Lovin’ the classics – part II

What is it about classics that make them so appealing? There is something pleasant and enjoyable about watching a really good old black and white film from the late 1930s or ’40s. I get much the same feeling when I have an opportunity to spend some time with my antique car restorer friend. My old heart begins to pound with excitement when I am invited to go for a ride in his 1915 Model T Ford. Of course I can easily become lost in the mesmerizing wave of tones and melodies and rhythms of classic composers like Albinoni, Haydn, Handel or Grieg. Even the older conifers – those that have been available in the trade for a great number of years and are sometimes overused – offer that same kind of nostalgia.

Just because something is old, doesn’t mean that is has lost its appeal or value. One old conifer that withstands the test of time is Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. This is simply one of the most beautiful and versatile conifers available. Its young branches are long and flexible allowing the creative gardener to train it into any shape imaginable. Most often, ‘Pendula’ is found with a nursery stake and the plant trained up to 3-5 feet. Very mature specimens can be seen at some of the older arboretums around the world and they have mounded and layered upon themselves creating large weeping mounds of dark green beauty.

Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'
Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' adds a unique sculptural effect to any garden.

In my garden, I staked mine to just about seven feet tall with a gentle curve to the main stem to give it a little character. Then I’ve pulled a few of the side branches up in a more horizontal position, alternating around the plant, adding more interest. Essentially, I’ve given my relatively young plant a head start on what its natural character will develop in many, many years. You may remember me describing how an old specimen can be trained into a living tree house a couple of years ago. Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ is one classic conifer that will always be a garden winner!

Abies balsamea 'Nana'
Great for containers or the garden, Abies balsamea 'Nana' is an old favorite.

Another great plant that I first became acquainted with back in 1977 is Abies balsamea ‘Nana’. This is a small-needled, dark green, compact mound that is great for the partially shaded space. In spring, its new foliage will push out a very bright green color which contrasts well against its own dark green mature foliage. As the season flows from spring to summer, the new foliage hardens and becomes a glossy dark green. Soft to the touch and the eyes, ‘Nana’ looks great planted near Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ and the other three classic conifers on my list.

Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold'
The brilliant orange color and soft texture of Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' make it a valuable addition to the garden.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ is one of the most amazing conifers in any collection. Its foliage is soft and orange – bright orange! In the spring and summer, as the foliage is flushing fresh, its color is the most intense. With the colder temperatures of winter, the orange darkens to an almost brown color – not a dead-brown, more like a dark orange. When young, it produces soft juvenile foliage. If allowed to grow naturally, it will become a broadly upright tree and the foliage changes to what is called, adult foliage. The color remains, just the overall texture changes. This is one plant that I definitely recommend giving an annual shearing to encourage full compact growth and the production of juvenile foliage. Responding very well to shearing, ‘Rheingold’ could be a great candidate for topiary if one were so inclined. I like to keep mine as a rounded mound.

With the two conifers I described last time, and the three on today’s list, a new conifer garden enthusiast would have a great combination of plants to begin their own collection. All five plants should be readily available at your local independent garden centers and they will all play well with the other plants in your garden. Include a couple Hosta and Lavender plants, a few spring and summer bulbs and a dwarf Japanese maple, and you’ll have a fairly good-sized garden bed that will be the talk of the neighborhood.

Conifer Lover

Why are conifers so…?

A few weeks ago my wife and I took a little road trip with our very good friends down south to the Oregon Garden just outside downtown Silverton. This is a great garden destination with one of the main attractions being a very nice conifer garden. Near the entrance of the conifer garden are three fantastic specimens of the Weeping Giant Redwood (I featured a photo of these beauties last December).

Our friends stopped before we reached the entry path and just stared at those magnificent trees.

“They look like Dr. Seuss trees!”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I said with a smile.

“Why are conifers so…? I’m trying not to be insulting… weird?” I was asked.

“Because weird is COOL!” I replied laughing.

I love that a great many conifers are quite unusual. Especially when you begin to delve into the world of the true Conehead – where weird is wonderful!

That outing caused me to give some real thought to what it is about so many of the unusual conifers in my own garden that I find so desirable. Some of my very favorites are weeping or pendulous in habit or form. Here’s how I think about it, if a conifer grows generally upright but its branches or branchlets droop and weep then that is its habit. If the whole plant has little to no inclination to support itself, and left uncultured, its form would be pendulous or weeping (or perhaps prostrate).

Enough of all that, let’s get to the coolness – some of the specific cultivars that have a tremendous amount of appeal and interest because of their unusual characteristics.

Picea pungens 'Pendula'
Picea pungens ‘Pendula’ with its blue foliage and free-style growth habit adds a living, ever-changing, modern scultpure to your garden.

One of my all-time favorites is Picea pungens ‘Pendula’. This weeping form of the Colorado Blue Spruce provides the garden with not only fantastic light blue color, but its form will change and morph over the years as its branches grow and sprawl and turn this way and that. It’s very much like a living modern sculpture that changes with the seasons and years. Generally the growers will provide support for this great tree when young. You will most likely find the tree staked from three to five feet tall. At that point, you might desire to continue to encourage height by placing a taller stake in the ground after planting. You’ll need a sturdy tying tape available at your local garden center to continue training your tree up. Alternatively, you may choose to simply allow the tree to find its own form as it grows and flops and flows.

Another fantastic selection is Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’. This Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar may be grown in just about any shape imaginable. I’ve seen it trained high over pathways in an arch to create a living, draping arbor. Several planted in a row make a magnificent living fence. Years ago, my friends at Iseli trained a Weeping Atlas up the trunk of a larger Blue Atlas Cedar. They encouraged it to grow up and out along the more sturdy and upward growing branches of that tree creating quite an interesting sight as the weeping habit of one fell like streams of water from the larger upright form of the other.

Of course I can’t leave Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ (Weeping White Spruce) off this list. This fantastic, low maintenance conifer will fit in most any garden. It is super hardy to Zone 2, has a form that is straight as an arrow and all of its side branches turn and grow straight toward the ground. A beautiful tree with a very narrow footprint, you might expect a tree twenty years old to be 15 to 20 feet tall with a width of three to four feet near its base. If allowed, the branches that reach the ground will then spread and slowly make a layered ground cover.

There are so many others, I could very likely write a book about them! For now, I’ll just list a few more that I think you should consider adding to your garden.

Abies alba ‘Green Spiral’
Cedrus deodara ‘Raywood’s Prostrate Dwarf’
Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Jubilee’
Larix decidua ‘Pendula’
Picea abies ‘Frohburg’
Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’
Pinus strobus ‘Angel Falls’
Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’
Tsuga heterophylla ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’

Conifer Lover

Mounding and sprawling and looking good

I find weeping conifers to be particularly attractive. Even though they have the broad label of weeping, there can be differences in weeping forms even amongst plants within the same genus and species. For example, a few weeks ago I described some of the attributes of Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. This is one of the first weeping plants that I remember being introduced to and remains one of my favorites today. However, the Canadian Hemlocks have other notable cultivars that are worthy of discussion. One great selection is Tsuga canadensis ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’

Tsuga canadensis 'Kelsey's Weeping'

When young, ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ and ‘Pendula’ can be difficult to distinguish from one another. As the plants mature, their unique characteristics become more obvious, and with age, both of these Weeping Canadian Hemlocks make desirable contributions to the garden. What makes ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ stand out from ‘Pendula’ is it’s natural form. ‘Pendula’ requires staking when young to achieve any significant height. Without staking, ‘Pendula’ will grow as a very low mounding groundcover. ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ should also be staked when very young, but it will mound upon itself, layer after layer while its branches reach outward in all directions forming a wider than tall mound with great character.

Some may also notice that ‘Pendula’ has darker green needles throughout much of the season, but with the onset of winter its needles will begin to “washout” and take on a yellowish hue. Although ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ foliage is a lighter green color, it consistently holds its crisp green all year-round.

I love both these Weeping Hemlocks and I believe every garden should have at least one of each!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli for the photo link to this great 30 year old specimen!

Living tree house

Once upon a time, a few years before I was born, a seedling of Douglas Fir emerged from the ground several feet away from the garden shed of my boyhood home. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I discovered it had grown tall and broad and dense enough that I could manuever myself between it, the garden shed, and the fence to find a pretty nice little “house.” I can remember taking an old blanket there to sit on and some books to read. It also became a prime hiding spot for a good game of Hide and Seek.

Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'

These days, as my interest in conifers has matured into more cultured forms, I’ve found another great “tree house.” Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ can become a fantastic private retreat or whimsical garden playhouse for the kids or grandkids. Its dark green, flat needles cover layer after layer of flexible weeping branches which work together to shed water quite well. The branches can be trained up and out to create a broad roof and then allowed to droop naturally filling in the walls. Doors and even windows may then be sculpted using simple pruning shears and some garden tie tape or string. Not a fast grower like the Douglas fir of my youth, but with some patience and a little creative cultural care, the Weeping Canadian Hemlock can make a great living treehouse.

Kids love their weeping hemlock.

Hardy into Zone 4, rich dark green needles, soft to the touch, and flexible enough to train into almost any shape (and great fun for the kids), I definately place Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ near the top of my list of favorite conifers.

Conifer Lover

Thanks to my friends at Iseli for the photo links!

Love at first sight

Picea glauca 'Pendula'The first time I saw this conifer I was absolutely in love. Seriously. This is one of those fantastic trees that deserves a place in every garden and rates among the most hardy conifers around too! Heavy snow load? Ice storm? No problem!

Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ is a stunning, majestic beauty. The foliage is a dark grey-green giving this conifer a good solid appearance. This thing grows straight as an arrow and shoots up toward the sky while all its branches curve down, layer upon layer, creating a wonderfully tall and narrow spire. Many weeping conifers have very flexible branches that dangle loosely, hanging and drooping toward the ground, but P.g. ‘Pendula’s branches seem programed to turn and head for the ground in a very purposed manner. Its form reminds me of my favorite local waterfall, Multnomah Falls in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. This is one of those trees that as much as I try to describe it, I don’t think I’ll ever do it justice. Even when photographed, it never seems as impressive to me as standing next to one well placed in a garden!

I’d love have the space to plant a long row of these around the border of my property to create a tall living castle wall!

Until next time,

Conifer Lover

Thanks again to Iseli for the photo links.