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!

Conifer Lover

Dear Santa…

It’s been a very long time since I have written a letter to Santa Claus. I remember one of the first times I wrote to Santa – it was a cold and rainy day, I was probably being fussy (as small children can get when the big holiday gets closer and the days are shorter, colder and wetter). I suppose I was five or six years old. I remember trying to write the letter, getting frustrated with my ability and going to Mom for help. She ended up doing most of the writing while I dictated my Christmas wishes to her, trusting that Santa would approve.

Picea omorika 'Kamenz'
Picea omorika 'Kamenz' is an excellent spreading specimen.

This year there are three conifers on my Christmas list that I am hoping Santa will find a way to deliver on that special morning. I’ve been admiring these three for a number of years during my visits to the display garden at Iseli Nursery. I love a good conifer hunt, and these three may still be rare out in the independent garden centers, I know I could make a special order through my favorite retailer, but I just haven’t done it yet. So, Santa, it’s up to you.

These are a few of my favorite things – all three are forms of Picea omorika, the Serbian spruce:

First on my list is a low, spreading, dwarf form named Picea omorika ‘Kamenz’. The one I’ve been admiring at Iseli is four or five feet across and about 10 inches tall. It has the typical two-toned needles of Picea omorika, with its green top and silver-coated underside. The needles radiate out from the branches in a way that they catch the light very well and seem to almost shimmer as the sun moves across the sky. This one looks to be a great choice for where a sturdy ground cover is desired as well as being a distinctive specimen in its own right.

Picea omorika 'Minima'
Picea omorika 'Minima' captivates my attention.

Number two is Picea omorika ‘Minima’. This enchanting little globe is covered with tiny, thin, two-toned needles giving ‘Minima’ a soft or delicate looking texture. Being the Serbian spruces are hardy to Zone 4, they are anything but delicate. Growth rate is still within the Dwarf range according to the chart published by The American Conifer Society, but it is on the slower growing end of the scale, creating a captivating, small globe-shaped plant that I have a difficult time taking my eyes off of when I am near.

Picea omorika 'Silberblue'
Picea omorika 'Silberblue' is a stunning beauty with silvery-blue needles and a perfectly symmetrical form.

Picea omorika ‘Silberblue’ is the third item on my wish list. This is a large growing tree with a perfectly symmetrical Christmas tree shape. It’s two-toned needles give the tree a silvery blue color that shines in the sun capturing the attention of anyone in its vicinity. Should Santa come through with this one, I’ll place it in a prominent place with room to grow and plan on it becoming a featured tree for future holiday decorations.

That’s it – my entire wish list for 2010. I’m hoping Santa reads my blog.

Conifer Lover

Conifer diversity

Since my last post, the rain slowed to a drizzle, became intermittent showers and finally stopped altogether. We then had nearly 48 hours of partially sunny, warmer and dry weather. As I write this, I can hear the wind pounding the pouring rain against the nearby window. As promised last time, I have a great list of conifers that will tolerate both very wet and very dry conditions.

I called one of my mid-west friends the other day and we had a long conversation on the topic. Then, much to my surprise, this morning I received the following email. My good friend has put such a great list together that I see no reason to change a thing. He has listed some excellent conifers for any garden and has grouped them by their tolerance for various levels of soil moisture. I think you’ll find this information extremely valuable.

“Although almost all conifers prefer the ‘perfect’ soil – moist well-drained loam – many will tolerate wet or dry soils.  Most Abies and Tsuga are not very tolerant of extremes in wet or dry soils.

“A few conifers can tolerate very wet, almost bog-like soils.  Probably the most tolerant of wet soils are Taxodium varieties such as ‘Cascade Falls’ and ‘Peve Yellow’.  Also, Thuja occidentalis varieties such as ‘Degroots Spire’, ‘Hetz Wintergreen’, ‘Holmstrup’, ‘Rushmore’, and ‘Smaragd’ will tolerate wet soils.  Thuja plicata varieties like ‘Canadian Gold’ and ‘Virescens’ are also tolerant of very wet soils.  Taxodium and Thuja are frequently found in boggy or swampy locations in their native habitats.  Although these conifers may actually prefer well-drained soils, they can survive in swampy areas where they can out compete other species.

Conifer Garden
No matter what your gardening challenge, there is very likely a conifer that will at least tolerate, if not thrive in, your gardening situation.

“Other conifers will tolerate moderately wet soils, such as those found in a swale that dries out, or in a low area through which rain runoff flows but does drain.  In other words, areas that can be wet, but that do eventually drain and don’t hold standing water or hold water just below the surface of the soil.  Some of the best conifers for this kind of situation are various spruces.  Some examples are Picea abies ‘Pendula Major’, Picea glauca ‘Pendula’, Picea mariana ‘Golden’, Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’, Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’, and Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’.  In nature, Picea glauca and Picea pungens are frequently found at the edge of streams or on lake shores.  Surprisingly, Picea glauca and Picea pungens will also tolerate fairly dry locations.  Most Larix species prefer ample moisture, and would also be a good choice for these moist, but not boggy situations.  Examples are Larix decidua ‘Horstmann’s Recurva’ and Larix sibirica ‘Conica’.  Larix laricina is frequently found in swampy locations, but most Larix species don’t like a swamp.

“To the other extreme, some conifers will perform well in very dry situations.  Again, most of these plants would prefer a moderately moist, but well-drained soil if given a choice, but will tolerate dryness.  Some Junipers are excellent choices for dry, sandy or rocky soils.  Examples are Juniperus communis ‘Effusa’ and ‘Green Carpet’, and ‘Kalebab’.  Juniperus horizontalis is also very tolerant of dry soils.  Juniperus horizontalis ‘Blue Pygmy’, and ‘Limeglow’™ are possible choices.  Many pines are also good choices for sandy, very well-drained, and dry soils, especially two and three needle pines.  Some good choices for dry soils are Pinus banksiana ‘Uncle Fogy’, Pinus leucodermis ‘Emerald Arrow’, and Pinus leucodermis ‘Mint Truffle’, Pinus mugo ‘Big Tuna’, ‘Slowmound’, and Pinus mugo ‘Tannenbaum’ and ‘Sherwood Compact’, as well as Pinus nigra ‘Helga’ and Pinus sylvestris ‘Glauca Nana’.

“Keep in mind that most of these conifers that are tolerant of dry situations should be kept adequately moist until they are well established.  They should also be given supplemental water in times of extreme drought.  Many five needle pines such as Pinus strobus, although they prefer very well-drained and even sandy soils, actually are not as tolerant of extremely dry areas.  Most plants that are tolerant of very dry soils are also tolerant of alkaline soils.”

Until next time, I’ll be hoping for sunshine, in my garden and yours.

Conifer Lover

Are you a Conehead?

Abies koreana Aurea
Abies koreana 'Aurea'

I have considered myself a Conehead for many years now, and yet, I don’t claim to come from France. I remember the first time I saw the Conehead sketch on Saturday Night Live back in the late 1970s. I told my friends back then that I was a true Conehead, unlike those on the TV. One of my friends mentioned that he had always thought that I was from another planet referring, I presume,  to my non-conformist wardrobe choices and lack of interest in the disco scene of the day.

Yes, even back in the late ’70s’ I was a Conehead – a conifer lover.  I love the year-round color that conifers can provide with their fantastic and sometimes seasonally changing foliage color, but quite often, it is the cones themselves that provide the color and seasonal interest.

In fact, it is the cones (or cone-like reproductive organs) that have  stirred up excitement in me for many years. Some cones, in their early developmental stages are very small and require a keen eye to spot them. Others can be large from an early age and become huge over the course of a season or two depending on their genus and species.
Picea orientalis Aureospicata
Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

My favorites begin as very colorful red or purple “buds” that grow  into symmetrically balanced spirals of winged pockets designed to  protect the seed as it develops and then allows the seed to launch into the wind or be relocated by birds or other wildlife at maturity.

Very colorful cones may be discovered growing on some cultivars of Abies koreana (Korean Fir), Picea abies (Norway Spruce), Picea orientalis (Oriental Spruce), Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine) or Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas Fir). These colorful cones can add excitement and interest to the spring and early summer garden. The detail in these young cones can be stunning, often only visible with a magnifying glass or a good macro lens on the  camera.

Pseudotsuga menziesii Blue
Pseudotsuga menziesii 'Blue'

As the cones continue to grow and mature through the summer months, their color may change and become darker or even tinged with a different hue. Most will begin to ooze resin which can actually sparkle in the early morning or late afternoon sunlight. At maturity, many cones will have turned brown and the seed-holding pockets will have spread and opened allowing the seeds to escape. The larger dried cones are what we often see used decoratively in flower arrangements or in wreathes and swags during the winter holidays.

Cones add to the multi-seasonal appeal of conifers and are one of the reasons many gardeners consider themselves Coneheads all over the world.

Conifer Lover

As always, thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links.

Blue Dwarfs

As I was wandering around the garden this morning I really took notice of my blue dwarfs. No, I’m not referring to the “little People” that live in my garden; I’m talking about a great group of dwarf Colorado Blue Spruce. Most everyone is familiar with the full size blue spruce trees (Picea pungens). There are also some great selected cultivars of the full size trees that were chosen for their reliable blue color, form, growth habit or other unique characteristics. Not as many of us are aware that there are some fantastic dwarf conifers with that same wonderful blue color.

Picea pungens 'St. Mary's Broom'

Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’is one of those very special dwarf blue spruce trees. Really more of a mounding shrub than a tree, ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ will only grow a few inches each year. With such great blue color, this little mound really stands out when the annual and perennial flowers have long gone for the season and the autumn foliage show has ended. That’s one reason why I love conifers so much; they are perfect plants for year-round color. ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ is such a slow grower, it’s unlikely that it will ever outgrow its space in the garden.

Other favorite dwarf conifers with great blue color are:
Picea pungens ‘Hillside’
Picea pungens ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’
Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’
Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’

Thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo links.

Conifer Lover

Sometimes conifers can fool you

I was out in the garden this weekend getting some of the perennials cleaned up and “tucked in” for winter. I had been bent over trimming and digging and generally having a great time in the rare autumn sun (yes, our sky had turned from shades of grey to a beautiful blue color). I layed on my back in the cool grass for a moment with the sun on my face when I happened to glance across the garden to see a dwarf fir that I did not remember planting. I jumped to my feet (ha!) Well, I managed to get up and walk over for a closer view.

Picea abies 'Motala'

“That’s no fir,” I thought to myself.

It was my new Picea abies ‘Motala.’ I just aquired this beauty in the spring and planted it in a space to give it some room to fill out over the next several years. In the mean time, some “filler” perennials and grasses had pretty much obscured it from my view.

One thing that really interested me in ‘Motala’ was it’s unique needle arrangment and the way the needles all radiate outward much like an Abies pinsapo. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this one will develop.

Thanks to my friends at Iseli Nursery for the photo.

Conifer Lover

Sester Dwarf

Now this one is a real thing of beauty. Think of the bluest Colorado Blue Spruce you’ve seen growing in the mountains, and then shrink it into a compact, formal, blue cone-shaped specimen perfect for even my mother’s tiny garden. If I only had room for one blue spruce, this would likely be the one to have. (Well…honestly, I’m too far gone for that – I’d find room to plant more – one way or another.)

Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’ photo provided from my friends at Iseli Nursery

Picea pungens 'Sester Dwarf'

Conifer Lover