visit to the Yaquina Head lighthouse on the central Oregon coast. It was so foggy that day that we could barely see the lighthouse, even up close, but its light shined brightly and was visible miles away! So too, ‘Chief Joseph’ was a bright light in my dark and foggy garden, lighting my way, and guiding me to the next bend in the path.

Conifer Lover

Conifer Couples

In my last post, I promised to introduce you to a pair of cute little conifers that I am confident you will want to collect and grow in your own gardens. Now, if you are at all like me, you have become completely enamored with miniature conifers – the ones that are described by the American Conifer Society as growing less than one inch per year. To be honest though, my definition of mini-conifers does expand a bit and includes some “dwarf” cultivars that grow up to around 2-3 inches per year – which is still pretty darned slow-growing and the plants remain very small for a very long time.

The cute couple that am honored to introduce to you this post are both tiny forms of Picea abies, the Norway spruce. Growing three feet per year when young and eventually reaching heights near 200 feet, the Norway spruce is a native forest tree growing in colder regions throughout Europe. An excellent tree—healthy, hardy and vigorous—it has been cultivated far from its native range. There are hundreds of unique mutations which have been discovered, named and collected in gardens for many years. Over the past 50 years, many of these new cultivars, have begun to be propagated by nurseries because of the plants usefulness in contemporary landscapes. As garden spaces have grown smaller, so have many of the plants that are commercially available.

Picea abies ‘Jana’ looks to me like the top of a human head protruding up from the soil.

Dwarf and miniature conifers are perfect plants for use in container gardens, miniature gardens, fairy gardens, railway gardens and rock gardens because they grow slowly and remain small for a great number of years. The selection of plants becoming available to local independent garden centers continues to grow, making it possible to create a garden filled with an exciting collection of these diminutive beauties much more quickly than just 15 or 20 years ago. As more folks are becoming interested in miniature gardens, more of these tiny plants, once only found as rarities in devoted collector’s gardens will become available so that regular folks may enjoy them in their own gardens.

Without any further ado, I introduce to you, ‘Jana’ and ‘Jessy’!

Picea abies ‘Jana’ is a very slow growing, mounding, dense bun with relatively long, rich green needles which radiate outward, encircling each small branch. Annual growth looks to average close to half an inch or just about 1.5 centimeters in length. I do see some random shoots of up to an inch on my plant from time to time, but I tend to snip those few oddballs off to keep my plant tidy. The largest specimen of Jana that I can remember seeing reminded me of the top of a large human head, from just about the eyebrows and the top of the ears, protruding above the ground as if the rest of this unlucky fellow was standing, buried under the soil. Growing at less than one inch per year, you can do the math to estimate the size of your new plant in 10 or 20 years.

Prominent orange-tan buds adorn the already ultra-cute Picea abies ‘Jessy.’

Picea abies ‘Jessy’ appears to me to grow slightly slower than ‘Jana’ with its overall appearance being smaller. Very tiny, dark green, glossy needles cover very small, thin, light colored branches. At the terminal of each small branch is a prominent, orange-tan bud cluster. At first I thought to describe the buds as being large, but upon close inspection I determined that the buds are close to the same size or slightly smaller than that of ‘Jana’. The tiny shoots and needles make the buds appear larger and they really do stand out as a prominent feature on this fascinating little plant.

These two miniature conifers make a delightful pair and may be grown together as part of a miniature garden of any kind. I like seeing these two planted together in miniature theme gardens because although they grow at similar rates, they are very different from one another due to the details of their features. I hope you will give them both a try in your own garden. They are both hardy to Zone 3 and will thrive in full sun with moist, well-drained soil.

I’ll have two more “minis” to share with you next time!

Conifer Lover

Mighty mini conifers!

After our unusually long, and beautifully warm and dry summer, the autumn season has turned on like as if someone flipped a switch. Temperatures have dropped twenty five degrees and the rains have begun. This past weekend saw record-breaking rain accumulation throughout the Pacific Northwest combined with strong wind. Something about this sudden change of weather has had an impact on my plant focus.

Throughout the past several months I have had many opportunities to work in my garden. Working outdoors, breathing in the fresh, summery air, listening to all of the local critters flutter and scurry about while under the protective shade of the large trees that surround my property influenced some of my gardening and new plant choices. Having the opportunity to spend so much time in the wide open space seemed to have widened my interest in adding a few larger, faster growing conifers to my garden (not that I have space for any more large trees). I also expanded upon my use of larger annual flowers and vegetables which I interspersed among the conifers and other ornamental plants.

Tiny, slow-growing conifers are perfect for containers. The are full of color, texture and character and play well with other cool miniature plants.

I planted a small forest of Sunflowers to provide shade for a few of my more light sensitive conifers, and that strategy worked very well at protecting them from the intense summer sun. We even enjoyed harvesting Nerf football-sized melons from long vines that covered the ground, filling in spaces between conifers. But, as the seasons have changed, and I have retreated back indoors with a more limited view of my garden, so too has my plant focus changed from larger plants to delightful, miniature conifers.

The primary view of my garden through the cooler, wetter, winter months, features many of  the containers on my patio. Dwarf and miniature conifers are perfect for containers gardens since the take many years to outgrow their space. One container in my garden comes to mind that I originally planted six years ago, and in that time only one conifer in that grouping has been removed and transplanted into the garden. The three minis that remain continue to enjoy their prominent place on my patio.

Small, colorful conifers and other exciting ornamental plants make excellent year-round fillers for your favorite containers.

As I was recently sitting in my favorite chair near the wood stove, gazing out into the rainy garden, my eyes naturally focused on my containers and I was instantly taken in by the tiny conifers that I have collected over the years. As I was sitting there, it struck me that many of the containers consisted of “conifer couples” — pairs of tiny conifers that shared a theme of one kind or another. For example, ‘Jana’ and ‘Jessy’ shared a container while, ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘Elf’ happily reside in another. This has inspired me to post a series featuring some of my favorite  tiny conifer couples.

Stay tuned, next time I’ll introduce you to two cute little conifers, that it you’re like me, you will find them irresistible and not be satisfied until you find them both for a special place in your own garden.

Conifer Lover

Checkers, anyone?

I have been watching a relatively new conifer for several years now. When I had my first encounter, I thought the specimen was nice, but it didn’t jump out and grab my attention like some plants have over my lifetime. Now that I have observed a few specimens growing in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden for the past five years, I must say that I am quite enamored with Picea pungens ‘Waldbrunn’.

This unique form of Colorado spruce is definitely a dwarf, growing an average of 3-4 inches per year. Its needles seem to be in perfect scale with the size of the plant – not growing too long or too short – they are stiff and sharply pointed as one might expect with this species of spruce. Growing with a low, spreading, mounding habit, ‘Waldbrunn’ can fit into today’s small landscapes and yet be an attractive and useful addition to larger gardens. Its unique, steel blue color sets it apart from other dwarf spruce choices. The Nest Spruce types are dark, rich green in color while other dwarf Colorado spruce forms are usually a brighter, more powder blue.

Picea pungens ‘Waldbrunn’ is a Low-growing, spreading, compact plant with unique blue color.

Recently I was talking with a friend about a gardening challenge that he was trying to solve in a portion of his back yard. His neighbor’s property must be a full 15 to 20 feet above the house-level of his back yard. There is quite a steep, tiered slope which makes the transition from the neighbor’s property down to the more level ground of my friend’s place. There is a good amount of rockery which lends to the nicely layered tiers of planting spaces but, toward the top, near the border is a partially open slope that had been planted with a combination of Tam juniper and English ivy. Over the years, several of the Junipers have died and the Ivy has made a strong attempt to take over as much real estate as possible. My friend has been working hard to eliminate the Ivy and desires to replace it and the remaining junipers with something more attractive.

Picea abies ‘Elegans’ is a slow-growing, spreading, green mound.

I thought it might be fun to create a “checkerboard” effect with Picea pungens ‘Waldbrunn’ and Picea abies ‘Elegans’. ‘Elegans’ is a medium green color which pushes early in the spring with very bright green new foliage. It is also a slow growing, mounding, spreading form. Planting several of these, along with ‘Walbrunn’ in a checkerboard pattern along the top sloping area will create a fun, low maintenance solution to my friend’s problem. To ensure success, he will install drip irrigation so that each of these new plants will receive ample water – even on this steep slope. In many years, the plants will spread and begin to mingle creating less of a checkerboard and more of a mottled, colored tapestry which will hold the ground and prevent erosion, all while providing a lovely garden conversation piece.

Conifer Lover

Garden naps and artistic revelation

We have been enjoying one of the longest stretches of absolutely beautiful summer weather here in our corner of the Pacific Northwest. The cool mornings, warm, dry days and pleasant evenings have enabled us to enjoy our garden more than any time in recent memory. More than once I have found myself dosing off into a relaxed semi-slumber, while sitting in the garden, making an attempt to read a good book.

Allow your inner artist to be inspired by the great color and texture of conifers!

One of those times, while I was drifting in that dreamy state somewhere between sleep and consciousness, with my head nodding and my eyes drooping into tiny slits, allowing only an unfocused view of the garden surrounding me, I began to see the garden in an entirely new way. I began to see my garden more as an impressionist painting rather than the sharp details of reality. My perspective changed and visual distance was compressed making my view of the garden somewhat two-dimensional. All of the colors and textures of the plants seemed almost like daubs of paint, layer upon layer, with splotches of light and dark to give the composition some sense of depth.

It was quite a fascinating experience and it almost inspired me to jump up and dig out my old painting supplies to make an attempt at recreating the scene on canvas. Laziness won out and I remained seated enjoying the scene as my consciousness moved from artistic revelation to calm jubilation and I drifted off into a delightful mid-summer’s nap.

May your garden naps fill your heart with joy.

Conifer Lover