Where spring remains winter and autumn visits spring

It seems difficult to believe that any spring could be longer, colder and wetter than last year when we didn’t see sustained temperatures above 60 degrees fahrenheit until well into June. Even then, the rains continued past their “normal” cut-off date of July 4. Last year I did see much more activity in my garden by now in both my conifers and Japanese Maples – we seem to be two to three weeks behind last year.

It was nice to have a brief respite from the cold rain for three days last week. The thermometer on my patio claims that we had a high of 63° on Saturday. Those nice days were followed by a mix of sunshine, rain and hail and a high temperature of 48°, and now we’re back to our cold showers.

Acer palmatum Goshiki Kotohime
Summer foliage of Acer palmatum Goshiki kotohime showing great texture and color.

I did enjoy spending time in my garden during those nice spring days. I transplanted several little one year old grafts into slightly larger pots and I managed to get a little weeding done. The weeds do love our constant rain and the fact that said rain prevents me from attacking the weeds in a more timely fashion. I also noticed that my Japanese Maples are beginning to push their new flush of growth (which is a sure sign that the conifers will be following along very soon).

Perhaps the earliest plant to push its first grunt of new growth in my garden is Acer palmatum ‘Goshiki kotohime’. This very dwarf Japanese Maple will often show signs of life well before anything else in my garden. Its orange/pinkish-red new growth is very small and always seems to sparkle because when it is trying to emerge, we are still experiencing plenty of rain and the threat of light frost. I always become a little concerned when I see its first little leaves popping out and I know that frost is forecast in the area. It does seem to be more hardy than it looks since it always just waits for the cold weather to pass and continues right where it stopped without any sign of damage.

‘Goshiki kotohime’ is a great dwarf plant. Its leaves are closely packed on thin branches giving the appearance of being more of an herbaceous plant than a woody small tree. Its new leaves push with brilliant color and then turn green with deeply cut lobes and undulating edges which create a wonderful texture. Being a slow grower, it is an excellent choice for the container garden as well at other themed miniature gardens where it could easily be pruned to maintain a smaller size if needed.

Acer shirasawanum 'Autumn Moon'
The spring flush of Autumn Moon may look like fall foliage color, but trust me, it is springtime – really.

Another Japanese Maple that I love in spring is Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’. The spring foliage is an amazing blend of autumn yellow and orange which is certainly eye-candy while it can confuse ones sense of time. This small tree is a beautiful, compact grower with nice form and a very pleasant color all season long. I love how its color complements the blue, green and gold of my conifers.

Spring is upon us, I just hope that winter will release its grip so that we may enjoy more sunshine and warmer temperatures before the calendar reminds me that it is mid-summer.

Conifer Lover

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

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

Wet, wetter, wettest.

The funny thing about northwest Oregon is that you can be sure the seasons are changing based on the temperature of the rain. Today, for example, the rain is coming down heavy, steady and thick (and it has been since last night – we had nearly an inch in the rain gauge since 5:00pm yesterday). I noticed as I dashed to my little greenhouse this morning that the rain was not only effectively soaking everything outdoors, but it was considerably warmer than the rain of just a week ago – it must be June!

One of the challenges we face in my part of the world is that sometimes it rains a little too much, keeping the soil and the plants themselves too wet. Where many of my friends around the country are limited to conifers that will survive their extremely cold winters or hot and humid summers, I need to be aware of plants that prefer not have their “feet” sitting in cold, wet soil most of the year.

Iseli Display Garden
Sometimes it stops raining in Oregon

Good drainage is beneficial to most any plant, though some actually thrive in bogs and swamps, most require a little oxygen around their toes. Well drained soil is important, but so is water retention. The soil in my garden is quite good. I have over a foot of good crumbly loam. If I dig deeper, I’ll eventually hit a layer of light clay, but it doesn’t seem to present a problem where drainage is concerned. When I build a new garden bed, I plan pathways at the same time. Since I don’t like to cover over good garden soil with rock or pavers, I’ll dig a few inches down in my pathway and toss that soil into the new bed. Sometimes I’ll move soil from other locations on the property as well. The point is that I try to build up the new bed location to help provide improved drainage for the new plants.

I have an existing bed that I will be totally reworking this year. It was the first area I planted when we moved to this place over ten years ago and for a number of reasons, I didn’t build this bed up as described above. Fortunately, drainage really isn’t a problem on this property, but I do want to raise the elevation in this space as part of its rejuvenation. It will be quite a lot of work, but I believe it will be worth it, both for the health of the plants and for its aesthetic quality.

Next time I’ll put a list together of some great conifers grouped by their tolerance of, and/or need for, various levels of soil moisture, from the very wet to the very dry.

Conifer Lover

Sun break: a brief respite from horizontal rain

Ahhh, May. In Northwest Oregon we call it April: Part Two – where April rain brings May showers, and today the showers have been amazing. We also have something rather unique here called Sun Breaks – a strange phenomenon that proceeds or (depending on your perspective) follows a shower.

Today, the sun breaks have lasted anywhere from almost 30 seconds to well over three minutes. Good thing my wife insisted I slather on the sun screen before I took my brief walk around a small section of the garden. I suspect that the horizontal flow of raindrops that caught me as I was midway around the loop washed it off in no time. I scurried back into the house just in time to avoid the pounding of tiny hail pellets. By the time I took off my boots, spread my coat out near the woodstove to dry and sat in my favorite chair, the wind blew the clouds away exposing the sun for another sun break. I had to laugh.

Pinus parviflora 'Bergmani' pollen cones
Pinus parviflora 'Bergmani' pollen cones

I did see quite a lot of new growth while I was outside. Almost all the conifers were showing at least some sign of their spring push. The Japanese maples have leafed out and are so full of color that I almost missed the tiny reddish purple cones beginning to develop on my Pinus banksiana ‘Schoodic’. My pines are all extending their candles – some silvery, some golden, others near white, but most are rich shades of green and many have distinctive red or orange cones adorning the new candles like little gems protruding out of long fingers.

Pinus banksiana 'Schoodic'
Pinus banksiana 'Schoodic'

As I type, I notice that a sun break is beginning even as the current shower pounds hard on the roof making it difficult to hear the mellow sound of A Love Supreme by John Coltrane on my stereo. All this rain is what makes western Oregon so lush and green throughout the year, so I can wait patiently knowing the warmer days (and fewer showers) of June are just around the corner.

Conifer Lover