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Aversion to conifers fades away

Garden Muse

I've never been a big fan of conifers - and that disdain ate away at me. How could I not love a whole group of plants?

But somehow the abundance of dark needle evergreens, in a climate already so gray in winter, didn't work for me. Many front yards seemed weighed down by big spruces and cedars, planted years ago to help screen the road. To me, they loomed, casting gloom on the landscape.

I felt so guilty about my conifer aversion that a few years ago I even joined the American Conifer Society (www.conifersociety.org) to try to get over it. But when I read the articles in the Conifer Quarterly my eyes glazed over. It was hopeless.

Then I discovered Japanese incense cedars, or Cryptomerias, and fell in love with one after another. Their diverse foliage colors and textural details won me over. I began to buy small specimens - 'Sekkan Sugi' with gleaming golden needles, dark and handsome 'Black Dragon,' and 'Spiralis' with needles that twist and curl. A friend moving to California gave me her large pot of Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans,' which turns toasty brown in winter, then back to blue-green in spring. And so my collection grows.

Then on a visit to Garden World (www.gardenworldonline.com), I came across 'Gold Ghost' pine and found it impossible to leave without buying one, even though I had no place for it in my garden. I'll grow it in a big pot, I told myself - the mantra that always convinces me to just go ahead and buy the plant. Glorious 'Golden Ghost' grows right below my office window so I can see it every day, no matter how fierce the weather. Its green needles sparkle, as they're striped with creamy yellow, an especially cheering sight on overcast days.

No more guilty feelings

Like anything else you begin to notice - a new word, a song, the color orange - it pops up everywhere. So on a visit to Cassandra and Bryan Barrett's garden in Dexter, Oregon, I saw how selections of blue spruce and golden cypress form the backbone of their garden year round.

Skillfully placed amid deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials, these beautiful conifers sold me, completely. At last, the guilt is gone!

A few stood out as especially gorgeous. Several blue spruces (Picea pungens) went on my wish list, especially 'Montgomery' and 'Globosa.' Each was a soothing shade of blue-gray, with a compact globe shape. Even more breathtaking was the 'Silberlocke' Korean fir (Abies) with blue needles that recurve to show silver undersides. The texture is heavenly - it's hard to stop staring at it in worshipful admiration.

The 'Golden Fern' Hinoki cypress is one of the theme plants Cassandra repeats in her mixed borders. The loose branches make it look lacy and delicate, even though it's a perfectly hardy tree.

And although it's not a conifer, 'James Stirling,' a whipcord hebe, mimics the same texture with needle-like evergreen foliage that's somewhere between gold and olive. Striking at the front of a border, it's also tough, surviving last winter with no damage.

Plenty to choose from

To learn more about conifers, I recently visited a specialty wholesale nursery. Talk about opening Pandora's box. Now my wish list is way too long, and I'll have to buy more big pots too! I was completely smitten by 'Joseph Rock' pine, which turns brilliant yellow in winter. On a wet and gray blustery day, it was shining like the sun. Underplanted with a prostrate blue spruce (Picea pungens 'Procumbens'), it was riveting.

A quick Internet search revealed that it's available in at least two retail nurseries, but is quite costly at this time. Of course the holidays are coming, hint, hint …

My fairly new interest in conifers reminds me how infinite the garden world is. We will never be bored with the same old plants, as there's such a wide spectrum to consider. At the conifer nursery, I also noticed how well they combine with sedums, the textures playing off each other. They're easy to grow in containers, which give them the good drainage they need, so even if you're gardening on a patio, or downsizing your garden, you can explore this vast group of plants.

My next step is to visit The Oregon Garden www.oregongarden.org for a closer look at their conifer collection, which is in the process of expansion. Winter hours are 10 to 4 p.m. daily, and there's even a nursery next to the visitor center. I've got my little list.

You can reach Barbara at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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