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.”

“Mmmmm…”

“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.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

A tale of twelve Norwegians

Thirty years ago when I was a young fella with boundless energy, I planted my own first real conifer garden. Prior to that, I was on a piece of property that was so large, and I was so busy with work and life and home repair/re-modeling projects that I just didn’t have much time for gardening. Well, at that time I was more of an organic vegetable gardener. We had a huge garden filled with enough vegatables for us and our city-dwelling friends. Then we experienced some of life’s changes and we moved to a city lot. Much smaller, more manageable and the back yard was a clean canvas of a weedy lawn.

Picea abies 'Pendula'
Picea abies ‘Pendula’ can be trained to any height and/or allowed to mound and sprawl, covering the ground in hardy green waves.

I had almost forgotten, but back in those days I was a huge fan of the dwarf and miniature cultivars of Picea abies (Norway spruce). Honestly, I don’t think I’ve become less of a fan over the years, I’ve just added many more plants to my list of favorites. One of the main areas I created back then had a combination of 12 different cultivars with varying size, shape, and textural characteristics. I had drawn out a traditional overhead-view design of the garden with both the planted sizes and my projected 20 years sizes. Then I also sketched out more of an eye-level view to give me more of a real-world perspective. I mention all this because I still think that plant selection was great for any beginning conifer gardener. They are easy to grow and extremely hardy and adaptable into a great many climatic conditions.

What I like about the cultivars that I chose for this project was that they all have distinctive shapes as they grow and mature creating a multi-leveled, three dimensional, sculptural bed of varying shades of green. This menagerie of shape and texture would become the year-round foundation to the garden bed which also included my first experimentation with assorted perennial flowers and some broadleaved shrubs. Over the nine years that we lived at that place, I did fill in with other conifer acquisitions and everything grew together nicely. As we sold the place and moved on, the landscape was beginning to have the “feel” I was seeking in my original plan by screening the garden shed and the neighbors directly behind us. I can only image how nice it must be now. If I were to do the project all over again, I would include more dwarf and miniature cultivars in an assortment of genera which would widen my pallet of color and texture – essentially taking the place of all those bothersome short-season perennials.

Picea abies 'Witches Brood'
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’ is a cheery sight with its covering of bright green new foliage each spring.

Here is the list of those original conifers. These should be relatively easy to find (or special order) at your local independent garden center and will be great selections to anchor any new garden plan. Fill in spaces with whatever your heart desires from companion small trees, shrubs and flowers to herbs and vegetables. As the seasons change, your garden will have the stability and beauty of year-round color, texture and an assortment of shapes from tall columns to broad pyramids, varying sizes of rounded, mounding forms and undulating waves of weeping groundcover. Have fun!

Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana Stricta’
Picea abies ‘Cupressina’
Picea abies ‘Elegans’
Picea abies ‘Gregoriana Parsonsii’
Picea abies ‘Little Gem’
Picea abies ‘Mucronata’
Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea abies ‘Pumila’
Picea abies ‘Sherwood Compact’
Picea abies ‘Thumbelina’
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’

Ed-
Conifer Lover

Great color for the cold days of winter

After several days of spring-like temperatures, our Pacific Northwest weather has made a u-turn back to winter. Well, around here that means the east wind is howling, bringing low temps to near freezing. But, when you factor in the 15 to 30 mph winds, that makes us feel considerably colder. With our friends in the mid-west and back east enduring much lower temperatures and a fresh onslaught of snow, all I can think about are cold hardy conifers!

Three of my favorite hardy conifers make a beautifully colorful vignette when grouped together in the landscape or in containers. This time of year when many other plants are taking a beating from the bitter cold, these three provide enough color to make anyone smile.

'Curley Tops'
The foliage of Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Curley Tops' has a unique curly habit as can be seen in this close up photo.

My first selection is the bright, silvery blue, Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Curley Tops’. This vigorous grower rates within the Intermediate growth range as charted by the American Conifer Society, putting on 6″ to 10″ of new growth per year in my area. ‘Curley Tops’ has a very nice compact form with soft, dense, curly blue foliage. If you would like to slow its growth, it does respond very well to a nice light annual shearing. Naturally growing in a cone shape, if one desired, it could be shaped to the heart’s content.

'Golden Mop'
'Golden Mop' is a slow grower suitable for small spaces in the garden or in containers when young.

Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’ is listed as a dwarf, but keep in mind that it can become large in time. As a young plant, ‘Golden Mop’ will form a broad roundish mound of bright yellow, coarse, tread-like foliage. In time it becomes broadly pyramidal in form and is quite stunning in the garden planted near dark green or blue conifers. Its color takes on a rich golden hue as winter becomes more intense.

'Cumulus'
Like the fluffy clouds it is named for, 'Cumulus' is a perfect miniature puff for any small space in the garden or in containers.

Finally, Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Cumulus’ is a great little miniature with tight coarse green foliage and a form that is reminiscent of those wonderful, fluffy, puff-ball clouds on a warm spring or summer day. Since this one is a true miniature conifer growing close to an inch per year, it is perfect for the container garden too. In fact, if acquired as young plants, all three selections are suitable to be grown in containers for a number of years. Then, as they put on some size, you could place them near each other in the garden for a spectacularly colorful corner. Add more colorful conifers or other companion plants for a display worthy of the finest gardens.

Until next time, stay warm!

Ed-
Conifer Lover

Raising Taxus

I think this year I have seen more discussion on the subject of taxes than any in recent history. We have a new administration voted in with the promise of “Hope” and “Change”. As April 15 draws nearer (tax day in the USA), there are a lot of Americans who are hoping to get to keep some of their change. Whatever your perspective on the new administration, and the changes to the tax code, one thing I am fairly confident in, is gold.

Perhaps investing in our gardens during slow economic times is a great investment too. As we spend time in the garden, we work our muscles and respiratory systems which help to reduce stress. Gardening helps us to invest in our future happiness by providing us with a very pleasant place to entertain and relax – or even provide food to help us cut costs. Investing in gold for the garden is a great way to add interest and excitement and using gold conifers is the way to add bright color to your garden all year-round. 

Taxus cuspidata Nana Aurescens
Taxus cuspidata 'Nana Aurescens'

This year, I am pleased that I will be raising Taxus in my garden; specifically, Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’. This is an incredibly useful plant with its low spreading habit and bright gold foliage color, Zone 4 hardiness and being somewhat deer resistant. On a dark, dreary, cloudy, rainy day like today, ‘Nana Aurescens’ glows in the garden providing such an outstanding sunny-yellow color that you almost feel warmer just looking at it. A compact grower, it responds well to shearing if you are so inclined, but with thoughtful planning before planting, it shouldn’t outgrow its space for many, many years.

In my book, unlike raising taxes, raising Taxus is a very good thing.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

My green thumb turned blue

The cold Arctic air that I mentioned last week has moved into our area. I understand that what those of us in the Pacific Northwest will experience over the next few days is nothing like what many of our friends are enduring in other parts of the country right now. A good friend took his eleven year old son to the “big game” in Green Bay and managed to survive four hours of -21º F wind-chill Sunday. Conditions like that give me a new appreciation for our gray rainy days here.

Picea pungens 'Montgomery'

When cold air does make its way into the PNW, I also renew my appreciation for hardy conifers and how great they are for those areas where the winter is commonly far more bitter cold than here. In an earlier blog, I mentioned a handful of dwarf Colorado Blue Spruce that I am particularly fond of. One of the most popular ones on my list is Picea pungens ‘Montgomery.’

Growing at perhaps one third to half the rate of the Colorado Blue Spruce, ‘Montgomery’ is a dwarf version reaching a height of 10 to 12 feet in 20 years. When young, ‘Montgomery’ will grow as a globe shaped mound. Its striking, consistant blue color will certainly draw the attention of passersby. As it matures, it will form a broad pyramidal shape eventually growning into a neat and compact version of the much larger parent tree. Some people prefer to prune out the developing dominant leader to encourage a broader than tall mound shaped plant into maturity. Either way, ‘Montgomery’ is a fantastic garden plant with brilliant blue color and extreme hardiness growing in zone 2 (-40 to -50º F).

‘Montgomery’s hardiness is an attribute that I don’t need to be concerned with where I live. I love it for its generally care free nature, great form and color. With all the shades of green in the garden, I’m thrilled to have ‘Montgomery’ as one contributer to the exciting range of blues to make my garden a real joy.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli Nursery for the photo links!