A surprise encounter

Since moving into our new neighborhood, my wife and I have enjoyed taking regular walks. Not only is the activity very heart-healthy (and insisted upon by my wife) but it is actually quite enjoyable. Our neighborhood includes two city parks within its borders and is tucked away between two major creeks that feed the local river.

I’ll bet this was a cute little tree, 27 years ago when the house was built. The big tree was planted in the wrong place. At over 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide, it was simply planted too close to the sidewalk.

Since moving here, I have noticed that most folks walking through the neighborhood tend to walk out in the street, which is fine since there isn’t a lot of traffic, but being a safety conscious citizen, I have always believed the miles of sidewalks installed in our city were put in place for a reason. Now that I am an avid pedestrian in our neighborhood, I understand why so many folks prefer the street: Poor landscape design planning and/or maintenance.

Our neighborhood is about 30 years old, so I suspect that most of the landscapes are close to that age here as well. That means all those nice little plants that looked so cute in the front yard, along the sidewalk, are largely overgrown and many of them obstruct the way for comfortable pedestrian travel. You might imagine my narrative (which my wife patiently endured) as we walked those first view adventures through the neighborhood, was filled with my expert opinion regarding well-designed landscaping and the intelligent use of dwarf conifers.

Much to my surprise and frustration, on the return trip to our home, I discovered that the large Colorado Blue Spruce planted in the front corner of our property was partially obscuring our freedom to pass by on the sidewalk. I couldn’t help but to think of several, slower growing alternatives that would have been far greater choices to plant in this location (see below*).

The following day, I gathered my three-legged orchard ladder and a collection of pruning tools; my hand pruners held at my hip by a holster on my belt, my large loppers, two sizes of pruning saws and my electric chainsaw on a stick (which has proved to be one of the handiest tools I have ever used) and I made my way out to the large tree.

Ordinarily, I would shudder at the thought of disfiguring a beautiful conifer in this fashion…

Looking the tree over, I could see that the previous caregiver of the landscape had been shearing the sidewalk side of this tree for a number of years as it was a very compact congestion of branches and foliage from  ground level to just above my head. As I circled the tree, its natural, more open habit was evident, and it was in this loose branching that I made my approach to begin the job of limbing the tree up above my head, all around its trunk. Ordinarily, I would shudder at the thought of disfiguring a beautiful conifer in this fashion, but frankly, it is just the first step in the eventual total removal of the tree that is overgrown for the space in which it was planted.

Several hours later, I stood in the street, sweat pouring down my face, needles, pitch and other tree debris decorating my work clothes as I inspected the job I had just completed. I noticed a neighbor, walking his three dogs, strolling on the sidewalk in my direction. I became pleased with myself that I had done the good deed of clearing the way for them so that they could walk, safely, and without obstruction on the sidewalk in front of my house.

I walked closer to my front yard, which was now 80% covered with piles of the branches that I had removed from the tree, thinking that the fun part of my job was over. I was looking for my large insulated bottle of iced tea and was planning to sit on the front steps and rest. As I sat, looking through the piles of branches and seeing the opened up front yard, I began to imagine the transformation that would take place. I visualized widening and lengthening the two planting beds that now exist.

Imagining the expanded planting space, my mind became occupied with the incredibly large number of choices available to me in designing this new front yard space. I became excited at the thought of dusting off the rototiller to begin turning old lawn grass into lush mounds of soil for planting all kinds of exciting colorful conifers…

But first, I need to properly dispose of these huge piles of spruce branches…

Conifer Lover

PS. *Here are some better choices for this same garden space. All of these conifers are slower growing and/or have a smaller footprint than the seedling spruce I will be replacing. Which would be your choice for this prime corner spot in the front garden? Let me know in the comments.

Problem or opportunity?

As my story began last time, I mentioned what a magnificently lovely morning I had awoken to. I prepared myself to spend a good couple of hours out in the garden and I went for a stroll in the early morning sunshine. I was surprised by how active the birds were with their morning songs. It had been months since I had heard that kind of singing in the morning and it contributed to brightening my heart and soul as I wandered my garden paths. As you may recall, there was something about my Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Reis Dwarf’ that had caught my attention, and I left the story there to tell you a little about that cultivar.

So, there I was, looking closely at the dried and brown clumps of foliage in what appeared to be a somewhat random arrangement throughout the small tree. Now, this is a fairly common occurrence among some of the dwarf types of Chamaecyparis obtusa. Sometimes areas of the tightly congested foliage will die back. This does not appear to be caused by any type of disease or insect, but more likely a natural result due to environmental conditions – which may include human or animal interaction, brushing up against a more delicate branch causing a break, or simply the older foliage being shed as the plant ages. Of course anytime you have suspicious behavior among your conifers, it is a good idea to give a close inspection to see if you might have a more serious situation to contend with.

Older foliage often will naturally die back, especially with some of the more dwarf and miniature types of conifers. Taking time to occasionally remove the dead foliage will open airways which is healthy for plants.

I want to remind you, all plants shed older foliage. While deciduous trees to it annually, and they often put on a big production in the process, most conifers tend to be subtle – they like to shed their foliage less frequently, only dropping their older, inner foliage once every few years, while they still have plenty of younger foliage to keep themselves covered up. Of course, there are deciduous conifers that do shed all their foliage every autumn, but I have discussed the exhibitionist habit of those plants in previous posts.

After simply removing the dried, older, dead foliage with my hands, the plant will benefit from increased airflow and light penetration. Further pruning could be performed if one were feeling creative (see last weeks post).

So, I’m looking over my ‘Reis Dwarf’ thinking that it was the perfect day to clean out the brown foliage and begin to expose some of the branches, very much like the specimen I featured last time, from the gardens at Iseli. I reach in with my gloved hands and begin to carefully crumble the old, dried patches of foliage and lightly shake and brush the brown stuff off of the plant. Doing this simple cleaning exercise begins to expose some of the older branches and I imagine how I might use my small pruners to trim away small dead branches from the interior of the specimen. As I work the tree, I clean an area, step back and look over the whole tree, and clean out another area, always keeping in mind that goal is to slightly open the tree up, exposing more of the older branch details while keeping an aesthetic balance of healthy, rich green foliage.

It will be quite some time before my little tree looks anything like the one pictured in my previous post, but that beautiful specimen was first pruned by my friends at Iseli in 1989 when it was approximately 10 years old. By cleaning out the older, dried and brown foliage,  I actually encourage good health by allowing a freer flow of air and light through the plant. I also gain the pleasure of creating a truly unique, living garden sculpture, that I will enjoy for many years as it continues to grow with its unique habit, and I encourage it to develop an aesthetic form.

Conifer Lover