Look no further for a lifetime of gardening enjoyment

During one of my last walks through the garden, before the first series of autumn rain storms hit the Pacific Northwest, I was struck by the beauty of what some might consider to be “just another evergreen tree.” The truth is, Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ is an extraordinary tree with great landscape functionality and multi-season appeal.

Picea abies 'Acrocona'
Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ displays its tan colored cones in the autumn sun.

Possibly the most prominent feature of ‘Acrocona’ is its prolific production of cones which hang like decorative ornaments on the multiple branch ends and vary through the seasons from intensely bright pink, to purple in spring, to reddish-tinged green during the summer, an almost golden-brown in autumn and finally darker brown through the winter. During the winter, most of the mature cones will have dispersed their seed, break down and fall off of the tree. Some remnants of older cones may be visible in springtime when the first tiny, bright pink pollen cones begin to emerge, announcing that the new cycle of life is beginning.

Picea abies 'Acrocona'
The pollen cones of Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ emerge early in spring.

I briefly mentioned in an earlier post about ‘Acrocona’ its unusual branching and growth habit which is most noticeable during the plant’s youth. As my tree has matured, it has become more and more beautiful with its combination of thick, vigorous branches and what appear to be smaller, weaker branches which give the tree an upright, broadly pyramidal form filled with a combination of sweeping and weeping branches.

Picea abies 'Acrocona'
The seed bearing cones of Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ during the peak of their pink color stage.

The unusual growth habit of ‘Acrocona’ very much insures that no two trees will look exactly alike, and make them an excellent choice to use as a primary focal point in garden design. Their four full seasons of color, supplied by the rich, grass-green foliage and the ever-changing cones as they move through their annual cycle, give ‘Acrocona’ the ability to capture attention and add visual interest to a level which is available in few other plants.

Picea abies 'Acrocona'
Large, dense, summer cones of Picea abies ‘Acrocona’ begin to make their gradual color shift from bright pink to a red-tinged green.

I love the way the cones begin as such tiny little pink buds and grow rather quickly into large, dense, purple red cones. The appearance of the cones, dangling from the tips and along branches reminds me of a tree decorated for the Christmas holidays. As the cones grow larger and heavier, they seem to move in a dance, swaying at the ends of windswept branches. When growing in clusters, the cones will weigh down branches, pulling them from their usual upward sweeping form to a downturned direction, sometimes reaching the ground. Fortunately the branches are very flexible, and I have yet to see any remarkable breakage from either the heavy cones or wet, sloppy snow.

Picea abies 'Acrocona'
The golden-brown, autumn cones of Picea abies ‘Acrocona’.

‘Acrocona’ is a fun tree which will provide a lifetime of enjoyment. I suggest you plant one while you are young and enjoy its playful presence for many years to come.

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.”


“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.

Conifer Lover

My dwarf turned into a giant

My wife and I were outside, enjoying a very nice spring day, trying to complete some important garden chores the other day. We hoped the rain would hold off as long as possible – at least until we were finished with one major project. While we were working in the front garden, one of our neighbors dropped in and began to slowly walk around the path, carefully observing every conifer as he passed. He had a distinct expression on his face as he wandered around – something between a sneer and a look of suspicion. Finally he made his approach.

“Ed,” he said, “I thought you told me these trees of yours were dwarf.”

“Yes, many of them are dwarf cultivars, though, some are miniatures and others would probably be considered intermediate growers—” I said before he cut me off.

“Then explain to me again how it is that my dwarfs have turned into giants!”

Fortunately for me, going through this lesson is much easier with the visual aids readily available in the conifer garden than, say, in a coffee shop.

First, I pointed over to the group of our native Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). I explained that these truly giant trees were very likely 80 to 100 years old. Then I walked him over to where I have allowed a few seedlings from these trees to grow for the past eight years. I showed him the length of last year’s growth. The central leaders of these young trees averaged 30 inches! Had I not been pruning these trees every year to encourage a nice Christmas tree shape, they would likely be 20 feet tall (remember that’s in just eight years). Then I walked him over to a nice old specimen of Picea abies ‘Sherwood Compact’. This tree is close to twenty years old and is just over ten feet tall.

Picea abies 'Sherwood Compact'
With annual growth of six to eight inches, 'Sherwood Compact' is classified in the Intermediate growth rate catagory.

“Ok, but how is that a dwarf then, it’s still too big.” He said, arms folded over his chest.

I took a deep breath and tried again.

I reminded him about the giant Douglas firs, their eight year old seedlings, and then I took him to a very special cultivar called Picea abies ‘Tompa’. This specimen is fairly young – about 15 years old – but it is less than three feet tall.

“See this one; it is just about the same height, after 15 years of growth, as just one year of growth of those young trees over there.” I said pointing back to the young Douglas fir seedlings. “The Douglas fir grows at an average of 30 inches per year. It continues to grow and grow over its lifetime into the giant forest trees you see at the corner of my property. This dwarf form will also continue to grow throughout its lifetime – just at a greatly reduced rate. Conifers don’t just grow to a certain size and then stop… if they do, they’re dead.”

Picea abies 'Tompa'
The dwarf cultivar, 'Tompa', may grow to be fifty feet tall... in 300 years!

“So, if this ‘Tompa’ grew for 300 years, it could be… 50 feet tall?” My friend’s eyes grew wide as everything began to make sense. “But Ed, when my wife brought home one of those conifers – at your suggestion – the tag said it would grow to 10 feet tall.”

“Well,” I answered, “depending on the grower, that listed size may have been for a 10 or 15 or even a 20 year plant. The better growers will give specific information. But remember, that’s not 10 years from when you buy the plant – you need to keep in mind that you may have just purchased a 5 year old tree.”

When considering a new conifer for your garden, remember that it will continue to grow throughout its lifetime. Upright growers continue to grow taller and taller, low spreading forms become wider and wider. Simple math skills are sufficient for anyone to gain a pretty good idea how large a particular conifer may grow. Determine the length of the growth of the central leader for the past year or two. Multiply a single year’s growth by as many years as you wish, and you will have a very good estimate at how large that conifer will grow in your garden.

A very large tree will grow at a rate of greater than 12” per year. Intermediate sized trees grow from 6” to 12” per year. Dwarf forms grow from 1” to 6” per year and finally, miniature conifers grow at less than one inch per year. If you purchase a true miniature conifer that is 15 inches in height or diameter, you have found a fairly old specimen and it will very likely cost you a good amount of money at the local garden center. On the other hand, an intermediate growing cultivar, that is 15 inches tall may only be three or four years old and to the uninformed, could seem like a real bargain in comparison.

Conifer Lover

A tale of twelve Norwegians

Thirty years ago when I was a young fella with boundless energy, I planted my own first real conifer garden. Prior to that, I was on a piece of property that was so large, and I was so busy with work and life and home repair/re-modeling projects that I just didn’t have much time for gardening. Well, at that time I was more of an organic vegetable gardener. We had a huge garden filled with enough vegatables for us and our city-dwelling friends. Then we experienced some of life’s changes and we moved to a city lot. Much smaller, more manageable and the back yard was a clean canvas of a weedy lawn.

Picea abies 'Pendula'
Picea abies ‘Pendula’ can be trained to any height and/or allowed to mound and sprawl, covering the ground in hardy green waves.

I had almost forgotten, but back in those days I was a huge fan of the dwarf and miniature cultivars of Picea abies (Norway spruce). Honestly, I don’t think I’ve become less of a fan over the years, I’ve just added many more plants to my list of favorites. One of the main areas I created back then had a combination of 12 different cultivars with varying size, shape, and textural characteristics. I had drawn out a traditional overhead-view design of the garden with both the planted sizes and my projected 20 years sizes. Then I also sketched out more of an eye-level view to give me more of a real-world perspective. I mention all this because I still think that plant selection was great for any beginning conifer gardener. They are easy to grow and extremely hardy and adaptable into a great many climatic conditions.

What I like about the cultivars that I chose for this project was that they all have distinctive shapes as they grow and mature creating a multi-leveled, three dimensional, sculptural bed of varying shades of green. This menagerie of shape and texture would become the year-round foundation to the garden bed which also included my first experimentation with assorted perennial flowers and some broadleaved shrubs. Over the nine years that we lived at that place, I did fill in with other conifer acquisitions and everything grew together nicely. As we sold the place and moved on, the landscape was beginning to have the “feel” I was seeking in my original plan by screening the garden shed and the neighbors directly behind us. I can only image how nice it must be now. If I were to do the project all over again, I would include more dwarf and miniature cultivars in an assortment of genera which would widen my pallet of color and texture – essentially taking the place of all those bothersome short-season perennials.

Picea abies 'Witches Brood'
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’ is a cheery sight with its covering of bright green new foliage each spring.

Here is the list of those original conifers. These should be relatively easy to find (or special order) at your local independent garden center and will be great selections to anchor any new garden plan. Fill in spaces with whatever your heart desires from companion small trees, shrubs and flowers to herbs and vegetables. As the seasons change, your garden will have the stability and beauty of year-round color, texture and an assortment of shapes from tall columns to broad pyramids, varying sizes of rounded, mounding forms and undulating waves of weeping groundcover. Have fun!

Picea abies ‘Clanbrassiliana Stricta’
Picea abies ‘Cupressina’
Picea abies ‘Elegans’
Picea abies ‘Gregoriana Parsonsii’
Picea abies ‘Little Gem’
Picea abies ‘Mucronata’
Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea abies ‘Pumila’
Picea abies ‘Sherwood Compact’
Picea abies ‘Thumbelina’
Picea abies ‘Witches Brood’

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