A tree dipped in dark chocolate? – Yes please!

Springtime, this year, has been a very pleasant mix of cloudy, rainy days and days filled with warm sunshine. Yesterday was one of those amazing sunny days that remind me of my childhood. Everything in the garden is coming alive with springtime freshness. The air smells clean and sweet with the scent of early flowers and newly mowed lawns and… Teriyaki! Someone in the neighborhood was enjoying the weather with their outdoor grill.

Spring foliage is a deep brick-red color.

With rain in the forecast for next several days, I knew that I had better mow what little lawn still remains in my garden, or it would become a more difficult task in a week or so when the weather will allow me another opportunity. Every time I do mow my lawn, I dream about a new conifer planting bed to build here or expand there, further reducing my workload by reducing the surface area of my garden that is filled with lawn. That being said, I do still love to lay on the cool grass as much now as I did when I was much younger.

Laying there on the grass, breathing in the assortment of scents as they seem to randomly drift by in unseen clouds of enchanting delight, I took in the sight of my garden from this lower than usual perspective. I drifted back to the days of childhood when I would play with army men in the grass and garden beds where I grew  up. As I lay there, enjoying the moment, and the memories of those boy-hood adventures so many years ago, I began to rotate myself to take in more of my garden from this unique perspective. Eventually, as I slowly spun myself around, my eyes fell upon one of my favorite small Japanese Maples, Acer palmatum ‘Tsukushi gata’.

Brick-red spring foliage begins to harden as light green veins become more pronounced, matching the color of the stems and branches.

Complementing the light green branches and stems of this small tree, the new foliage begins to emerge with deep, brick red color. As the leave grow and begin to harden, their distinctive light green veins seem to pick up the color of the stems and provide another point of interest. As the foliage matures through the spring and begins to darken as summer begins, noticeable bright green, ornamental seed clusters dangle from branches and continue the color coordination. As summer heats up, the leaves darken to almost black and depending on variables of heat, humidity, intensity of the sun, perhaps even hours of daylight, the dark leaves may show different shades of chocolate with green undertones. With the onset of the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn, the leaves begin to brighten with orange tones until leaf-drop and the bright green branches and stems are exposed for the winter.

Dark, chocolate colored leaves cover the small tree through the summer.

I have had my little tree for 15 years or so, and it must have been over five years old when I planted it. It is no more than five or six feet tall and probably eight to ten feet across its breadth. ‘Tsukushi gata’ would be a very nice small tree to grow in a container on the patio or deck, and certainly will be a well-loved addition to any smaller garden where larger trees will just be too big. The smaller scale of this tree fits well with some of my miniature and dwarf conifers to make a very nice rockery island where the ‘Tsukushi gata’ sits atop a rocky mound with a collection of conifers and other dwarf and miniature plants all working together to make a very delightful space.

Looking out the window, I see that the predicted rain has arrived, and my barometer confirms that we are likely to see little good, warm sunshine for at least a few days. Perhaps the sun will chase away the clouds in time for me to take another trip around my garden with the mowing machine and allow me another warm evening to enjoy my garden from a prostrate perspective.

Conifer Lover

The naked silhouette

The sky was dark gray. The clouds were thick and low rendering the nearby hills to appear more as shadows than the beautiful, rich, green, tree-covered mounds that I knew them to be. The rain was falling at a 30° angle in a heavy, fine mist, which contributed to the obfuscation of the bright and warming rays of the sun. Looking at my watch, I confirmed that it was near noon, though outside it was dark enough that one might confuse the time of day by several hours thinking we were in the midst of twilight.

I poked the few hot coals which remained of the morning fire and added additional fuel to warm the house since we had no intention of venturing out on this day. Once the fire had settled into place, I did the same in my favorite chair. My wife joined me with a cup of tea and the newspaper while I sat and gazed out of the picture window which overlooks the main section of my garden. The cat insisted he needed some attention before he nestled himself back upon his favorite chair near the same window, through which was the focus of my attention.

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Ever Red'

The sculptural framework of an old lace-leaf maple.

By now, all but a few leaves had fallen from my deciduous trees leaving my collection of conifers as the primary players in my winter garden composition. As I slowly scanned the garden, admiring how my tiny, newer plants looked happy and healthy in their new homes and enjoying the forms and textures of older specimens that had been maturing in this garden for quite a number of years, my eyes came to rest upon the naked silhouette of a very beautifully shaped, older Red Laceleaf Japanese Maple.

Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Ever Red’ is one of the old standards in the world of landscape gardening. A Japanese selection, imported into Europe and given the name, ‘Dissectum Nigrum’, it made its way to the United States and was marketed commercially under the name ‘Ever Red’. Nomenclature purists will insist that the only legitimate name is ‘Dissectum Nigrum’, but it is grown in nurseries from coast to coast with the name ‘Ever Red’ and one is more likely to find it in the local garden center with that name.

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Ever Red'

Beautifully clothed during the summer with red lacy leaves.

Of course, this time of year, and of particular note on this dim, gray, drizzly day, was the characteristic branching structure of the tree. The lace-leaf maples, for the most part, are known for their low-growing, mounding, arched to weeping branches and their curvaceous main trunk. I like to keep my lace-leaf maples trimmed with a somewhat open form which, even during the peak of the summer growing season, when the finely dissected, colorful leaves cover the plant, allows a veiled glimpse of the inner structure of the tree. Then, after the brilliant autumn show of brightly colored leaves comes to its finale and the foliage falls and is swept away, the magnificent beauty of the sculptural framework may be appreciated to its fullest.

The rain eventually slowed and came to a brief end on that otherwise gloomy day. Within minutes the moisture began to accumulate in tiny droplets along the branches of my lovely, naked tree. Its intricate form became highlighted with tiny reflective sparkles of light as the clouds thinned and the sun began to poke its powerful golden rays of light down into my garden for a few moments, before the next shower began.

Conifer Lover

So much color! (part one)

You have heard me go on and on about the wonderful year-round color that conifers provide for the garden. From time to time I have even discussed non-coniferous plants with exciting characteristics including, but not limited to, the great color they add to the garden. Today, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the most color-saturated plants in my garden and shortly after I began I realized that this will be the first part in a series on intense garden color.

Red is a color that conifers generally add to the garden in small doses. There is Picea abies ‘Rubra Spicata’ with its blood red new foliage push in spring, but it is a rather quick display lasting only a week or two. Many conifers put on a spring-time show with their colorful, and sometimes, bright red cones. Some of these will persist in their colorful stage for several weeks to a few months while others have a shorter duration. For the longest lasting and most intense red color in my garden, I look to broad-leaved trees and shrubs.

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen'

Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ is a shapely Red Laceleaf Japanese Maple that holds its red color fairly well, even in the heat of summer.

Without a doubt, some of the best reds in my garden are provided by Japanese Maples and there are two which have become favorites of mine. First, Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ (Crimson Queen Laceleaf Maple), is an older selection that has been used in gardens since it was introduced in 1965. Rich, purple-red leaves emerge in spring, slowly covering the weeping branchwork with deeply cut, lace-leaf foliage. There is a graceful delicacy to the way each individual leaf is held on the stem which gives ‘Crimson Queen’ its delightful good looks.

As the temperatures rise in summer, many red-leaf Japanese maples begin to lose their color and fade to a muddy green as the red pigment becomes an undertone to the green. ‘Crimson Queen’ holds up particularly well to summer heat – especially if planted in a location which will provide some afternoon shade. With the onset of autumn’s crisp, cooler temperatures, ‘Crimson Queen’ becomes a bright scarlet red exhibitionist drawing many eyes before she finally disrobes, showing off her internal structure.

Acer palmatum dissectum 'Red Dragon'

Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Red Dragon’ retains amazing color through the heat of summer. Both shot were captured during our current local hot spell.

Second, there is a newer Red Laceleaf Maple in town, one which has earned a tremendous reputation for unbeatable, dark, rich, reddish-purple leaves with color that just won’t quit! Holding its dark, rich color all summer long, ‘Red Dragon’ just brightens up in autumn before finally exposing its attractive branch structure through the winter months. Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Red Dragon’ has a neat and tidy, dome-shaped, habit similar to ‘Crimson Queen’, but without the same delicate grace. That’s not to say that ‘Red Dragon’ lacks any beauty, in fact it is one of the most attractive Red Laceleaf Maples available today!

Adding these two Red Laceleaf Japanese Maples to your conifer garden will bring a pleasing addition of red color to complement the array of blues, greens and yellows available in today’s colorful conifer selections. Don’t just imagine your garden full of year-round color, make it your reality with amazing conifers and other exciting garden plants!

Conifer Lover

Where spring remains winter and autumn visits spring

It seems difficult to believe that any spring could be longer, colder and wetter than last year when we didn’t see sustained temperatures above 60 degrees fahrenheit until well into June. Even then, the rains continued past their “normal” cut-off date of July 4. Last year I did see much more activity in my garden by now in both my conifers and Japanese Maples – we seem to be two to three weeks behind last year.

It was nice to have a brief respite from the cold rain for three days last week. The thermometer on my patio claims that we had a high of 63° on Saturday. Those nice days were followed by a mix of sunshine, rain and hail and a high temperature of 48°, and now we’re back to our cold showers.

Acer palmatum Goshiki Kotohime

Summer foliage of Acer palmatum Goshiki kotohime showing great texture and color.

I did enjoy spending time in my garden during those nice spring days. I transplanted several little one year old grafts into slightly larger pots and I managed to get a little weeding done. The weeds do love our constant rain and the fact that said rain prevents me from attacking the weeds in a more timely fashion. I also noticed that my Japanese Maples are beginning to push their new flush of growth (which is a sure sign that the conifers will be following along very soon).

Perhaps the earliest plant to push its first grunt of new growth in my garden is Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki kotohime’. This very dwarf Japanese Maple will often show signs of life well before anything else in my garden. Its orange/pinkish-red new growth is very small and always seems to sparkle because when it is trying to emerge, we are still experiencing plenty of rain and the threat of light frost. I always become a little concerned when I see its first little leaves popping out and I know that frost is forecast in the area. It does seem to be more hardy than it looks since it always just waits for the cold weather to pass and continues right where it stopped without any sign of damage.

‘Goshiki kotohime’ is a great dwarf plant. Its leaves are closely packed on thin branches giving the appearance of being more of an herbaceous plant than a woody small tree. Its new leaves push with brilliant color and then turn green with deeply cut lobes and undulating edges which create a wonderful texture. Being a slow grower, it is an excellent choice for the container garden as well at other themed miniature gardens where it could easily be pruned to maintain a smaller size if needed.

Acer shirasawanum 'Autumn Moon'

The spring flush of Autumn Moon may look like fall foliage color, but trust me, it is springtime - really.

Another Japanese Maple that I love in spring is Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’. The spring foliage is an amazing blend of autumn yellow and orange which is certainly eye-candy while it can confuse ones sense of time. This small tree is a beautiful, compact grower with nice form and a very pleasant color all season long. I love how its color complements the blue, green and gold of my conifers.

Spring is upon us, I just hope that winter will release its grip so that we may enjoy more sunshine and warmer temperatures before the calendar reminds me that it is mid-summer.

Conifer Lover

An exhilarating week

Ever have a week when things take you totally by surprise? I did this week.

‘Pixie Dust’ [sport #1] update
The first big surprise came when I decided it was time to take a stroll through the gardens at Iseli Nursery. I was very curious about a new plant I described a few months ago, Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ [sport #1]. I wondered if it had begun to push its new growth (my ‘Pixie Dust’ at home was one of the first in my garden to begin its spring flush). So, as I was walking down the path, past the lush soft new foliage on the Acer palmatum ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ with its red color so deep that it is almost purple, I spotted the object of my desire. Wow! It was totally covered in its fresh light green new growth.

“I want one.”

Picea glauca 'Pixie Dust' Sport #1

Picea glauca 'Pixie Dust' Sport #1 in its full spring glory

My words spilled out softly and my mouth remained open as I gazed at the beautiful little tree and imagined how it would grow and shape itself over the coming years. Part of what excited me was the knowledge that this perfect little cone-shaped tree, like its parent, would produce a second flush of growth later in the season that would be near the golden color of butter.

I know it is years away from commercial production, but I want one.

Speaking of Japanese Maples
I mentioned the ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ above, but I need to tell you that as I toured myself around the garden, it was far from the only Japanese Maple providing a beautiful show in the spring garden. I’ve said before that I look forward to the month of May when the majority of my conifers burst forth into their colorful glory. I’ve also mentioned that April is the month for Japanese Maples.

Acer palmatum 'Twombly's Red Sentinel'

Deep red leaves of Acer palmatum 'Twombly's Red Sentinel'

As I walked through the garden, I saw a full assortment of reds and orange and yellow and green, all soft and fresh and magically inspiring in me a great peace and contentment. One of the tremendous benefits of gardening is the impactful stress relieving qualities it can provide.

Acer palmatum 'Omuryama'

Delicate spring foliage and flower cluster of Acer palmatum 'Omuryama'

Now that I was calm and feeling quite at peace, I turned a corner and discovered a mature specimen of  Abies cephalonica ‘Meyer’s Dwarf’ that was totally covered in bright red male pollen cones. I’ve observed this same dwarf conifer for many years and I have never seen it with a colorful display this intense! I was instantly transformed from my calm and serene state to complete exhilaration.

I think there is no cure for what I’ve got. I am a confirmed conifer lover.

Conifer Lover

Betrayed love

I have a confession to make. My eyes have been wandering. There are some pretty young things in town and they’ve been tempting me away from my true love.

This time of year can be a real challenge for the devoted cone-head. Ordinarily it is a very rare instance when my eyes can be drawn away from my true love of conifers. This time of year though, when the Japanese maples dress themselves in their delicious hot red and orange and yellow foliage – sigh – even the most loyal can be drawn to their seductive beauty.

Autumn foliage of Acer japonicum Vitifolium

Autumn foliage of Acer japonicum 'Vitifolium'

Acer japonicum ‘Vitifolium’ is one of those beauties that is the most difficult to
resist in my garden right now. This shapely small tree does tempt me in the spring with its bright green fresh new foliage and tiny white flowers surrounded by red bracts. During the summer months, ‘Vitifolium’ is easier to resist as she makes a nicely textured filler in the garden. But, in the midst of autumn, she becomes a stunning beacon of seduction that I simply cannot take my eyes off of.

The autumn colors of ‘Vitifolium’ begin with golden tones that quickly brighten to yellow. Then, seemingly overnight, her intense scarlet tones will appear making her absolutely irresistible! Placed near dark green, blue or golden conifers she will boldly cry out, “Look at me!”

Yes, I feel as though I have betrayed my love because I know that ‘Vitifolium’ will not be the only seductress to tempt me away from my conifers this autumn. I will enjoy the show knowing that in just a few weeks, those beautiful colors will all be blown away or swept into the compost pile, while my conifers, my true love, will be waiting for me to return my adoration to them.

Conifer Lover

On the threshold of an Orange Dream

The Japanese maples are my favorite companion trees to plant with conifers. With hundreds of cultivars available that vary in size from very dwarf small trees to large shade providers and in colors from spring to fall that appear to have been picked out of a rainbow, they are nearly as versatile as conifers. The month of May is a big one for conifers. Some will begin their spring flush of new growth in April, but in May—BAM!—they all explode in their new foliar glory. April on the other hand, will see an explosion of color from the Japanese maples.

Acer palmatum 'Orange Dream'

One of the most spectacular, most intensely colorful spring shows is put on by Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream.’ This delightful small tree’s orange new foliage color in spring is a sight to behold. With a background of dark green and blue conifers, the color is so stunning; I find that I need sunglasses whenever I’m near it in the spring. A very tidy small tree, ‘Orange Dream’ grows just a few inches a year and will remain manageable in smaller gardens for many years. It is also very adaptable to being grown in containers for the patio or deck. I’ve planted mine where it will receive ample morning sunlight while providing afternoon shade. In summer, the tender bright orange leaves can sunburn so I may try growing a second one in a container. That way, I could move the plant around a little if it was getting too much sun.

I’ll tell you, the color is so intense and exciting; it’s worth a little extra effort to grow this beauty. And right now I wait in anticipation of the awakening of my ‘Orange Dream.’

Conifer Lover

Many thanks to Iseli Nursery for the photo links!