Spring awakening

The calendar tells us that we are well into the spring season now. Our local Pacific Northwest weather has been hinting to us that summer is not far behind. Rather than an April filled with cold, gray, wet days, we have enjoyed some very refreshing downpours of rain followed by days of sunshine and temperatures up to the low 80s! After three days of having the windows open all day and working out in the garden in short pants and a tee shirt, it is easy to forget we are just in the month of April. Reality refreshes the memory the next day when temperatures drop 25 degrees, blustery winds bring in dark clouds and the rain returns. Back and forth it has been this month, giving me several good working days in the garden and confidence that everything is still being irrigated with our natural rain.

Fresh, colorful, new foliage begins to emerge as springtime awakens in the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden with warmer temperatures and sunny, blue skies.

Clearing out the two spaces where I will grow fresh vegetables and herbs, and the back corner where the native, larger tree seedlings will be planted, I believe I am ready to begin delineating the new, enlarged bed spaces for planting my ornamental conifers and other exciting plants. Once we have more dry days in a row than wet ones, I think our soil will drain enough that I can bring out the rototiller and begin grinding up the old lawn grass to build new beds and expand upon those already there.

One of the first planting projects will be to create the privacy “hedges” on the borders of the property. I enclosed the word, hedges, with quotes because I do not intend to plant a single row of one plant type along the border to create privacy—what fun would that be? No, I’ll be planting a selection of plants that will serve the same purpose as a privacy hedge without the mono-culture monotony with will help prevent an insect or disease infestation as well as make the whole thing much more visually appealing.

Over the years of writing this blog I have discussed alternatives to traditional hedge-row planting, and I will be putting those ideas to work in my new garden. Since the new privacy screen will essentially run along the length of my property, I’ll be keeping in mind the “garden rooms” that will flow and change along the length of the screen and those changes will influence my choices in screening plants to use. I will need to keep in mind the movement of the sun and be careful not to place screening plants that will grow too tall and shade out adjacent space designed for full sun exposure. Likewise, I will certainly plan the right specimens that will provide needed summer, late afternoon/evening shade to outdoor seating spaces. Not all areas will require the same level of privacy, so I will very likely plan some smaller privacy plants in more localized spaces to provide that extra level of screening desired for sun-bathing or skinny-dipping in the grandchild’s wading pool.

Next time I will begin to describe my choices for different kinds of screening and how to mix plants for efficiency and aesthetic appeal. I hope you’ll join me!

A surprise encounter

Since moving into our new neighborhood, my wife and I have enjoyed taking regular walks. Not only is the activity very heart-healthy (and insisted upon by my wife) but it is actually quite enjoyable. Our neighborhood includes two city parks within its borders and is tucked away between two major creeks that feed the local river.

I’ll bet this was a cute little tree, 27 years ago when the house was built. The big tree was planted in the wrong place. At over 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide, it was simply planted too close to the sidewalk.

Since moving here, I have noticed that most folks walking through the neighborhood tend to walk out in the street, which is fine since there isn’t a lot of traffic, but being a safety conscious citizen, I have always believed the miles of sidewalks installed in our city were put in place for a reason. Now that I am an avid pedestrian in our neighborhood, I understand why so many folks prefer the street: Poor landscape design planning and/or maintenance.

Our neighborhood is about 30 years old, so I suspect that most of the landscapes are close to that age here as well. That means all those nice little plants that looked so cute in the front yard, along the sidewalk, are largely overgrown and many of them obstruct the way for comfortable pedestrian travel. You might imagine my narrative (which my wife patiently endured) as we walked those first view adventures through the neighborhood, was filled with my expert opinion regarding well-designed landscaping and the intelligent use of dwarf conifers.

Much to my surprise and frustration, on the return trip to our home, I discovered that the large Colorado Blue Spruce planted in the front corner of our property was partially obscuring our freedom to pass by on the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but to think of several, slower growing alternatives that would have been far greater choices to plant in this location (see below*).

The following day, I gathered my three-legged orchard ladder and a collection of pruning tools; my hand pruners held at my hip by a holster on my belt, my large loppers, two sizes of pruning saws and my electric chainsaw on a stick (which has proved to be one of the handiest tools I have ever used) and I made my way out to the large tree.

Ordinarily, I would shudder at the thought of disfiguring a beautiful conifer in this fashion…

Looking the tree over, I could see that the previous caregiver of the landscape had been shearing the sidewalk side of this tree for a number of years as it was a very compact congestion of branches and foliage from  ground level to just above my head. As I circled the tree, its natural, more open habit was evident, and it was in this loose branching that I made my approach to begin the job of limbing the tree up above my head, all around its trunk. Ordinarily, I would shudder at the thought of disfiguring a beautiful conifer in this fashion, but frankly, it is just the first step in the eventual total removal of the tree that is overgrown for the space in which it was planted.

Several hours later, I stood in the street, sweat pouring down my face, needles, pitch and other tree debris decorating my work clothes as I inspected the job I had just completed. I noticed a neighbor, walking his three dogs, strolling on the sidewalk in my direction. I became pleased with myself that I had done the good deed of clearing the way for them so that they could walk, safely, and without obstruction on the sidewalk in front of my house.

I walked closer to my front yard, which was now 80% covered with piles of the branches that I had removed from the tree, thinking that the fun part of my job was over. I was looking for my large insulated bottle of iced tea and was planning to sit on the front steps and rest. As I sat, looking through the piles of branches and seeing the opened up front yard, I began to imagine the transformation that would take place. I visualized widening and lengthening the two planting beds that now exist.

Imagining the expanded planting space, my mind became occupied with the incredibly large number of choices available to me in designing this new front yard space. I became excited at the thought of dusting off the rototiller to begin turning old lawn grass into lush mounds of soil for planting all kinds of exciting colorful conifers…

But first, I need to properly dispose of these huge piles of spruce branches…

Conifer Lover

PS. *Here are some better choices for this same garden space. All of these conifers are slower growing and/or have a smaller footprint than the seedling spruce I will be replacing. Which would be your choice for this prime corner spot in the front garden? Let me know in the comments.

Years of worry-free joy

This past summer I had a great opportunity to prevent one of my pet-peeve landscape design mishaps from taking place. I was at the house warming party of a young couple that I have known for years. This was their first home purchase and like many first home buyers, they have great plans of many things to update and remodel, inside and out.  One of their friends introduced them to a designer with lots of personality but very little real-world experience – especially when it comes to landscape design and plant selection and placement.

Pinus mugo 'Mops'
When photographed, this Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ was over 30 years old and approximately five feet tall and seven feet wide.

When my friends excitedly produced the blueprint of their new landscape design and asked for my opinion, I found myself biting my tongue. It became very apparent to me that their designer had little plant knowledge and had specified quite a number of native species trees and shrubs along with some older cultivated varieties. Perhaps this would have been a good design if city lots were the size that they were 50 or 60 years ago, but not these days. My friend’s tiny lot would have been over grown by large, wild growing plants that in no time would engulf the property, house and all.

Thinking how I might diplomatically make my friends aware of the potential problems with the design (which as a design was quite nice, just spec’d with inappropriate plants) I asked, “Is it your desire to live in a dark, shady forest?”

My suntanned host replied, “What do you mean, Ed? I love the sun – I can’t wait to have a nice garden to lie out in and soak up all the rays!”

Pinus mugo 'Sherwood Compact'
Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’

“Hmmm… You might want to reconsider some of the plants in this design, it will take about ten to fifteen years, but you’ll be pretty much shaded and crowded out using these plants. I could make some more suitable plant suggestions using this design if you like.” And I proceeded to pencil in some of my favorite dwarf and miniature conifers to replace the fast-growing and high maintenance plants on the list.

One of the first plants I suggested replacing was the “Mugho” pine (Pinus mugo var. mughus) in the design. There were several that seemed to be placed willy-nilly around the garden and in some of the most inappropriate places. 50 years ago, “Mughos” were used fairly commonly as a “dwarf” pine. You’ve probably seen them as unsightly, hacked pines in parking lots, along sidewalks or any number of places that a cheap, dwarf plant might be desired. Unfortunately, they generally are anything but dwarf and in a span of a few years outgrow their intended space (and aesthetic usefulness).

Being seedling grown, Pinus mugo var. mughus will produce plants of entirely unreliable growth rate and form. These plants, if still grown by wholesale nurseries, will be heavily sheared to create the illusion of uniform compact plants that will look so cute in the garden. Then, when planted in the landscape, unless the regular regimen of shearing continues, the plants will quickly become overgrown (and in some cases, quite unsightly.) That is why excellent, reliably compact and low maintenance cultivated variants have been selected, propagated and have begun to enter the market in the past 20 years or so.

Pinus mugo 'Slowmound'
Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ is so reliable, if it could keep time, I’m conifident that you could set your watch to it.

These new and improved cultivars are true dwarf and miniatures that will require very little care, are extremely hardy, and will not surprise you with unexpected growth habits. Quality growers will know their plant’s characteristics very well and provide accurate information in their catalogs, websites and on the plant tags.

I chose to suggest three groupings of three different cultivars of Pinus mugo for my friends to replace the designer’s poor choice. True, I could have suggested any number of other conifers, but, in my best diplomatic behavior, I thought it best not to change the plant specifications too drastically. After all, the three cultivars I chose are really great plants and using my suggestions will not adversely affect the nature of the original artist’s intention.

Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ is a delightful, globe-shaped dwarf pine. Hardy into Zone 2, ‘Mops’ will grow almost anywhere in North America. It has dark green foliage and a compact form that will never require shearing to create or maintain its neat and tidy form. In thirty to forty years, it may be six or seven feet in diameter and just about as tall appearing almost like a perfect sphere buried half way into the ground.

Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’ has a little more character with its somewhat irregular form. Still considered globe-shaped, ‘Sherwood Compact’s unique form adds a pleasant texture to the garden. Its dwarf growth rate and Zone 2 hardiness make it another winner for my friend’s new garden.

Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ is a newcomer that has increased in popularity rather quickly. This absolutely reliable dwarf mounding pine will slowly create a green mound. Placing three in a group can have a similar effect in that garden as a cluster of small boulders – except that these living rocks will increase in size about an inch or two every year.

When compared to the “Mugho” pine in the original design and its unreliable growth rate that will undoubtedly exceed six inches per year, my mugo selections will provide many more years of worry-free enjoyment for my novice gardening friends.

Conifer Lover