Waves of joy

This current surge of cold weather, and its resulting effect on my aching joints, has reminded me how important thick, dense groundcovers are in the garden. I’m aching just thinking about what a huge chore I would have to face every spring and summer if I didn’t utilize some of the all-natural, year-round, hardy and beautiful ground covering qualities of many exciting conifers. I have enough bare space in my garden that weeds still do manage to pose a challenge to me – but there is less of it every year, due in some part to my groundcovers.

When some folks think, coniferous groundcovers, they may envision low growing carpets of Juniper or Taxus – which are fine examples and can be very effective. Other great plants to cover your ground and ornament your space may include any of a great number of weeping conifers from, Pine and Spruce to Hemlocks and firs.

Pinus densiflora 'Pendula'
Like a waterfall, the foliage of Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’ spills and flows over the ground creating a dense covering to help the fight against weeds.

Some great spreading and ground-covering conifers will, in and of themselves, make fantastic individual specimens, while happily covering bare ground and making less space available for weed seeds to germinate. Others may be much more subtle as they nonchalantly creep and crawl, filling in empty spaces, drape themselves over walls or around rocks, and generally provide a nice low addition of color and texture to the year-round interest of the conifer garden, all while reducing the gardener’s workload.

For example, one great choice is Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’(Weeping Japanese Red Pine). This delicious bright green pine has long thin needles adorning reddish brown twigs and deeply textured mature bark. If allowed to simply grow naturally, it would build wave upon wave of undulating foliage that mounds and spreads covering as much space as the garden will allow. Most likely found in the independent garden center grafted at a couple feet off the ground or trained on a stake to three or more feet tall, ‘Pendula’ will quickly turn and begin it’s waterfall-like decent to the ground where it will spill and splash and fill in empty space with its lush foliar display. Staked to six or eight feet (or taller) the effect can be absolutely stunning. Keep in mind that the taller the plant is staked, the longer it will take many of the branches to reach the ground and begin to do their job.

Other great choices of ground covering conifers include:
Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’
Cepahalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’
Juniperus communis ‘Corielagan’
Juniperus conferta ‘Silver Mist’
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Golden Carpet’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’
Pinus strobus ‘Stony Brook’
Pinus sylvestris ‘Albyn Prostrata’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’

Conifer Lover

My favorite cousin

I was looking through some very old pictures the other day and I was transported back in time. It must have been a combination of the scent of the old leather binding of the 60 plus year old photo album or the slightly faded and partially blurred look of the photographs themselves – whatever it was, I had returned to my childhood and was flooded with memories of the many visits to my grandmother’s small  two acre farm.

As I looked at pictures of the old barn I could smell the straw and feel the rough, splintery texture of the old wood. I could almost taste the tart-sweet juiciness of the plump, purple grapes growing on the arbor. I remembered the dreamy state as I swung slowly on my grandmother’s garden swing, the creaking, squeaking sound it made as it swung to and fro while the dappled shade created kaleidoscopic patterns of light on my closed eyelids. I remembered climbing the old oak tree and how proud I was when I was finally able to jump up to reach its lowest branch enabling me to climb up and into that grand old tree.

And then I saw it.

In the background of one of the family group shots – in the back corner of the yard – was one of the most graceful trees I had ever seen. Even as a young boy, I recognized the graceful beauty of Tsuga heterophylla, the Western Hemlock.

Back in the day, it was a huge tree – possibly the oldest at grandma’s house – it was a graceful giant. Tall and dark green with slightly down-turned branches full of lush, soft needles, this native forest tree is very possibly responsible for my initial interest in conifers.

Tsuga heterophylla 'Thorsen's Weeping'
‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ looks an awful lot like my favorite cousin.

Many years later, when I began to pursue the amazing world of conifers on a more scholarly level, I came across a book written by John Swartley titled, The Cultivated Hemlocks. This was a fantastic reference to many of the unique cultivated varieties of the Canadian or Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Most of the garden hemlocks that have been discovered are variants of Tsuga canadensis, but over the years, a few wonderful new forms of the Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) have been propagated and made their way to collector’s gardens and into the marketplace.

One of my favorite hemlocks just happens to be a cultivar of Tsuga heterophylla called, ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’. This completely prostrate growing conifer, if left to grow naturally, will be a ground-hugging spreader which will create a rich green carpet of conifer. Its natural form will flow between large garden rocks and spill over walls softening hard architectural edges and give the suggestion of water flowing in the garden. Most likely, you’ll find it in the independent garden center staked to a height of three or four feet. Once in your possession, you could continue to increase its height by staking it as tall as you like, confident that when it reaches the top of the stake, it will turn and flow right back to the ground.

A staked ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ will grow in its weeping fashion, layer upon layer as it fills out to eventually look like Cousin Itt from the 1960s TV series, The Addams Family. You may then choose to allow its branches to trail along the ground, continuing to grow as a dense ground cover, or if you like the Cousin Itt look, you might prefer to keep the branches trimmed as they reach the ground. Either way, ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’ is sure to become one of your most treasured and talked about garden conifers.

Conifer Lover

Variegated conifers are cool!

My wife and I have varying tastes in garden plants. She grew up enjoying annual flowers, bulbs, perennials and flowering shrubs. I, of course, prefer conifers. One thing that we both definitely agree on is our love of variegated plants. I even tolerate a few plants that I otherwise would have no interest in if their foliage were not variegated.

Generally, variegation refers to variety or variation of color. One great example of a common plant seen in gardens and as houseplants almost anywhere is Coleus. Who doesn’t love the brightly multi-colored leaves of the Coleus plant? Another of our favorites is Hosta. Many Hosta have large leaves that appear to have been brushed with two or three colors of watercolor paints. Happily, some of the coolest conifers also have variegated foliage.

Sometimes conifers will push their new spring growth of one color, like red or yellow, and then mature to their “normal” color of green or blue. Others will push their new growth a bright golden yellow and as the older foliage becomes shaded by the new, it can darken to green giving the overall plant a variegated appearance. Still others will have green or bluish needles on one side and appear silver or white on the underside due to a waxy coating, again giving the plant a variegated appearance. Beautiful as all these things are, this is not the variegation of which I am referring today.

Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'
Juniperus chinensis 'Torulosa Variegata'

Today I will share with you some of the most striking variegated conifers whose foliage is multi-colored due to interesting patterns of pigment (or perhaps more accurately, lack of pigment). First on the list is a fairly slow growing small tree, Juniperus chinenesis ‘Torulosa Variegata’ or the Variegated Hollywood Juniper. You might think of this as an irregularly shaped upright green conifer with splashes of yellow all over the foliage. Sometimes entire twigs of new growth will be yellow, other branches will have a mix of yellow and green in varying quantities giving the whole tree a very unique appeal.

Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'
Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome'

Another great example of yellow variegation in a conifer is Pinus parviflora ‘Ogon janome’ with its bands of buttery yellow variegation on its green needles. From a distance, the variegation is difficult to discern. One may perceive that this Japanese White Pine is a little more yellow than other nearby plants in the garden. Closer inspection will reveal a wonderful variegation on each and every needle providing this striking effect.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'
Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica'

In most gardens, the two previous trees will perform their best in full sun, although ‘Ogon janome’ may enjoy light shade in the afternoon to protect it from the intense summer sun. The final conifer on today’s list is actually quite tolerant of shade. Tsuga canadensis ‘Albospica’ loves moist, rich, well drained soil and thrives in filtered sun to bright shade. Its new foliage will emerge nearly pure white with some tell-tale signs of green showing. As the foliage ages, its chlorophyll production will kick in and eventually become dark green. The contrast between the white new growth and the dark green mature foliage is absolutely stunning. ‘Albospica’ can become quite a large and open grower, so I like to keep mine pruned which encourages a fuller habit and more of the white new foliage to brighten its home on the north side of my house. I’ve seen a low hedge of ‘Albospica’ that has been regularly sheared and kept to a height of about four feet for many years.

Tsuga canadensis 'Albospica' - cone
Even the cones of 'Albospica' are variegated - that's cool!

These are just a very few of the many selections of conifers available with variegated foliage. I believe that no matter where you live, you will be able to find at least one variegated conifer that will thrive in your area. Keep an eye out for them the next time you visit your favorite independent garden center.

Conifer Lover

Setting the record straight

One of my first encounters with a fellow plant enthusiast was a landscaper I worked for as a young lad. The guy was a first generation immigrant from Hungary with an almost non-stop flow of stories as we drove from one location to another. It didn’t take long for me to discover that a few of his stories were – how shall I put it – less than accurate.

During that time I had a fascination with native culinary and medicinal plants. I had done a fair amount of study utilizing the vast array of books available to me at the local library. I certainly recognized that I was no expert on the topic of wild plants and their medicinal and/or toxic properties, but I was fairly well read and had not yet met anyone with even an interest in the subject.

Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose'
Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose' a delightful, slow growing, variegated Hemlock

One day as we were working in the back lot of one of the pristine homes overlooking the city, my boss alerted me to a magnificent old specimen of Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. By this time I had begun to learn some of the more common conifers and I was happy to see a wonderful specimen of the Weeping Hemlock that I had only previously viewed in a book. As I excitedly approached this grand old tree, my boss warned me, “Don’t touch that one, its poison!”

“Poison?” I asked, not sure why he would say such a thing.

“That’s Hemlock, it’s poison!” he said with a tone of superiority that he knew something about the plant his young apprentice had not yet learned in his formal schooling.

“Poison Hemlock?” I asked, wondering if he was serious. “You mean like the drink Socrates was given as his death sentence?”

This turned out to be the wrong thing to say and only incited another stern warning to stay away from the tree because I would surely become poisoned and he didn’t have time to take me to the hospital.

Since that time, I have had several other opportunities, under less combative circumstances, to clarify to the less informed that, yes, there is a highly toxic plant called Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and no, it is not in any way related to the genus Tsuga, a non-toxic conifer commonly known as Hemlock.

Tsuga canadensis 'Jervis'
Tsuga canadensis 'Jervis' is an excellent garden sculpture

You may ask why a woody coniferous tree would have the same name as a toxic herbaceous plant. If you have ever worked with Tsuga, you very likely have noticed that it has a very peculiar scent – not at all like Pine or Spruce. Apparently, its aroma is very much like that of the Poison Hemlock (and the Water Hemlock which is also very toxic to animals and humans). So, two completely different types of plants with nearly identical common names create the confusion and equates to one reason why I always prefer to use botanical names when discussing plants.

Interesting to note that there is one plant that looks almost identical to Poison Hemlock and it is actually edible. Queen Anne’s Lace or, the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), is an herbaceous plant with foliage and flowers that look very similar to Poison Hemlock but without the toxic properties. I am much more concerned about inexperienced wild food enthusiasts encountering Poison Hemlock in their quest for the tasty young root of the Wild Carrot than warning them away from my good friend, the Tsuga.

The moral to my story? Have no fear of enjoying the huge variety of excellent forms of Hemlock (Tsuga) in your garden. This is a genera filled with exciting dwarf, miniature and variegated forms;  from the delightfully variegated, miniature, ‘Betty Rose’ to the tiny, ‘Minuta’ or the dwarf, irregular, sculptural form of ‘Jervis’ to the stately and sprawling ‘Cole’s Prostrate’, I believe that you will find a garden Hemlock that will be a safe and welcome addition to your garden.

Conifer Lover

Lying in the Shade

The other day I was thinking about different conifers that are classified as weeping or pendulous or prostrate. Some have very striking pendulous habits that require help to attain any real height at all. Others will begin their lives crawling along the ground and then with some maturity begin to show upward strength as they twist and curve and bend their way to unique and fascinating specimens. Still others will grow tall and straight as an arrow with all their lateral branches turning and growing straight to the ground where they then sprawl and make a ground cover skirt around the base of the tree. Some become full size trees while others are dwarf. The diversity within this category of conifer is truly amazing.

Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate'

One of my absolute favorite prostrate growing conifers is Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate.’ While most hemlocks tend to prefer some shade, ‘Cole’s Prostrate’ thrives in it. I love the way it lies tightly to the ground as it crawls and sprawls its way in the garden. Planted in the rockery, it will soften the texture of the rocks and fall over the edge of a wall like a waterfall. I like to stake mine when young to establish some height and encourage a unique form before allowing it to do its own thing.

Yes – weeping, pendulous and prostrate conifers – I love them!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the links!