The hunt begins

You may recall from past posts how much I enjoy the hunt for the first signs of tiny cones beginning to develop on my conifers. I must still be a kid at heart, playing a horticultural version of hide and seek, because I love looking for those colorful little signs that springtime has arrived. This year is definitely proving to be a week or two behind last year when it comes to my conifers beginning their spring flush of new growth and their display of male pollen cones and the female seed cones.

I believe that last year was an especially good year for cone production on the conifers in my area. Both my garden and the gardens and production fields at Iseli showed an abundance of cones like I’ve never seen before. It is still early, but by this time last year I was seeing more cone developement on more species and cultivars than I had ever seen in one season before. I asked my friends at Iseli what they were seeing this year, and their observation is very much like my own. Few cones developing on fewer plants. No doubt, for whatever reason, last year was an extraordinary year for the cone hunter!

Abies koreana 'Blauer Pfiff'
Abies koreana 'Blauer Pfiff' is a wonderful, low-growing form of Korean fir. One of it's wonderful features is that is seems to cone at a fairly young age.

But don’t let that stop you from getting out into your garden and taking a close look at your conifers. Take a strong magnifying lens or your camera with a quality macro mode, and you just might be surprised at the wonders you will discover.

I love the cone development on my Abies koreana ‘Blauer Pfiff’. The seed cones begin to develop shortly after the pollen cones and just prior to their spring flush of new foliage. The female cones will develop and mature for the next few months, becoming larger and slowly morphing from a spiraling column of reddish-pink pointed wings to a gradient of muted yellowish-green to pink stack of wings on an ever thickening body.

Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna'
Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna' is a great, compact, upright form with rich green foliage and colorful pollen cones.

Another favorite discovery right now is the colorful pollen cones of Pinus mugo ‘Big Tuna’ with their purplish tightly closed pockets of pollen awaiting just the right conditions to open and begin to disperse their fertile pollen into the air. As they mature and begin to elongate a little further, their color takes on some hints of yellow and red suggesting a tinge of orange before they fully open, empty themselves of pollen, and then dry and fade away after completing their important reproductive function.

I look forward to the next several weeks as the hunt will continue and I will discover more and more tiny treasures throughout my garden.

Conifer Lover

Years of worry-free joy

This past summer I had a great opportunity to prevent one of my pet-peeve landscape design mishaps from taking place. I was at the house warming party of a young couple that I have known for years. This was their first home purchase and like many first home buyers, they have great plans of many things to update and remodel, inside and out.  One of their friends introduced them to a designer with lots of personality but very little real-world experience – especially when it comes to landscape design and plant selection and placement.

Pinus mugo 'Mops'
When photographed, this Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ was over 30 years old and approximately five feet tall and seven feet wide.

When my friends excitedly produced the blueprint of their new landscape design and asked for my opinion, I found myself biting my tongue. It became very apparent to me that their designer had little plant knowledge and had specified quite a number of native species trees and shrubs along with some older cultivated varieties. Perhaps this would have been a good design if city lots were the size that they were 50 or 60 years ago, but not these days. My friend’s tiny lot would have been over grown by large, wild growing plants that in no time would engulf the property, house and all.

Thinking how I might diplomatically make my friends aware of the potential problems with the design (which as a design was quite nice, just spec’d with inappropriate plants) I asked, “Is it your desire to live in a dark, shady forest?”

My suntanned host replied, “What do you mean, Ed? I love the sun – I can’t wait to have a nice garden to lie out in and soak up all the rays!”

Pinus mugo 'Sherwood Compact'
Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’

“Hmmm… You might want to reconsider some of the plants in this design, it will take about ten to fifteen years, but you’ll be pretty much shaded and crowded out using these plants. I could make some more suitable plant suggestions using this design if you like.” And I proceeded to pencil in some of my favorite dwarf and miniature conifers to replace the fast-growing and high maintenance plants on the list.

One of the first plants I suggested replacing was the “Mugho” pine (Pinus mugo var. mughus) in the design. There were several that seemed to be placed willy-nilly around the garden and in some of the most inappropriate places. 50 years ago, “Mughos” were used fairly commonly as a “dwarf” pine. You’ve probably seen them as unsightly, hacked pines in parking lots, along sidewalks or any number of places that a cheap, dwarf plant might be desired. Unfortunately, they generally are anything but dwarf and in a span of a few years outgrow their intended space (and aesthetic usefulness).

Being seedling grown, Pinus mugo var. mughus will produce plants of entirely unreliable growth rate and form. These plants, if still grown by wholesale nurseries, will be heavily sheared to create the illusion of uniform compact plants that will look so cute in the garden. Then, when planted in the landscape, unless the regular regimen of shearing continues, the plants will quickly become overgrown (and in some cases, quite unsightly.) That is why excellent, reliably compact and low maintenance cultivated variants have been selected, propagated and have begun to enter the market in the past 20 years or so.

Pinus mugo 'Slowmound'
Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ is so reliable, if it could keep time, I’m conifident that you could set your watch to it.

These new and improved cultivars are true dwarf and miniatures that will require very little care, are extremely hardy, and will not surprise you with unexpected growth habits. Quality growers will know their plant’s characteristics very well and provide accurate information in their catalogs, websites and on the plant tags.

I chose to suggest three groupings of three different cultivars of Pinus mugo for my friends to replace the designer’s poor choice. True, I could have suggested any number of other conifers, but, in my best diplomatic behavior, I thought it best not to change the plant specifications too drastically. After all, the three cultivars I chose are really great plants and using my suggestions will not adversely affect the nature of the original artist’s intention.

Pinus mugo ‘Mops’ is a delightful, globe-shaped dwarf pine. Hardy into Zone 2, ‘Mops’ will grow almost anywhere in North America. It has dark green foliage and a compact form that will never require shearing to create or maintain its neat and tidy form. In thirty to forty years, it may be six or seven feet in diameter and just about as tall appearing almost like a perfect sphere buried half way into the ground.

Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’ has a little more character with its somewhat irregular form. Still considered globe-shaped, ‘Sherwood Compact’s unique form adds a pleasant texture to the garden. Its dwarf growth rate and Zone 2 hardiness make it another winner for my friend’s new garden.

Pinus mugo ‘Slowmound’ is a newcomer that has increased in popularity rather quickly. This absolutely reliable dwarf mounding pine will slowly create a green mound. Placing three in a group can have a similar effect in that garden as a cluster of small boulders – except that these living rocks will increase in size about an inch or two every year.

When compared to the “Mugho” pine in the original design and its unreliable growth rate that will undoubtedly exceed six inches per year, my mugo selections will provide many more years of worry-free enjoyment for my novice gardening friends.

Conifer Lover

Two left feet

I am beginning to have second thoughts about putting so much effort into my Christmas light display in December. Even though it is a lot of fun during the darkest days of winter to have a front garden full of pretty little lights, unwrapping the trees and shrubs is far less satisfying – especially when you are a clumsy old gardener like me.

You may recall my adventure installing the lights last December. Yesterday, as I was taking down the display I had an experience that might have given my neighbors a chuckle while I fumbled and flopped around which ended with me doing repair work on a treasured old conifer.

I was particularly careful as I climbed the ladder and unwrapped the string of lights from my Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’. Back on solid ground I moved the ladder away so I could continue circling the tree as I unwound the lights from their winter home.

Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Boulevard'
Even unsheared, 'Boulevard' is a nice conical form. Sheared, like mine, it becomes more dense causing falling men to bounce off of it.

Now, as much as I enjoy Daylilies, what happened next made me less of a fan. I suddenly found myself stumbling in a mound of both the newly emerging foliage and last season’s dried leaves. Trying to regain my balance, I made sort of a hop on one foot that morphed into a pirouette as I spun around, bounced off of a sheared Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Boulevard’ and landed squarely in the middle of my treasured Pinus mugo ‘Sherwood Compact’.

Not sure whether the crackling sound I heard as I hit the ground was me or the dwarf pine, I pulled myself up and brushed off my jeans. Looking around to see if I needed to be embarrassed or not, it appeared as if my new dance moves were unwitnessed so I turned to inspect my pine. Sadly, it now appeared to be a new form of “Nest Pine” because of the large broken branch right in the middle near the ground.

Fortunately, I had my pruners at my side and I cut just beyond the break to a couple of side branches. Removing the broken branch revealed quite a hole, but with some creative fluffing of the remaining branches I was able to cover my mistake very effectively. Perhaps thinning out the interior of this excellent cultivar will be healthy for it in the long run. Hardy as these dwarf mugo pines are, they are not “Falling Ed” proof.

Needless to say, I am feeling the joy of gardening, in a rather painful way today. Now, where is the number for my massage therapist……?

Conifer Lover

Wicked sick

The other day, I had a phone call from my inventor friend.

“So, how’s that time machine coming along?” I asked with just a slight tone of whimsy in my voice.

“Oh… so you didn’t notice?”

“Notice what?”

“Never mind – probably best no one ever finds out.” He said and changed the subject. “Hey, Ed, I’m going to send my boy over to your place to pick up some soil samples, ok?”

“Sure, what are you up to now?”

“I am not at liberty to discuss it yet, but rest assured, it will have no global effect.” He said in his calm, monotone voice.

I chuckled just a little and asked if while he was doing whatever it was he was going to do with my soil samples, if he could include some ph and nutritional tests for me. He was happy to write down my request.

Five minutes later, his boy rolls up my driveway on his custom built industrial tricycle complete with attached trailer containing three five gallon buckets and a shovel.

“Hey Buddy – how’s it going?”


“What’s your dad up to this time?”

“Don’t know.”

I’m beginning to learn that he has his father’s gift for conversation. He asks where he can dig and I show him three locations around my property that I wouldn’t mind some soil being removed. He then proceeds to fill each bucket up to the top with soil. I begin to wonder what in the world his father could be up to when he takes notice of one of my conifers down the path from where he is digging.

Pinus mugo 'Jakobsen'
A young Pinus mugo 'Jakobsen' beginning to show its unique characteristics.

“Sick plant!”

“Well, actually it’s doing very well.” I say and proceed to tell him about the great qualities of my Pinus mugo ‘Jakobsen’.

“Yeah, wicked sick!” he tells me.

“Oh… so you like it?”

And who wouldn’t? ‘Jakobsen’ is a fantastic Dutch selection of the Mugo Pine. Very hardy to Zone 2, this dwarf conifer can grow almost anywhere in the USA. Unlike many new cultivars of Pinus mugo with their reliable, uniform mounding growth habits, ‘Jakobsen’ has quite a lot of character. With age it becomes an irregular, mounding, upright, small tree with a very unique clumping habit to its foliage which allows visual access to its thick silvery gray branches. Some describe it as having “natural bonsai” characteristics. Although I can see their point, I believe it would still require a little human interaction to achieve a real garden bonsai type form, but its natural habit certainly does inspire one to take pruners in hand to encourage a more artistic aesthetic. I also love its rich dark green needles and its dwarf habit. If you are looking for something, “wicked sick” for your garden, I have it on good authority that ‘Jakobsen’ is the plant for you.

Conifer Lover