And I thought the Flower Girl was a tough sell

I have been friends with a gentleman for quite a number of years. He and I hit if off fairly quickly way back when our wives worked together in a small private school. Since that time, we have been through good times and difficult times which included a painful divorce and eventual re-marriage for my friend.

His new wife is a treasure – except, perhaps, for her inherent dislike for anything conifer.

I was excitedly telling my friend that I had some great new conifers to share with him. These are some of the extras from my hobby grafting of a couple years ago. His eyes grew large and he stood tall in his 6’2″ frame as I described the cultivars I had for him, then all at once he slumped with a look of sadness.

Summer Conifer Garden
How in the world could anyone not like conifers?

“I’ve given my wife full control of the garden, and I’m in charge of any house remodeling.”

“Yeah… okay…. So, where is she, I can’t wait to tell her what I’ve got for you guys!” I said, wondering why the sudden change of countenance.

“She likes flowers” He stated.

“Cool! Me too, so wher-” he cut me off mid-word.

“No, you don’t get it, she ONLY likes flowers… well, and flowering trees. She says conifers are… here she is now!” he stopped short and turned the conversation back over to me.

Now, I must say that I thought I had a hard sell with my friend, the Flower Girl, who I have known for many years and she and I do kid around a lot about our love of conifers vs. flowers, but this woman was something else entirely. I was not at all surprised when her first comments of dislike were expressed with descriptive words like, “dull green”, “prickly”, and “huge”, but when she got to, “stinky”, I must admit I believe my mouth dropped open as I stared ahead, wordless.

She was busily on her way out when we had our brief encounter, but I told that our conversation was not over yet and that we would duel again on this subject. In the meantime, I think I’ll just up-pot these plants for my friend and hold them another year. That will give me time to work out my strategy of attack to convince this dear woman of the amazing beauty of dwarf, colorful and low-maintenance conifers.

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

The girl with the Black Dragon tolerance

You know your visit is going to be interesting when the conversation goes something like this:

“See, Ed. This is exactly what I am talking about. This… Crypt… Crypt-o – I mean, who named this thing, an undertaker?”

“That’s Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’ – I thought you would rather like that one.”

“Well, the last name is cool… but…”

“Oh c’mon, just admit you like it – I won’t verbally tell a soul.” And with that, she knew she was in trouble.

With her wry smile, she looked at me briefly and then back at the plant, “I suppose you’re going to blog about me again aren’t you?”

“Well, you do inspire discussion about why I love conifers.”

It had been a while since The Flower Girl had paid me a visit. She was disheartened with our long and wet spring, the incredibly short summer and the quick return to a wet autumn. All the rain and cool temperatures this year prevented her usually glorious flower garden from performing its best. She had mildew and fungus and blight, oh my!

Cryptomeria japonica 'Black Dragon'
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Black Dragon’

Her sunflowers were half their normal height, the zinnias and marigolds were sparse and thin as were the other flowers that normally thrive in hot and dry summers. She found that she needed to dead-head the flowers more frequently because the cool wet weather would quickly turn them into dark brown mush.

I listened to her frustrations as we walked around my garden and the light sprinkles fell from the sky. I looked to the west, and noticed the sky was incredibly dark – I had a feeling that, momentarily, we would be in for a big shower. As we rounded the path that returned us past the ‘Black Dragon’ and back toward the house, she did admit that she found the plant to be somewhat tolerable (which I have come to understand translates into her actually liking the plant).

“Of course you do.” I thought to myself with a slight smile.

‘Black Dragon’ is a great conifer that has quite a lot of natural appeal and yet it is unusual enough to keep my interest too. As a young plant, it can grow somewhat vigorously with a rather narrow form. With some maturity, it seems to slow its upward extension and puts more of its energy into filling in and becomes a little broader at the base (kind of like me). As ‘Black Dragon’ ages, it will acquire a very nice semi-broad pyramidal form with a combination of slightly open branching and dense clusters of its soft, awl-like, dark green foliage. Hardy in Zone 5 and warmer, this one won’t survive the colder regions (although I have seen on online reference which states that one is growing in Keota, Iowa). In the hot and humid south, some conifers experience a “melt-down”, but not ‘Black Dragon’. Possibly its more open habit allows for better air flow.

As we settled into the comfortable chairs near the woodstove, my wife had already brewed the tea, and we chatted about how well the conifers had performed during our unusually cool and wet season. We talked about the change of seasons, the soon-to-come brilliant display of autumn foliage color and the excitement that a new season of gardening will bring.

Conifer Lover

Winter blues

“Look Ed, this whole episode about you and your ‘Montgomery’? Well, I don’t know what kind of spell you put on me, but I can’t get my mind off of your darn blue conifers!”

You can imagine the look on my face as I sat in my favorite coffee shop with my nemesis, The Flower Girl.

“Hahaha… oh c’mon, we like to tease each other a lot, but you’ve always appreciated conifers to some degree – haven’t you? I asked.

“Sure… to some tiny, little, microscopic degree yes, it’s true. I don’t know what it is though. Maybe the light was hitting my ‘Hoopsi’ just right the other day, but it was shining so bright  – and it was virtually the only color in my garden. I’ve just had some kind of new hunger for blue in my garden, and there sure aren’t any flowers that would produce that much effect in the dead of winter.”

Thinking to myself that the world of conifers had just won a major victory, I simply said, “I see… and how does that make you feel?” Which produced my friend’s trademark punch to my shoulder.

Of course I referred her to some of my past blog posts regarding great blue conifers including, Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’, Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’, and the blue dwarfs. But one in particular came to mind that I don’t believe I have mentioned in this space before. The Blue Nest Spruce.

At first glance, some may be lead to think that this delightful bluish/gray/green mound is a dwarf form of the Norway Spruce, Picea abies. A very old and popular cultivar called, ‘Nidiformis’ is commonly called the Bird’s Nest Spruce. But the cultivar I have in mind is actually from the Colorado Spruce, Picea pungens.

Picea pungens 'Waldbrunn'
Picea pungens ‘Waldbrunn’

‘Waldbrunn’ has a very fine texture created by its thin sharp needles. A low growing, almost spreading mound, ‘Waldbrunn’s color and form are both unique when compared with other compact versions of the Colorado spruce. In my friend’s garden, which is dominated by flowering perennials, annuals and shrubs, I would place ‘Waldbrunn’ in widely spaced conifer groupings to allow plenty of room for growth and to provide more winter interest in her otherwise empty winter garden. Planting near other blues of varying shapes and sizes will work nicely, since she is interested in adding more blue to her winter landscape. Placing near green (both bright and dark) or yellows, it will provide a pleasant color contrast without looking out of place. During the summer months, when flowers and Japanese maples are in their full color, ‘Waldbrunn’ provides a unique texture and color contrast.

I am thrilled to see my friend’s passion for conifers begin to awaken. I am very excited that during our visit she genuinely wanted me to tell her about three or four compact blue conifers that would work in her “cottage garden.” Not only that, but this time she picked up the bill at the coffee shop.

Conifer Lover

Return of the Flower Girl

A while back I shared with you all a conversation I had with a dear gardening friend of mine. This gal loves her herbaceous flowering plants the way I love my conifers. I hadn’t heard from her for several months, but my last blog entry inspired her to give me a call. Apparently she thought my need for an intervention was a victory for her “side” of the gardening world and this would be a good time to rub it in.

“So, your conifers are giving you some trouble, huh?” she asked in her playful tone.

“Oh, I don’t know that they were the cause of my trouble.”

“You called one of them a “bully” didn’t you? And you had to move all that other stuff – I would’ve just got my chainsaw out and taken that big bully down!” she said with a bit of a chuckle.

“Yeah, I suppose I did lay some blame on that poor, misunderstood ‘Montgomery’.

I went on to explain that my beautiful, mature, stately ‘Montgomery’ was behaving exactly as is was genetically designed to. My erroneous expectations were the cause of my trouble.

You see, I was wanting one dwarf conifer to behave like another. I should have allowed it to be itself and not something I wanted. Afterall, there are other excellent (and even more dwarf) cultivars of blue spruce available. As it turns out though, once I relocated the plants being crowded by my faithful and trusty ‘Montgomery’, it immediately was transformed from bully to nobility.

Picea pungens 'Lundeby's Dwarf'
‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is an excellent, slower growing alternative to ‘Montgomery’ in todays smaller gardens.

Back when I originally planted my ‘Montgomery’ I was very well aware of its potential size. But that was a long time ago and I was younger, and perhaps a little more ambitious. I had planned on annual or semi-annual pruning to keep its size under control – which worked well for the first 10 or 15 years. Since then though, I’ve allowed it to grow without my direct influence. If I had planted a different cultivar, one with less annual growth and a natural form more suited to my original design, perhaps I could have prevented a lot of work.

Two marvelous dwarf cultivars of blue spruce immediately come to mind.

Picea pungens ‘Lundeby’s Dwarf’ is a fantastic alternative if height is a concern. It has an annual growth rate of about half of what I experienced with my ‘Montgomery’ so it will take many, many more years to attain a height of ten feet. It has more of a mounding habit, so it will tend to spread a little more while remaining comparatively low.

Picea pungens 'St. Mary's Broom'
‘St. Mary’s Broom’ is perfect for small spaces, the rock garden or in containers.

Another favorite of mine is Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’. Still officially in the Dwarf growth range with an annual push of just over an inch in my garden, this little beauty will be a very well-behaved blue mound in the garden for a lifetime.

There are other wonderful dwarf blue spruce of varying growth rates, forms and shades of blue that may also be considered. A creative designer could use an assortment to build a beautiful boundary that might mimic nearby hillsides or the mountain ranges of faraway lands.

Dwarf conifers are so versatile and beautiful that I don’t mind the few challenges they may induce. What other group of plants can be both foundation and centerpiece, border and boundary, filler and cherished specimen all while providing year-round color in the garden?

Conifer Lover