Losing touch with normality

I had an opportunity to sit down with a long-lost friend at the local coffee shop the other day. Don’t you love it when you haven’t seen an old friend in quite a long time, but when you do finally get together it is as if no time has passed at all. That was how this meeting went.

We talked about all the usual things; family, jobs, religion, politics and gardening. Rest assured, we pretty much solved all of the world problems in just that one visit. Of course my favorite part of the conversation was when we began to talk about gardening – and specifically, conifers!

“Ed,” my friend began in a very serious tone, “I believe I’m beginning to lose touch with normality.”


“Really – and I think I have you to blame for it.” He continued very seriously.

“I don’t understand. I’m a pretty normal guy.” I said with a straight face. “They don’t come much more normal than me.”

“HA! Ed, you are absolutely NUTS about conifers, how can you claim to be normal!” My friend said, now laughing out loud. “And you’re the reason I’m a conifer nut now too!”

Picea abies 'Pendula'
This Picea abies ‘Pendula’ living fence partially encircles a section of the Jean Iseli Memorial Garden at Iseli Nursery. Planted in 1986, it was staked to a height of approximately eight feet and trained horizontally at about four feet.

We laughed over that as my friend and I shared our experiences with growing more and more conifers in our gardens. Conifers, with their grand assortment of colors, from multiple shades of green and blue and yellow (some a mixture of all three), along with their many forms, from giant trees to tiny little buns, weeping and trailing and mounding and layered, we questioned, “What is normal, anyway?”

After that great visit with my old friend, I thought it might be fun to share some of my favorite conifers, that upon first introductions, people might find rather unusual, but have become very normal and important additions to my garden. These are plants that I often suggest to folks when they ask me what they should add to their gardens – even though their initial response is frequently less than immediately embracing.

Picea abies ‘Pendula’ has become very common and should be available at any independent garden center. If this tree were grown without a support, it would sprawl along the ground, mounding and layering upon itself in delicious waves of dark green, coarsely textured foliage. Most often you will find this plant staked to a height of three to five feet. It only takes a couple of years for the staked main stem to harden and support the plant, so a stake will not be needed for its entire life. Once you arrive home with one of your own, you may choose to let it do its own thing and flop over, and begin to weep toward the ground. As an alternative, you could continue to stake the leader up higher and higher to create a tall slender “waterfall” specimen in your garden. Either way, as the foliage grows down to the ground, it will begin to spread as I described above, adding to the waterfall effect.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Verdoni'
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’ can become a wonderful golden sculpture in the garden, complementing other conifers and ornamentals.

Another fantastic cultivar that has become “normal” to me, but might seem unusual to those new to conifers is Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Verdoni’. This excellent dwarf cultivar of Hinoki Cypress is notable for its sturdy golden foliage and its naturally sculptural form. Fairly slow growing at two to three inches per year in my garden; ‘Verdoni’ is great accent to any garden because of its bright golden color. Planted as a single specimen to highlight its sculptural characteristics, in a container alone or as part of a grouping, or in the mixed border, this small conifers will be a gorgeous addition to gardens of all sized and themes.

Let me know if these two selections are common normalities, or unusual oddities, from your perspective.

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

Waves of joy

This current surge of cold weather, and its resulting effect on my aching joints, has reminded me how important thick, dense groundcovers are in the garden. I’m aching just thinking about what a huge chore I would have to face every spring and summer if I didn’t utilize some of the all-natural, year-round, hardy and beautiful ground covering qualities of many exciting conifers. I have enough bare space in my garden that weeds still do manage to pose a challenge to me – but there is less of it every year, due in some part to my groundcovers.

When some folks think, coniferous groundcovers, they may envision low growing carpets of Juniper or Taxus – which are fine examples and can be very effective. Other great plants to cover your ground and ornament your space may include any of a great number of weeping conifers from, Pine and Spruce to Hemlocks and firs.

Pinus densiflora 'Pendula'
Like a waterfall, the foliage of Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’ spills and flows over the ground creating a dense covering to help the fight against weeds.

Some great spreading and ground-covering conifers will, in and of themselves, make fantastic individual specimens, while happily covering bare ground and making less space available for weed seeds to germinate. Others may be much more subtle as they nonchalantly creep and crawl, filling in empty spaces, drape themselves over walls or around rocks, and generally provide a nice low addition of color and texture to the year-round interest of the conifer garden, all while reducing the gardener’s workload.

For example, one great choice is Pinus densiflora ‘Pendula’(Weeping Japanese Red Pine). This delicious bright green pine has long thin needles adorning reddish brown twigs and deeply textured mature bark. If allowed to simply grow naturally, it would build wave upon wave of undulating foliage that mounds and spreads covering as much space as the garden will allow. Most likely found in the independent garden center grafted at a couple feet off the ground or trained on a stake to three or more feet tall, ‘Pendula’ will quickly turn and begin it’s waterfall-like decent to the ground where it will spill and splash and fill in empty space with its lush foliar display. Staked to six or eight feet (or taller) the effect can be absolutely stunning. Keep in mind that the taller the plant is staked, the longer it will take many of the branches to reach the ground and begin to do their job.

Other great choices of ground covering conifers include:
Cedrus deodara ‘Prostrate Beauty’
Cepahalotaxus harringtonia ‘Prostrata’
Juniperus communis ‘Corielagan’
Juniperus conferta ‘Silver Mist’
Juniperus horizontalis ‘Golden Carpet’
Picea abies ‘Pendula’
Picea pungens ‘Procumbens’
Pinus strobus ‘Stony Brook’
Pinus sylvestris ‘Albyn Prostrata’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’

Conifer Lover

Why are conifers so…?

A few weeks ago my wife and I took a little road trip with our very good friends down south to the Oregon Garden just outside downtown Silverton. This is a great garden destination with one of the main attractions being a very nice conifer garden. Near the entrance of the conifer garden are three fantastic specimens of the Weeping Giant Redwood (I featured a photo of these beauties last December).

Our friends stopped before we reached the entry path and just stared at those magnificent trees.

“They look like Dr. Seuss trees!”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I said with a smile.

“Why are conifers so…? I’m trying not to be insulting… weird?” I was asked.

“Because weird is COOL!” I replied laughing.

I love that a great many conifers are quite unusual. Especially when you begin to delve into the world of the true Conehead – where weird is wonderful!

That outing caused me to give some real thought to what it is about so many of the unusual conifers in my own garden that I find so desirable. Some of my very favorites are weeping or pendulous in habit or form. Here’s how I think about it, if a conifer grows generally upright but its branches or branchlets droop and weep then that is its habit. If the whole plant has little to no inclination to support itself, and left uncultured, its form would be pendulous or weeping (or perhaps prostrate).

Enough of all that, let’s get to the coolness – some of the specific cultivars that have a tremendous amount of appeal and interest because of their unusual characteristics.

Picea pungens 'Pendula'
Picea pungens ‘Pendula’ with its blue foliage and free-style growth habit adds a living, ever-changing, modern scultpure to your garden.

One of my all-time favorites is Picea pungens ‘Pendula’. This weeping form of the Colorado Blue Spruce provides the garden with not only fantastic light blue color, but its form will change and morph over the years as its branches grow and sprawl and turn this way and that. It’s very much like a living modern sculpture that changes with the seasons and years. Generally the growers will provide support for this great tree when young. You will most likely find the tree staked from three to five feet tall. At that point, you might desire to continue to encourage height by placing a taller stake in the ground after planting. You’ll need a sturdy tying tape available at your local garden center to continue training your tree up. Alternatively, you may choose to simply allow the tree to find its own form as it grows and flops and flows.

Another fantastic selection is Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’. This Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar may be grown in just about any shape imaginable. I’ve seen it trained high over pathways in an arch to create a living, draping arbor. Several planted in a row make a magnificent living fence. Years ago, my friends at Iseli trained a Weeping Atlas up the trunk of a larger Blue Atlas Cedar. They encouraged it to grow up and out along the more sturdy and upward growing branches of that tree creating quite an interesting sight as the weeping habit of one fell like streams of water from the larger upright form of the other.

Of course I can’t leave Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ (Weeping White Spruce) off this list. This fantastic, low maintenance conifer will fit in most any garden. It is super hardy to Zone 2, has a form that is straight as an arrow and all of its side branches turn and grow straight toward the ground. A beautiful tree with a very narrow footprint, you might expect a tree twenty years old to be 15 to 20 feet tall with a width of three to four feet near its base. If allowed, the branches that reach the ground will then spread and slowly make a layered ground cover.

There are so many others, I could very likely write a book about them! For now, I’ll just list a few more that I think you should consider adding to your garden.

Abies alba ‘Green Spiral’
Cedrus deodara ‘Raywood’s Prostrate Dwarf’
Chamaecyparis nootkatensis ‘Jubilee’
Larix decidua ‘Pendula’
Picea abies ‘Frohburg’
Picea omorika ‘Pendula Bruns’
Pinus strobus ‘Angel Falls’
Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’
Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula’
Tsuga heterophylla ‘Thorsen’s Weeping’

Conifer Lover

And the winner is….

Are you a member of the American Conifer Society? I can think of two reasons that you need to join right now. Last autumn, the ACS announced its two Collector Conifers of the Year for 2009. These two specimens are definitely conifers that you want in your own garden. They are both available to members through the ACS (SOLD OUT). You may be able find these two amazing cultivars in your fine local garden centers or from online vendors – but they are still quite rare.
Pinus heldrichi Smidtii
Pinus heldrichi 'Smidtii'

The dwarf selection is Pinus heldreichii ‘Smidtii’, a very slow grower that could attain a height of about 12 inches in ten years. This little fella is perfect in the rock garden or in containers. If acquired when quite small, it could live in a container garden for many years. In the rock garden, it is unlikely to ever outgrow its space. I love its rich dark green foliage and neat, compact habit. Mine is tiny compared to the one pictured here which is close to ten years old and nearly 10 inches high and 12 inches across.

Pinus strobus Niagara Falls
Pinus strobus 'Niagara Falls'

The second CCOY for 2009 is a weeping form of the Eastern White Pine. Pinus strobus ‘Niagara Falls’ began as a mutation on Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’. ‘Niagara Falls’ is a slower growing form with dense foliage that cascades as the tree will mound and sprawl looking quite like the famous falls on the border of New York and Ontario. As much as I have always loved ‘Pendula,’ this new form is a premium selection that should tend to be scaled more for today’s smaller gardens. Great weeping form and compact size.

These two selections are very likely going to be difficult to find for the next few years, so if these things have gotten you excited, why not become an ACS member and get your order in on these beauties before they are all gone? (Ok, it’s too late to get them from the ACS – but membership still has benefits like a great quarterly bulletin and an opportunity to get your hands on the 2010 Collector’s Conifers of the Year next spring.)

Conifer Lover