Back to art school basics

Picea pungens ‘Iseli Fastigiate’

About a hundred years ago, when I was in the 7th grade, I took an art class. There we learned various basic techniques of drawing and painting. My teacher encouraged us to pay attention to light and shadow and how one affects the other on objects of assorted shapes and textures. From what I remember, one of his favorite exercises for us was to draw or paint three geometric shapes; a cone, a column and a sphere. Those three basic shapes helped us learn how light and shadow fell across objects and changed in tone as it moved across the curved surfaces of those shapes.

Basic geometric shapes are seen throughout history in all kinds of art from ancient clay pots to modern abstract art movements. Basic geometry can be found throughout nature in the formation of seashells, the bi-directional spirals found in sunflowers, patterns of a honeycomb, the dimensions of the human body, and more simply, in the general forms of conifers. The basic shapes or forms of many conifers are reflected in those three basic shapes I attempted to draw and paint all those years ago.

Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’

As I was sitting near the woodstove during a recent shower of mixed snow and rain, I gazed out the window which overlooks the main section of my garden and I began to think about combinations of conifers that would make a feature that might appeal to artists. I sketched those three simple shapes and envisioned a circular planting space in which the three shapes were growing. I thought about placing them so that light and shadow would move across the plants throughout the day much as it did in the classroom when my teacher slowly rotated the table where he had placed the geometric shapes. I considered how the plants would grow over the years and eventually, if one planted them in limited space, they would begin to merge together into one larger sculpture.

Of course, using geometric shapes in garden design is nothing new. In fact, training garden plants into geometric shapes has been in practice for hundreds of years. The art of topiary can be very rewarding if you have the time for it since it will require dedication to spending time shearing your plants two to three times a season to create and maintain their shape. Since many dwarf conifers already grow naturally in neat and tidy geometric shapes, the gardener will not need to keep a regular routine of shearing the plants — and cleaning up the mess afterward.

So, I’m thinking about three distinctly different shapes — a column, a cone and a sphere — that will look great growing together as a feature. They should have similar texture and growth rates, though their colors can be different. They should be reliable and relatively easy to grow so that the gardener can essentially plant them and then just enjoy the sculptural grouping as they grow and subtly change over the years. They should be hardy and usable in as much of the country as possible since, who knows, maybe someone else will think this is a great idea and try it at home in their own garden!

Picea pungens ‘Roundabout’

For the column, I have several conifers in mind, but I believe Picea pungens ‘Iseli Fastigiate’ will be the best choice for this project. It has a narrow, upright form, and it grows at an intermediate rate pushing an average of 8-10 inches of growth per year.

The cone was an easy choice for me, Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’ is a perfectly compact, bright blue, cone-shaped plant growing 3-5 inches per year.

I am very excited about the sphere shaped conifer that I have chosen. Picea pungens ‘Roundabout’ is a new introduction from Iseli Nursery and it is perhaps the most perfectly round, sphere-shaped Colorado Spruce I have ever seen. It is a slower grower than the other two plants with annual growth of 2-4 inches per year, but I think it will scale well with the others as years go by. ‘Roundabout’ has a very unique color, it is not one of the bright powdery blue spruces, but it is by no means simply green either. Several years ago when I was first introduced to this exciting new cultivar, before it had even been given its official name, I told my friends at Iseli that they should name it, ‘Viridian Orb’. As a smart marketing decision they decided to call it ‘Roundabout’.

Now all I need to do is find someone willing to take me up on my design idea and plant this group in a special place in their garden!

Conifer Lover

Blue’s hues

As I was talking a stroll through the garden yesterday afternoon, enjoying what is becoming the end of the autumn color season, what I found to be the most striking were the blue conifers. I have always loved my blue conifers – always admired the varied and sometimes subtle color differences, but there was just something about the way the low autumn sun was hitting the colorful foliage that made these particular plants stand out.

Picea pungens 'Hoopsii'
Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’ stands out in the bright autumn sun.

There really are so many different shades of blue within the conifer world. You have Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’ as an example of one of the very brightest blues, then you have the varying blue hues throughout the range of cultivars of Blue Colorado spruce from the good strong blues of ‘Fat Albert’, ‘Montgomery’, ‘St. Mary’s Broom’, and ‘Procumbens’ in forms that stretch from full-sized, large trees, to small dwarfs and ground covers – all in peaceful, calming, hues of blue. Then there are the blue-greens such as,  ‘Roundabout’ or ‘Waldbrunn’ whose color is not the bright blue of those mentioned before, nor can these selections be considered to be simply, green.

Picea pungens 'St. Mary's Broom'
Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ is an excellent, small dwarf conifer, perfect for almost any type of garden.
Picea pungens 'St. Mary's Broom'
The needles of ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ (and essentially all forms of Blue Spruce) are actually green. They are covered with a fine, waxy substance that gives the plants foliage a blue hue.

And that’s just a few selections of Picea pungens (Colorado spruce). There are other wonderfully hardy spruce that can add to the blue pallet of your garden.

Picea omorika 'Nana'
Looking up into the foliage Picea omorika ‘Nana’ shows off the bi-colored foliage of this beautiful cone-shaped tree.

Other spruce species also produce exciting blue hues. Picea omorika (Serbian spruce) has several cultivars with wonderful bi-colored needles that give the plants a silvery-blue-gray appearance from a distance – some appear more blue than others, but all seem to shimmer in the autumn. ‘Nana’ is a somewhat large growing dwarf with annual growth of about six inches, growing into a full, compact silvery, blue-green cone-shaped small tree.

Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ is a beautiful silvery-blue selection of the Sitka spruce. Vigorous and yet very compact, its thin, sharp needles are bi-colored with the same kind of waxy coating that covers the undersides of needles in several conifer species and totally covering the needles of the Blue Colorado spruce varieties.

Picea sitchensis 'Silberzwerg'
Like P.o. ‘Nana’, Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’ has bi-colored foliage that gives the plant its blue hue..

These are just of few of the blue hues available for year-round color. All of these selections are cold hardy and will do well in the greater area of the USA and Canada. Of course, there are excellent blues to be found in selections of Cedrus, Chamaecyparis, Cupressus, Juniperus, Pinus and Tsuga that may also extend into our more southern climates.

The more I think about it, the more I believe there just isn’t any reason that gardens all over the country shouldn’t be filled with conifers, large to small, providing, structure, texture, wildlife habitat and year-round color.

Conifer Lover

The conifer connection

They like to call it the “pineapple express” when the jet stream brings warm air and billions of gallons of water from Hawaii and dumps it on us in the Pacific Northwest. With temperatures in the 50s, I don’t mind it at all – it is a big improvement over plain old Pacific Northwest winter rain when the temperatures are in the upper 30s and 40s.

The rain did stop for a few hours the other day and it was quite pleasant outside. My wife and I were inspired to take a drive about 30 or 40 miles south to one of our favorite garden center destinations. My wife was hoping to find a great deal or two in the gift shop, and I was happy just to have a chance to poke around the winter nursery inventory.

This time of year, there really aren’t too many choices. The flower growers haven’t started making their regular deliveries, nor has anyone really, but there is still a fairly broad selection of nursery stock on hand, so I enjoy the hunt as much as anything. I never know when I might find a leftover from last year that has special character or catches my eye in one way or another.

Picea pungens 'Lundeby's Dwarf'
Picea pungens ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is an excellent dwarf conifer with stunning blue color and sized to fit most any garden.

So, there we are, my wife enjoying her hunt for special bargains on indoor decorations, and I’m checking out the outdoor nursery stock. It is very warm out, and we were not the only ones itching to get the gardening season off to a good start. Looking across the sales yard, I noticed someone carefully looking through the conifer section when I recognized my friend, The Flower Girl. <cue nemesis theme music>

Rather than acting on my first thought, which was to call out her name and wave from across the yard, my playfully mischievous side thought it would be a good idea to nonchalantly wander over in her direction without her seeing me. What I didn’t notice from my initial viewpoint was that she is not alone.

“One thing I love about this dwarf conifer is its beautiful blue color – it just can’t be beat.” she told her companion as I quietly moved nearby.

“But don’t these things just get huge and take over the whole yard? Her companion questioned. “And what about bugs? I don’t want a giant tree that will attract bugs!

“But that’s the beautiful thing about dwarf conifers,” my friend said, “they are perfect for the size of your garden – and they really are relatively pest free. Besides, the older, larger ones do provide habitat for birds and other little animals.”

“I’ve heard that somewhere before.” I piped in much to the surprise of my friend, who incidentally seemed just a little embarrassed to have been caught red-handed promoting conifers in my presence.

We went through our normal routine of kidding and then made proper introductions with her friend. Before I made my retreat, she did give me her trademarked punch to my shoulder, which seemed punctuated with an exclamation mark.

I love a good early visit to the garden center. Bargains can often be found and it’s great to visit with the folks there whether they are old friends or strangers – there is just something about gardening that brings warmth to the heart and a connection with others.

Conifer Lover

Decorate your Hillside

As far as I am concerned, it is now officially, winter. I know, winter does not officially begin until December 21st, but as soon as we set our clocks back to Pacific Standard Time, the temperature dropped 20 degrees and it seems like it’s dark two hours earlier. Whoever invented the tradition of decorating our homes with thousands of colorful lights for the holidays deserves high honors.

As the cold and darkness of winter engulfs our lives, it is very helpful to see neighborhoods all aglow in festivity. I used to think that people putting their lights up on Thanksgiving weekend were out of their mind. I have to admit though; I sure would like to see some festive lighting now! Of course if my wife finds out about my desire to see the lights go up early this year, I have a feeling the next morning I’ll get up and find a BIG pile of all our lights between me and my morning tea.

I took a quick stroll around my garden this morning between downpours. In the back of my mind I was thinking about which trees my wife might like to see all lit up with her favorite lights. One she always loves me to decorate is our large Picea pungens ‘Montgomery.’ No wonder, he’s a very big boy now and has that fantastic traditional Christmas tree shape. Not far from my ‘Montgomery’ I see another compact conifer that is getting to the size and shape that should please my wife when she sees him full of tiny white lights. 

Picea pungens 'Hillside'
Picea pungens 'Hillside' has a greener tone and is a little more compact that his cousin 'Montgomery' behind and to the right.

Picea pungens ‘Hillside’ is one of my favorite compact Colorado spruce trees. With a growth rate at ½ to ¾ that of ‘Montgomery,’ this dwarf conifer will spend his first 10 or 15 years looking a little more like a roundish mound than a cone-shaped tree, but as he matures, he’ll take on a nice compact pyramidal form. At 30 to 40 years old, the old specimen at Iseli’s display garden is just nine or ten feet tall. Mine is considerably younger but has a good start on its Christmas tree shape, so he’ll look great cloaked in lights. 

‘Hillside’ has more of a greenish tone than some of the other popular dwarf Colorado spruce, many of which sport bright shades of blue. But, who wants all their conifers to be the same color anyway? Not me. I love to see all the varying shades of green and blue (and even yellow) that the Colorado spruce contribute to my garden. 

Yes, I think with the new, low energy-consuming LED Christmas lights available these days, I just may be lighting up my corner of the neighborhood early this year. Maybe I’ll combat winter depression by starting a new tradition with four months of festive holiday lighting from Halloween to Valentine’s Day! 

Conifer Lover

“How long can you tread water?”

Maybe, instead of gardening, I should be building a boat.

Just mere days ago, the temperature was 82 degrees, the sun was shining bright, and the forecast as far as the eye could see was for sunny days with temps in the mid to upper 70s. Summer had arrived. Then overnight the temperature dropped, the clouds moved in, and the showers returned. Now when I look at the weather forecast, all I see are gray skies and raindrops with temps in the lower 60s.

All this rain reminds me of the time (many years ago) my older brother came home with the new Bill Cosby album entitled, Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow. Right! One of my favorite routines on the album was Mr. Cosby’s interpretation of the conversations between God and Noah regarding building the arc. Noah, in his frustration with the whole concept of building a giant boat in the middle of the desert began to complain to God. Noah goes on and on and God listens silently until we suddenly hear thunder and the rain begins. During our seemingly endless weeks of rain and remembering this routine I ask myself,  “How long can you tread water?”

Fortunately for my garden plants, they seem to love this weather.

With a steady supply of moisture and occasional sun breaks to slightly warm the soil and encourage photosynthesis, my conifers and Japanese maples all look fantastic. The fresh and colorful new foliage continues to grow in its lush exuberance filling my garden with an inspirational prosperity of color.

The bright blues of my Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’ have never looked better. My Picea abies ‘Fat Cat’ sports a vibrant bright green fur and the variegated foliage of Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘White Pygmy’ is an absolute delight. Complementing my conifers, the deep reds and bright greens of my Acer palmatum ‘Rhode Island Red’ and A.p. ‘Hogyoku’ are a sight to behold. Even though we are mid-way through the last month of spring, (and it feels more like mid-April) I am enjoying all the spring-time beauty of my garden while I can.

Acer palmatum 'Rhode Island Red'
Acer palmatum ‘Rhode Island Red’

Before too long, summer will arrive, and we will be contending with an instant change to hot summer sunshine with temperatures in the mid-80s to upper-90s. That sudden change of the sun’s intensity can tend to sunburn some plants before their soft new foliage has abundant time to harden and become more able to protect itself. I need to think about which of my smaller, more tender plants I may want to provide a little shade until they are ready to fend for themselves. I look for plants that have soft new growth or very lightly colored foliage. Many of my yellow or gold colored conifers can be particularly sensitive to the sudden change from the natural shade of thick gray clouds to the power of pure sunshine.

May your garden thrive and provide you and yours a peaceful oasis this year.

Conifer Lover