How to make the most of these popular plants—and avoid the pitfalls
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAUREN SPRINGER
WHEN IT COMES TO SMALL-SIZE CONIFERS, there is no neutrality—it’s all or nothing, love or hate. “Abominations. Grumpy and Sneezy in the garden,” sniffs my friend, director of a fine public garden. Yet the popularity of small conifers is surging. Their varied forms, colors, and textures, evergreen foliage, and useful scale have caught many a gardener’s imagination. With the help of several specialty wholesale growers, particularly Iseli Nursery, a 25-year-old company based in Boring, Oregon, many once-rare small conifers are now available locally, in relatively large sizes grown in containers. No longer do you have to go to the ends of the earth to find a one-year-old graft that, at best, looks for all the world like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, and that will reach some semblance of maturity around the time the gardener is lying beneath the conifers of the cemetery.
WHAT IS—AND ISN’T—A DWARF CONIFER
Compact conifers vary widely, both in their ultimate size and in how long it takes them to get there. A plant loosely referred to as a dwarf conifer may eventually reach 10 or more feet in height and girth, while another may stay under a foot for decades. Specialists, however, use a more precise descriptive vocabulary. They refer to miniatures as being two feet or under in height or girth, and growing less than three inches per year. These are best in the smallest gardens, model train gardens, or troughs; even then their scale may make some people feel like Dorothy among the Munchkins. True dwarf conifers range from two to six feet at maturity, putting on three to six inches annually. This is the most versatile group for the small, nonspecialist garden. Intermediate conifers reach 6 to 15 feet, and grow 6 to 12 inches in a year, making them ideal for the larger garden.
So why is such a popular and lovely group of plants so reviled? It’s all in the way they’re planted. Enthusiasts often create vast mulch-covered conifer monocultures where no specimen may touch a neighbor and the only companion allowed is a lonely label. This way, it is argued, the plants can grow to their ultimate perfect form and size. Such a garden looks like a photosynthesizing chessboard; the conifers’ year-round appeal is rendered lifeless and monotonous. Other gardeners throw in “appropriate” groundcovers for good measure. A number of gardens in England and the Pacific Northwest come to mind, where conifers of every shape and color imaginable are planted in undulating, amoebic island beds set against screaming green lawns, with an underplanting of heaths and heathers of equally lurid foliage colors—a Martian landscape, to my eyes.
MATCHING CONIFERS TO YOUR REGION
Each region of the country also has a unique dynamic with certain colors and species. With its imposing native coniferous forests and soft light, the Pacific Northwest can host more conifers per garden and more of the gold and variegated forms than other regions. In the Midwest and East, plant choices are similar, but if the garden includes the same number of conifers that is effective in a Pacific Northwest garden, the result looks heavy, unnatural, funereal, almost waxen in these more deciduous regions. Too much gold looks brassy, especially down South and in sunny climates. In the tree-sparse Great Plains, Rockies, and interior West, conifers look best when they most closely resemble what’s found in the wild. The dark greens, gray greens, silvers, and blues of various spruces, firs, pines, and junipers fit right in, and these plants have the toughness to handle the region’s dry air, heavy soils, and intense temperature swings.
The Wild Garden at Wave Hill in the Bronx is an example of superb integration of dwarf and intermediate-size conifers into a matrix of other plants. On this hillside overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades over in New Jersey, several dozen specimens mingle with informal plant layers, from a backdrop of tall deciduous trees, to smaller flowering trees and deciduous shrubs, down to a great many perennials, bulbs, and self-sowing ephemerals. Dark yews set off the pale, fragrant yellow trumpets of daylilies; the soft blue needles of a dwarf limber pine (Pinus flexilis ‘Compacta’) host the delicate ice-blue bells of Clematis viticella ‘Betty Corning’. The conifers serve as strong visual structure amid the plant melee, supporting the floriferous bounty during the growing season, and becoming stars in their own right during the winter.
At the Denver Botanic Gardens, the Rock Alpine Garden displays slow-growing conifers in the best alpine tradition, alongside well-placed rocks, stone ledges, and boulders. Dwarf and intermediate conifers serve the larger scale of this one-acre garden. Weeping forms cascade down several tiers of stone, giving verticality to an otherwise low garden site. Flat-topped specimens mimic the wind-sheared, gnarled conifers found at the treeline. Small plants, both rare and common, are tucked right up to the base of the conifers, creating vignettes not usually seen in the stiff compositions often found in rock gardens. The thousands of herbaceous plants come and go with the changing seasons and the challenging climate; the conifers and rocks are the solid structural and visual foundation on which the garden is built.
When approaching Roxie and Armen Gevjan’s suburban garden outside Philadelphia, Roxie’s passion is visible immediately from the road. Their house is not; it is tucked behind myriad conifers. This garden is much more than a connoisseur’s collection. Roxie pays close attention to how the conifers combine with each other and their surroundings, keeping the most bizarre colors and forms to a minimum. She also lets the conifers grow into one another. She has had to prune, move, and even remove those that finally get too much into each other’s or the house’s way. Yet in allowing the plants to form an undulating, interlocking, three-dimensional puzzle, she has created an atmosphere of surprising grace. Conifers drape into the paths, brushing the visitor; they hide views momentarily, creating mystery. They reach up toward the canopy of the native background woods, curl around the house foundation, drape over the doorway. They aren’t a set of Hummel figurines with needles, all lined out to be admired; rather they blend together into an experience of total immersion, a magical world at the end of an unremarkable cul-de-sac.
Bob Frasier’s garden near Santa Fe is also the work of an obsessive yet artistic collector. Not only does Bob grow conifers of all sizes, he is also an avid rock gardener as well as a devoted daffodil and daylily man. All these plants blend seamlessly into a series of informal garden rooms, enhanced by rockwork, old fruit trees, sculpture, and adobe walls. Especially distinctive is the way Bob uses conifers around the foundation of his century-old adobe home. Around the country, the ubiquitous “parsley around the turkey” syndrome of most foundation plantings—sheared yew, rhododendron, and Pfitzer juniper—may now include dwarf conifers, typically globose arborvitae, conical spruce, and pencil-point juniper. Unfortunately, the visual result is almost the same. Not so at Bob’s. He has chosen some of the most architecturally fascinating conifers—weepers, twisted growers, asymmetrical bonsai-like specimens he hunts for and handpicks on nursery trips around the country—to be displayed against the soft, ruddy, rounded walls of the house. Interplanted informally are smaller conifers. Like Roxie, Bob chooses the less lurid colors. With the perfect backdrop of soft brown adobe and the Jemez mountains rising up lavender blue in the distance, Bob’s conifers shine as living works of art.
My love of dwarf conifers stems from childhood summers scrambling among krumholz mugo pines in the Austrian Alps. My present garden is a lawnless echo of the surrounding Colorado foothills. Beyond its boundaries, native junipers spangle the gulches; a ponderosa pine rises here and there. Across the canyon and up Horsetooth Mountain, the dark pine, fir, and spruce forest typical of our region’s high country begins its ascent in earnest. In my courtyard, a meadowlike planting is interspersed with small upright pines and junipers. On the steep hillside along the house, prostrate spruces and pines spill down the slope; low junipers mesh with evergreen perennials, grasses, and thousands of dwarf bulbs. Rounded and flat-topped pines and spruces settle at the base in informal groupings. On the hot, dry south side, amid cacti, agaves, penstemons, and manzanitas, western natives Juniperus deppeana, J. monosperma, J. scopulorum, hardy Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica), and bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata) will remain dwarf for a good century or two, given the short season, thin soil, fierce winds, and lack of water. When choosing a conifer, I start with what will survive, then look at the form, color, and texture and make sure it blends with the beautiful but exacting garden of Eden that surrounds me. When my friend finally came to visit a couple of summers ago, he found no Grumpy or Sneezy here, only beautiful conifers. H
For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 79.