Return to the pond

It’s been a few weeks, but I am finally ready to share with you my selections for my young friend’s garden pond. You might remember that my friends had recently purchased a home that was built in 1999 and landscaped primarily with very large, fast growing forest trees. Since that time, my young and energetic friend has cleared much of his backyard of the unwanted trees and shrubs, dug out stumps, collected rocks to build a new waterfall for the pond, plus completed an assortment of other chores in the garden and their new home all while continuing his medical school studies and working at his job. (Ahhh… the days of youthful energy.)

Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate'
Tsuga canadensis 'Cole's Prostrate' is a versatile conifer that can be staked and shaped or simply allowed to crawl and fall over and around rocks or other garden plants.

The pond itself is approximately fifteen feet long by eight or nine feet wide at its widest point and has the typical kidney shape of small garden ponds. To the side of one end, is where the water cycles into the pond and where we will build a new, small waterfall. Surrounding the pond is a nice selection of flat stones. Overall, we’ll be planting in a space of approximately 25′ by 20′ minus the area taken up by the pond.

The water fall with be small, perhaps just two to three feet tall and three to four feet wide at its base. It will be a fairly simple tier of flat stones to drop the water from one to the other providing visual and audio interest. Since it will not be large enough to plant much amongst its rockwork, we’ll plant a nice Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate’ on the back side of the waterfall. Over the next few years, my friend will stake the growth to attain some height and eventually, the weeping branches will spill over much of the outer face of the waterfall rocks, softening their harshness while growing into a soft green mound.

Currently, the pond is partially surrounded by a few ornamental grasses which look very nice in this setting. We’ll plant a few dwarf and miniature conifers to add some color and year-round interest. Along one side of the pond is a rock path to allow close access to the pond so that the fish may be observed. The path leads from a very nice, covered patio complete with a small fireplace. between the pathway and the house, we’ll build a small mounded space, utilizing some rocks that will tie in with the pond, and then we’ll plant with a few more dwarf and miniature conifers.

Here is the list of dwarf and miniature conifers that we have selected to include in this pond project:

Name Growth Zone
Abies balsamea ‘Piccolo’ Dwarf


Abies koreana ‘Cis’ Dwarf


Abies koreana ‘Silberperle’ Miniature


Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Butter Ball’ Dwarf


Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Ellie B.’ Miniature


Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Golden Fern’ Dwarf


Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Just Dandy’ Dwarf


Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Top Point’ dwarf


Cryptomeria japonica ‘Tensan’ Miniature


Juniperus communis ‘Corielagen’ Intermediate


Juniperus horizontalis ‘Golden Carpet’ Intermediate


Picea abies ‘Thumbelina’ Miniature


Picea glauca ‘Humpty Dumpty’ Dwarf


Picea glauca ‘Pixie Dust’ Miniature


Picea orientalis ‘Tom Thumb’ Miniature


Picea pungens ‘St. Mary’s Broom’ Dwarf


Tsuga canadensis ‘Betty Rose’ Miniature


Tsuga canadensis ‘Cole’s Prostrate’ Dwarf


Until next time,

Conifer Lover

Snow in the summer garden?

I know, that last thing many of you want is more snow this year! For those of us in my corner of the Pacific Northwest, with our daily morning drizzle, a little snow would at least be a change of pace. But, that’s not the kind of snow I want to talk about today.

With all the shades of green, blue, and even bright golden-yellow in the conifer garden, I also love the conifers with a more subtle approach to their color scheme. There are two conifers that immediately come to mind that should be useful in just about every region of the country. Some folks will be able to grow both of these plants in their gardens, while others, depending on their location might be better off choosing one over the other.

Cedrus deodara 'Snow Sprite'
Cedrus deodara ‘Snow Sprite’ is a bright spot in the garden all year long.

Cedrus deodara ‘Snow Sprite’ is definitely one of my favorites. This is rated as an intermediate grower by the ACS growth rate standards, but its growth is on the slower end of that scale and in my garden it seems to grow five to six inches per year. I do like to prune my plant to encourage a more fuller, more formal shape, so that can have some influence on its annual growth. What is truly exciting about this conifer is its color. As its name suggests, it is a very light-colored plant with its new growth emerging an almost white, buttery-yellow color. As the foliage matures through the season it does darken a little, but ‘Snow Sprite’ will always be a bright spot in the garden – even in the dead of winter. This Zone 7 tree won’t survive those harsh mid-west winters, but it does quite well along the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards where marine air moderates the winter cold. In the south, cultivars of Cedrus deodara are known to do quite well. I even have a report of ‘Snow Sprite’ surviving happily as far south as Austin, Texas.

Tsuga canadensis 'Summer Snow'
Cool off this summer with a Tsuga canadensis ‘Summer Snow’ planted in the garden.

For folks in those colder winter areas, Tsuga canadensis ‘Summer Snow’ is a fantastic intermediate sized tree that is hardy into Zone 4. Again, it thrives in other moderate areas, but struggles in southern regions. ‘Summer Snow’ flushes its near pure white new foliage every spring which contrasts nicely against the older foliage that has matured to a medium green. Naturally growing into a fairly large tree, it does respond very well to annual shearing which will encourage a fuller form thereby intensifying the effect of its white foliage. Planted against a backdrop of dark green conifers and it will really stand out. Grouping with other colorful conifers and exciting companion plants will give your garden a multi-season appeal with a full pallet of color.

May your garden flourish with all the colors of the rainbow, and may the winter snow truly be many months away!

Conifer Lover

Lovin’ the classics – part II

What is it about classics that make them so appealing? There is something pleasant and enjoyable about watching a really good old black and white film from the late 1930s or ’40s. I get much the same feeling when I have an opportunity to spend some time with my antique car restorer friend. My old heart begins to pound with excitement when I am invited to go for a ride in his 1915 Model T Ford. Of course I can easily become lost in the mesmerizing wave of tones and melodies and rhythms of classic composers like Albinoni, Haydn, Handel or Grieg. Even the older conifers – those that have been available in the trade for a great number of years and are sometimes overused – offer that same kind of nostalgia.

Just because something is old, doesn’t mean that is has lost its appeal or value. One old conifer that withstands the test of time is Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. This is simply one of the most beautiful and versatile conifers available. Its young branches are long and flexible allowing the creative gardener to train it into any shape imaginable. Most often, ‘Pendula’ is found with a nursery stake and the plant trained up to 3-5 feet. Very mature specimens can be seen at some of the older arboretums around the world and they have mounded and layered upon themselves creating large weeping mounds of dark green beauty.

Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'
Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' adds a unique sculptural effect to any garden.

In my garden, I staked mine to just about seven feet tall with a gentle curve to the main stem to give it a little character. Then I’ve pulled a few of the side branches up in a more horizontal position, alternating around the plant, adding more interest. Essentially, I’ve given my relatively young plant a head start on what its natural character will develop in many, many years. You may remember me describing how an old specimen can be trained into a living tree house a couple of years ago. Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ is one classic conifer that will always be a garden winner!

Abies balsamea 'Nana'
Great for containers or the garden, Abies balsamea 'Nana' is an old favorite.

Another great plant that I first became acquainted with back in 1977 is Abies balsamea ‘Nana’. This is a small-needled, dark green, compact mound that is great for the partially shaded space. In spring, its new foliage will push out a very bright green color which contrasts well against its own dark green mature foliage. As the season flows from spring to summer, the new foliage hardens and becomes a glossy dark green. Soft to the touch and the eyes, ‘Nana’ looks great planted near Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’ and the other three classic conifers on my list.

Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold'
The brilliant orange color and soft texture of Thuja occidentalis 'Rheingold' make it a valuable addition to the garden.

Thuja occidentalis ‘Rheingold’ is one of the most amazing conifers in any collection. Its foliage is soft and orange – bright orange! In the spring and summer, as the foliage is flushing fresh, its color is the most intense. With the colder temperatures of winter, the orange darkens to an almost brown color – not a dead-brown, more like a dark orange. When young, it produces soft juvenile foliage. If allowed to grow naturally, it will become a broadly upright tree and the foliage changes to what is called, adult foliage. The color remains, just the overall texture changes. This is one plant that I definitely recommend giving an annual shearing to encourage full compact growth and the production of juvenile foliage. Responding very well to shearing, ‘Rheingold’ could be a great candidate for topiary if one were so inclined. I like to keep mine as a rounded mound.

With the two conifers I described last time, and the three on today’s list, a new conifer garden enthusiast would have a great combination of plants to begin their own collection. All five plants should be readily available at your local independent garden centers and they will all play well with the other plants in your garden. Include a couple Hosta and Lavender plants, a few spring and summer bulbs and a dwarf Japanese maple, and you’ll have a fairly good-sized garden bed that will be the talk of the neighborhood.

Conifer Lover

Setting the record straight

One of my first encounters with a fellow plant enthusiast was a landscaper I worked for as a young lad. The guy was a first generation immigrant from Hungary with an almost non-stop flow of stories as we drove from one location to another. It didn’t take long for me to discover that a few of his stories were – how shall I put it – less than accurate.

During that time I had a fascination with native culinary and medicinal plants. I had done a fair amount of study utilizing the vast array of books available to me at the local library. I certainly recognized that I was no expert on the topic of wild plants and their medicinal and/or toxic properties, but I was fairly well read and had not yet met anyone with even an interest in the subject.

Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose'
Tsuga canadensis 'Betty Rose' a delightful, slow growing, variegated Hemlock

One day as we were working in the back lot of one of the pristine homes overlooking the city, my boss alerted me to a magnificent old specimen of Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. By this time I had begun to learn some of the more common conifers and I was happy to see a wonderful specimen of the Weeping Hemlock that I had only previously viewed in a book. As I excitedly approached this grand old tree, my boss warned me, “Don’t touch that one, its poison!”

“Poison?” I asked, not sure why he would say such a thing.

“That’s Hemlock, it’s poison!” he said with a tone of superiority that he knew something about the plant his young apprentice had not yet learned in his formal schooling.

“Poison Hemlock?” I asked, wondering if he was serious. “You mean like the drink Socrates was given as his death sentence?”

This turned out to be the wrong thing to say and only incited another stern warning to stay away from the tree because I would surely become poisoned and he didn’t have time to take me to the hospital.

Since that time, I have had several other opportunities, under less combative circumstances, to clarify to the less informed that, yes, there is a highly toxic plant called Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and no, it is not in any way related to the genus Tsuga, a non-toxic conifer commonly known as Hemlock.

Tsuga canadensis 'Jervis'
Tsuga canadensis 'Jervis' is an excellent garden sculpture

You may ask why a woody coniferous tree would have the same name as a toxic herbaceous plant. If you have ever worked with Tsuga, you very likely have noticed that it has a very peculiar scent – not at all like Pine or Spruce. Apparently, its aroma is very much like that of the Poison Hemlock (and the Water Hemlock which is also very toxic to animals and humans). So, two completely different types of plants with nearly identical common names create the confusion and equates to one reason why I always prefer to use botanical names when discussing plants.

Interesting to note that there is one plant that looks almost identical to Poison Hemlock and it is actually edible. Queen Anne’s Lace or, the Wild Carrot (Daucus carota), is an herbaceous plant with foliage and flowers that look very similar to Poison Hemlock but without the toxic properties. I am much more concerned about inexperienced wild food enthusiasts encountering Poison Hemlock in their quest for the tasty young root of the Wild Carrot than warning them away from my good friend, the Tsuga.

The moral to my story? Have no fear of enjoying the huge variety of excellent forms of Hemlock (Tsuga) in your garden. This is a genera filled with exciting dwarf, miniature and variegated forms;  from the delightfully variegated, miniature, ‘Betty Rose’ to the tiny, ‘Minuta’ or the dwarf, irregular, sculptural form of ‘Jervis’ to the stately and sprawling ‘Cole’s Prostrate’, I believe that you will find a garden Hemlock that will be a safe and welcome addition to your garden.

Conifer Lover

Mounding and sprawling and looking good

I find weeping conifers to be particularly attractive. Even though they have the broad label of weeping, there can be differences in weeping forms even amongst plants within the same genus and species. For example, a few weeks ago I described some of the attributes of Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’. This is one of the first weeping plants that I remember being introduced to and remains one of my favorites today. However, the Canadian Hemlocks have other notable cultivars that are worthy of discussion. One great selection is Tsuga canadensis ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’

Tsuga canadensis 'Kelsey's Weeping'

When young, ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ and ‘Pendula’ can be difficult to distinguish from one another. As the plants mature, their unique characteristics become more obvious, and with age, both of these Weeping Canadian Hemlocks make desirable contributions to the garden. What makes ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ stand out from ‘Pendula’ is it’s natural form. ‘Pendula’ requires staking when young to achieve any significant height. Without staking, ‘Pendula’ will grow as a very low mounding groundcover. ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ should also be staked when very young, but it will mound upon itself, layer after layer while its branches reach outward in all directions forming a wider than tall mound with great character.

Some may also notice that ‘Pendula’ has darker green needles throughout much of the season, but with the onset of winter its needles will begin to “washout” and take on a yellowish hue. Although ‘Kelsey’s Weeping’ foliage is a lighter green color, it consistently holds its crisp green all year-round.

I love both these Weeping Hemlocks and I believe every garden should have at least one of each!

Conifer Lover

Thanks to Iseli for the photo link to this great 30 year old specimen!