Moving past my fear

Many years ago, when I was a very young man, I had the opportunity to work for two different landscape companies. Both were small companies where I was the only regular employee. One focused on maintaining the landscapes surrounding commercial properties while the other had its niche in the gardens of homeowners.

One of the very first jobs I had was to clean the trash that had collected in a very long row of Tam Juniper (Juniperus sabina var. tamariscifolia). This was also essentially my first formal introduction to working with conifers, and more specifically with Junipers.

Juniperus communis 'Compressa'
The “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ is perfect where a tall, narrow plant is desired.

Now, you may be familiar with this particular form of Juniper since it has been used in the landscape and listed in catalogs for a great number of years. In fact, I found that it had been introduced to Britain in 1562 and had specific uses in the medicine of the day. In more recent history, for a number of years, it was one of the most over-planted conifers in landscapes in the USA because it was easy to grow and inexpensive to purchase. It may also be the single most influential reason for folks to decide that they dislike conifers. It is very prickly, quickly outgrows its space, is very painful to prune and is very deep-rooted making its removal a tremendous undertaking.

My first experience certainly did not endear me to the plant and it definitely gave me a bias against the entire genera of Juniperus. I was working hard at the task described earlier, removing trash that had blown in and under the long row of plants that had, at this time, attained a height of four feet and a spread twice as wide. There must have been thirty of these in a long row separating two sections of a parking lot. I was carefully pulling out the trash, reaching deep as I could reach into the extremely sharp and prickly foliage that smelled as if every dog (and cat) in a square mile had marked the hedge with their scent. Half way through this very uncomfortable job, I was attacked by a Yellow Jacket wasp, which suddenly flew out of the foliage and stung me on my left cheek, just an inch away from the corner of my mouth. This was when I learned of my sensitivity to wasp venom.

Juniperus communis 'Corielagen'
‘Corielagen’ is an ideal groundcover with extreme hardiness into Zone 3.

Fortunately I was not allergic – as in go into anaphylactic shock – though the left side of my face swelled up, hurt like heck, and itched for days afterward. Yes, that was the day which began my strong dislike of Junipers in general, and the Tam Juniper specifically.

As they say, time heals all wounds, and as I mentioned earlier, I am beginning open up to the fact that there really are some great garden junipers! There is one species in particular that I am finding I am quite fond of. This species of Juniper includes dwarf plants in a number of shapes and forms and colors – some even changing colors through the seasons.

Juniperus communis 'Oblonga Pendula'
Juniperus communis ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a stately specimen with wispy weeping branches.

In the past, I have mentioned Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ for its striking, wispy form and dramatic color show, check out that post here. I also want to mention a great ground covering form called ‘Corielagen’ with its deep, rich green foliage and wide-spreading, ground-hugging form. ‘Gold Cone’ is a beautifully dramatic pillar of gold. In my area, I find that a light shearing once a year helps keep this one in top form. One of the best spire shaped conifers that you can find is ‘Compressa’, whose narrow, upright form is clothed in bluish-gray-green foliage, depending on the time of year. It is one of the most narrow conifers, and it may be considered the “Italian Cypress” for Zone 4 gardens. Finally, ‘Oblonga Pendula’ is a magnificent specimen with grass-green, weeping foliage, which takes on plumb tones during the cold winter months. It may be a bit of a character when young, with fringed arms splaying this way and that, but as it begins to mature it becomes a stately specimen that may be planted as a focal point, or in a group or row to make a very pleasant background for other smaller conifers and specialty plants.

Conifer Lover

The garden room

One great advantage of a conifer garden, should one have a desire for privacy, is that you can create very nice garden rooms where the neighbors can’t find you. The disadvantage is that if you’ve fallen asleep while sunbathing, your snoring may give away your location – to the parcel delivery man.

I’ve actually created a few little garden rooms. The one we use the most frequently partially encloses the patio just off the back of the house. I’ve planted a combination of a few slender upright conifers, mixed in a couple mid-sized, broadly conical forms, added a small Japanese maple and filled with lower, spreading forms that all work together to make a very nice colorful border to enclose the patio.

Picea abies 'Frohburg'

With the recent arrival of very hot weather, I thought it would be fun to relive the old days and lay out in the sun for a little while. Dressed in my shorts, flip-flops, hat and mp3 player, I dragged my favorite reclining lawn chair into position in my “secure” garden room. Full quart of iced tea at my side, I was ready to enter that state of meditation I achieve when lying in the hot sun. Some people call it a nap, but I wouldn’t dare fall asleep in this kind of hot sun, would I?

After watching the humming birds chase one another in a contest of territorial dominance, I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hat. Then, in what seemed like mere moments later, I began to hear someone speaking in some strange dialect.

Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone'
Juniperus communis 'Gold Cone' is another great narrow upright conifer for use as a colorful specimen or as part of a screen for your garden room.

“Sir? Excuse me…? Uhhhmm… Sir?”

My mind slowly beginning to drift back to reality, perspiration dripping from all exposed skin, I wondered what strange lyrics these were to the music I was listening to.

“Excuse me, uhhhhmmmm, Sir – the note on the front door said I should bring this around back to you.”

“What?” I mumbled with the kind of snort and growl that accompanies the tail end of a deep snore. My wife must have gone somewhere.

“I’m sorry sir, did I wake you? – It’s just that…”

“No, I’m not asleep… I… What time is it? Who are you?”

“UPS, sir, the sign on the front door said I needed to bring this around to you….”

You get the idea. I was thankful I had decided not to fully return to the days of my youth and retained some sense of decency in what I thought was my “secure” space.

As a word of advice, no matter how private a space you may think you have created with the nearly endless selections of colorful conifers available today, you never know when you may need to accept a parcel delivery – or when the Google Earth satellites may be photographing your area from high overhead.

Conifer lover

Great year-round color

Juniperus communis Kalebab - Summer
Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ – Summer

This Juniper is a broad upright grower with lateral branches that grow out and upward like raised arms. The branchlets then droop off the main branches giving a wonderful effect especially as they sway in the wind. During the spring and summer, ‘Kalebab’ is a healthy yellowish green color. With the cooler temperatures of autumn and winter, the foliage begins to take on a plumb color that turns to an amazing shade of orange. The slightly more protected inner foliage may remain green (perhaps less so in more frigid climates than my own). The winter color really stands out and makes a remarkable show piece in what might otherwise be a dreary winter garden.

Juniperus communis Kalebab - Winter
Juniperus communis ‘Kalebab’ – Winter

Here in the Pacific Northwest, even our coldest winter temperatures don’t drop anywhere near as low as my friend endures every year. ‘Kalebab’ thrives in our mild temperatures but I’ve wondered about how well it may hold up in some of the colder regions of the country. In the midst of our conversation, he said, “We’re having a good Zone 4 winter out here this year.” I brought up ‘Kalebab’ and even though he didn’t have experience with this relatively new conifer, he did mention that the low growing Juniperus communis cultivars do very well in his zone, but that some of the upright forms can tend to sunburn during the winter. I suggested that he needed to get a ‘Kalebab’ to grow in his region so we could learn more about this great tree in his harsh winter conditions. Since he is one of the directors of the Bickelhaupt Arboretum in Clinton, Iowa he assured me that he would get a specimen planted there this year.

I hope you’ll give this exciting new conifer a try in your garden. I’m confident that you will not be disappointed with its pleasant form, great year-round color and hardiness for most any garden.

Conifer Lover

Reach for the sky

I’ve been sitting next to my nice warm woodstove while enjoying the snow falling outside my large picture window. From where I sit, this unusual snowfall has covered the landscape almost as if giant spoonfuls of whipped cream have been dropped and plopped on all the plants, completely covering the ground. One of my conifers seems to be stretching up and out of that whipped cream coating as if someone had just given it the command, “Reach for the sky!”

Juniperus communis 'Compressa'

Reminiscent of the stately Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’ stands tall and narrow like a marble column in the ancient city of Rome. The one I’m looking at must be 20 years old and it stands approximately eight feet tall with a width of just over a foot.

Unlike the Italian Cypress, ‘Compressa’ is hardy into Zone 4 (-30º F) so I know this is a plant that my friends in the mid-west can also enjoy. When acquired as a young plant, ‘Compressa’ is excellent in the rock garden and very suitable for use in container gardening with groups of miniature conifers and selected annuals or perennials or by itself. Mine is planted in the rockery in well drained soil where it receives a few hours of partial shade. I know that it would also thrive in full sun but may need to be protected from the intense winter winds in the mid-western states.

Worthy of a place in any garden, ‘Compressa’ stands out all season long with its tightly held bluish green foliage, narrow form and apparent desire to reach for the sky.

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli Nursery for the photo links.