A Conifer Collection
A look at some new additions in Paul James' garden.
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Master gardener Paul James decides to add some plants to his landscape from his favorite plant group, the conifers. First up is a Cryptomeria, a fast-growing beauty from Asia that is grown for timber in Japan. "This is my third attempt at growing Cryptomeria, which is a roundabout way of admitting that the first two attempts were unsuccessful," he says. "The problem is that although it's perfectly hardy in Zone 6 or 7 gardens, it doesn't adapt well to high heat or humidity. I'm hoping that the third time is the charm, and to improve its odds of survival, I'm going to bend one of my cardinal rules of planting trees."
That is, he improves the soil in the planting hole with a rich blend of peat moss, pine bark and sand. "Remember, if you remove all the native soil from a planting hole and replace it with nothing but improved soil, potting mix or rich compost, then it's entirely possible that the tree's roots are going to remain in that area of improved soil for years instead of reaching out into the surrounding soil. As a result, the tree's roots may not anchor the tree properly and chances are the tree won't grow well. But this tree requires rich fertile soil, so I'm going to compromise by mixing half the native soil with an equal amount of planting mix. I've also planted the tree in a spot that receives a few hours of morning sun followed by mostly afternoon shade. That should help it get through the hot summer months without any burn or worse."
Another conifer James selects for his yard is a stunning pair of weeping conifers known as Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Glauca Pendula', or, if you prefer, the more popular but inaccurate common name, Alaskan cedars. "I already have three of these gorgeous trees in my landscape and I figure two more couldn't hurt. Besides, I love their look."
In their native Pacific Northwest home, these trees can easily grow to 100 feet tall, but in James' neck of the woods, they rarely reach that height and that's over a period of 50 to 60 years. "I'm planting them here in what was once my veggie garden, and I won't have to amend the soil because it's nearly perfect." The soil is a slightly acidic sandy loam that drains well, and the area offers protection from drying winds, both of which these evergreens need, especially during the winter. These twin trees will serve as the skeletal frame or backbone of what will ultimately be a cool collection of conifers.
The next conifer, an upright spruce, is also going in the old veggie garden. Unfortunately, this tree was not labeled properly at the nursery. "The tag read Siberian spruce, but according to all the references I've checked, there is no such thing," James says. "But there is a Serbian spruce and the needles of this tree do indeed match the description for that particular Picea. This tree, which can grow to 90 feet tall, ages far more gracefully than the more familiar Norway spruce. It grows fairly quickly when young but slows down considerably in a few years. "You may be wondering why I'm planting what are potentially some very large trees in what is clearly a very small space. I can enjoy these slow-growing specimens for a good 10, 12, maybe even 15 years before they outgrow the space."
And when they do outgrow the space, James has a number of options. He can prune them to keep their growth in check, dig them up and move them--along with a little help from his friends--or cut them down.
The next evergreen James plants is a San Jose juniper, one that has been pruned to look rather spider-esque. "Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of carefully pruned plants, but I like this one. And I needed something low to complement the more upright spruce and weeping Chamaecyparis." James places the tree in a spot where it will gently drape over the stone border, and with that done, he prunes it just a bit, which is something he'll have to do routinely throughout the growing season.
Another perfectly pruned plant, a beautiful blue Chamaecyparis known as 'Boulevard'. "I like it because it doesn't have that pronounced poodle or pom-pom cut. I also like how the pruner decided to subtly show the interior branching of the tree." Because it's such a nice specimen, James plants it near the entrance of the garden. "After all, I think it deserves a prominent location so that anyone who walks by can't help but notice it."
After having given all these new plants a thorough soaking, James plants something in pots--unusual terra-cotta planters. The fluted containers are hollow and, at the top, they have a little cone-shaped planter.
"Of course it's hard to imagine a plant of any size actually growing in one of these planters, but I figure something small might look kind of cool." That something is an Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', or black mondo grass, that will contrast nicely with the terra cotta.
"Now even these rugged plants won't last long in such small containers, but I can certainly enjoy them for several weeks or months."
According to James, every time he goes shopping for plants, the folks at the nursery always ask when he's going to run out of room. "Although it's true that I've added a number of plants to my landscape--well over 2,000 of them--there's always room for more. And who knows, maybe I'll move and start all over again."
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