The cute little sister

One advantage to enduring the months of cloudy skies and rain in the Pacific Northwest is the ability to grow a vast assortment of plants, including many conifers that simply will not survive the harsher winter cold and blistering summer heat found elsewhere around the country. For example, many of my friends cannot even consider growing Cryptomeria japonica or any of its amazing cultivars.

The first cultivar of Cryptomeria that I was introduced to, way-back-when, was ‘Elegans’. This intermediate growing tree was quite a beautiful sight to behold – long, soft billowy foliage that softly swayed in the breeze like layers of feathers. When I met this tree while working for a landscaper, it was early spring and it still retained some of its winter copper/plum color. Within weeks it would return to the bronze-green of its warmer season color, lasting until the cold winter temperatures would return.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a delightful dwarf sculpture for any of today’s gardens.

Although ‘Elegans’ truly is an elegant specimen, it may get too big for today’s smaller gardens. Fortunately, she has a little sister that is quite a beauty herself. Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’ is a wonderful dwarf form of the Plume Japanese Cedar. Growing 2-4 inches per year in my garden, she definitely won’t overgrow even the smallest garden anytime soon. I love her irregular, almost sculpted looking, mounding form. With foliage that is typical of Cryptomeria with succulent, awl-like needles, growing in dense clumps, mounding and layering upon itself, every plant is its own unique creation. Like its big sister, ‘Elegans Nana’ will provide an interesting purplish/reddish/orange color through the cold winter months. In my garden this year, that winter color lingered well into the later months of spring.

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Nana'
A close-up view of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Nana’

Purchased as a young plant, ‘Elegans Nana’ is a great candidate for the container garden on the patio or urban balcony. My friends in those colder winter climates might even consider growing many of the dwarf and miniature Cryptomeria in containers if they are able to move them into a protected garage or other structure, remembering that they are rated at Zone 6.

Unique, compact sculptural form, tantalizing soft foliage, color that changes with the seasons, and just being plain cute, I can’t imagine why everyone wouldn’t love to have an ‘Elegans Nana’ in their conifer collection.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

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

Dwarf conifers to the rescue!

One of my favorite independent garden centers had a big one-day sale last week. I had been looking for an excuse to give them a visit to see what exciting new plants they might have in stock, so I thought it would be fun to arrive just about the time they opened. What I found was a great number of people had the same idea, except they must have camped out because the parking lot was full and I had to park along the side of the rural road.

I made my way inside where I found a very long line leading from the cash register and along the north walkway, past the empty table that had been the display of the sale plants. The line continued along the east end of the building and progressed all along the south walkway.

I thought to myself that it really is still consistently too cold and wet for tomato plants to get a good start anyway, so I made my way to the new display of conifers. Honestly, I was a little disappointed that I would not be able to bring a prize home to my wife from my Big Sale hunting trip, but I thought I might at least find something new and exciting in the conifer section.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Fern'
Fantastic year-round color, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Golden Fern' is a great dwarf conifer for most any garden.

Of course I was tempted by the Siren songs of all the new little conifers available in the four-inch pots, but I was being strong and found that I was able to resist those little cuties (this time). As I made my way toward a nice display of dwarf conifers, I struck up a conversation with a couple of ladies that seemed quite discontent about the lack of sale items available at the store. After all, the place had only officially opened twenty minutes ago. They seemed determined on being upset, so I mentioned that it was just nice to be out on such a lovely morning.

“Finding a great bargain is all fine and dandy” I explained, “but frankly, I’m happy that this sale motivated me to come to the garden center this morning. Don’t you just love all the pretty flowers in bloom – and look at these fantastic conifers!”

I really don’t know how to describe the look that these two ladies gave me at that point. It was almost like, “How dare you interrupt our displeasure with a positive outlook.”

Finally one of the ladies, not putting too much effort in hiding her being annoyed by me said, “Well, I do like the bright yellow color of that one over there.”

“Ahhhh, yes, the Golden Fern Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’) – that’s really a fantastic dwarf conifer! I love how the foliage really does look a little like a forest fern – and the bright yellow color of this one just can’t be beat. Don’t you love how dwarf conifers fit so well in the garden with other flowering plants, and yet in the winter when everything else is bare or gone, the conifers provide wonderful color and structure to the garden?”

'Golden Fern' foliage
'Golden Fern' foliage has a striking texture as well as brilliant color.

I seemed to have captured their attention.

“Oh, I’ve heard about these dwarf conifers” One of my new friends said.

“You know, I have a dwarf blue spruce in my garden” the other reminded her companion.

“There’s just nothing better than dwarf conifers – and there are so many different ones to choose from. Some grow in full sun, others prefer shade; some grow tall and narrow, others are short and round or weeping or even hug the ground. Not to mention the vast color selection.”

The ladies asked if I was an employee and would I receive a commission if I was able to sell them a plant. I explained that I just loved gardening and growing conifers in particular. We chatted for several minutes, and by the time we were finished, they had both picked out a couple of the small conifers to plant in containers on their patio and seemed to have forgotten all about the bad mood they almost insisted upon  harboring when we met.

May your garden shopping be filled with successes this spring.

Ed-
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.

Ed-
Conifer Lover

Spring makes a morning visit

The day began like any other with the cat deciding my chest required kneading before 5:00 AM. Once he was convinced that neither my wife nor I had passed away overnight, he snuggled in close while I lay awake far earlier than I had planned. Just as I began to drift back to sleep, my alarm – always eager to satisfy its working expectations – began to play Pietro Nardini’s Violin Concerto in G (which I must admit is a rather pleasant way to be coaxed into beginning the day).

The cat, realizing that breakfast was about to be served, jumped off of the bed just as I was beginning my less than fully awakened walk toward the kitchen to get the tea kettle going and in his usual manner managed to run directly under my left foot which caused him to howl, me to stumble and my wife to shout a near-sleeping command to “settle down out there you two!”

Once the cat was fed and my tea sufficiently steeped – that first sip bringing a hint a jasmine and peach to my senses – I opened the curtains to discover that it had stopped raining! Not only that, but I could see a hint of blue color mottled in amongst the varying shades of white and gray that were the pallet of the morning sky. Excitement growing, I grabbed my robe and teacup and quickly slipped into my rubber garden boots, making my way out into the garden.

Larix decidua 'Pendula'
Remnants of the previous night’s rain collect as shimmering pearls of water on the fresh spring-green foliage of Larix decidua ‘Pendula’.

It was an amazing morning. The sky quickly began to brighten causing the lightest gray clouds to become white with more and more blue color beginning to show through. The air smelled fresh and the birds were singing with great enthusiasm as a small flock of Canadian Geese squawked in their overhead flight. The ground was completely saturated and all the plants in the garden were dripping with beads of water that sparkled in the light of the sun just beginning to show itself through a small hole in the clouds.

The brisk morning air was making it clear that my robe was not quite enough protection to ward off a small chill that wisped up, but I was determined not to miss this beautiful morning stroll – after all, with all the recent rain, and my busy schedule last week, this was the first opportunity I had to give my garden a brief inspection to see if spring were truly upon us. Last week I had noticed that buds on my Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ were noticeably swelling giving them an almost iridescent glow. As I briskly walked my garden paths, I noticed tiny bright red pollen cones beginning to develop on my Abies koreana ‘Blauer Pfiff’ and my Larix decidua ‘Pendula’ had definitely pushed the very beginnings of its new, fresh spring-green growth. I also discovered that my Picea glauca ‘Pixie’ was at least as developed as the ‘Pixie Dust’ with its tiny, swollen, pearl-shaped buds glowing in anticipation of slightly warmer temperatures which would encourage them to pop. I was surprised to see that even a few cultivars of Pine were ever-so-slightly beginning to extend their candles in their spring ritual of new life.

By now the sun was most assuredly up, my legs were definitely cold, and I was ready for another cup of tea. I hope that you are also beginning to see some signs of life in your gardens. Until next time – happy gardening!

Ed-
Conifer Lover