Gardening with Conifers

Winter officially arrived yesterday at 6:03 p.m.  The contrast between December 22, 2013, and today is remarkable.  On this date in 2013, we had a few feet of snow on the ground and 5 – 6′ icicles  hanging from the roof…. and it only got worse for weeks and weeks… ending with ice dams on the roof and a few dead or damaged shrubs. Folks tell me last year was not a normal year. We shouldn’t have a repeat this year.

So far, so good. We’ve had enough snowfall to have the driveway cleared, followed by some warming and freezing this fall. The forecast for Christmas is 50° and rain. That suits me fine, but after that, I’ll begin to miss the white stuff. Even though the natives say last year was a fluke,  I’m not taking any chances after losing some new plants to the weather.

I asked for advice, I studied other gardens, I formed my vision, I made a plan, and I decided to install a mixed conifer border that will provide interest and give us screening for a cozy backyard retreat. I looked for plants that would survive in zone 4. Conifers bring diversity in color, shape, and texture for every season. The greens are welcome in the spring before perennials and leaves of trees emerge. Summer’s colors in the perennial garden look even more dramatic against the evergreen backdrop. Autumn colors abound in trees and shrubs but it’s pleasing to see contrasting green foliage. However, conifers own the winter season. Cold arrives early in the Northeast. Bare branches, brown grass, barren and bleak landscapes need conifers. Add a bit of snow along the green boughs and, voila! Magic!

Plus, I’m all about the birds in our compact habitat. They have taken to these new woodies as I knew they would. On brisk or snowy days, I can see them seeking shelter inside the branches and dining on the berries. Here’s the short list of what I chose:

  • 6′ Ilex x meserveae ‘Blue Maid’: the hardiest of these hybrid blue hollies, fast growing, bright red berries, can reach 10′-12′ but will prune to about 8′. Her ‘Blue Prince’ grows nearby for pollination.
  • 5′ Juniperus chinensis ‘Hetz Columnaris’: sharp needle-like green foliage and full of  bluish-green berries for the birds.
  • Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’: a semi-dwarf falsecypress known for its twisty olive green foliage and dense texture; this 2.5′ species will slowly reach 4′.
  • Ilex glabra ‘Shamrock’: several of these evergreen native hollies are scattered in the border; I will keep these inkberries at about 4′.
  • Buxus sinica ‘Tide Hill‘: I moved my 3 miniature Korean boxwood to this border after the snowplow mounded 5′ of packed snow on them, crushing the centers. They have recouped for two seasons in a temporary nursery until recently. Full size: 15″ high by 3’ wide.
  • Taxus x media ‘Densiformis’: this popular yew is thick and lush and easy to maintain.

Click on photos to enlarge:

Some perennials and ornamental grasses grow in the spaces between the young plants but this landscape will be developed in stages. More decisions will be made after the neighborhood association removes the mature white pines later this winter. I’ll then know how much sunshine my cozy backyard will receive.   

A Hot Spot in the Garden

It’s been just over a year since we experienced a severe heat wave in Tidewater when temperatures topped 106˚ for several days in a row.  I survived only because I could escape to the comfort of the home but the garden suffered greatly. Water wasn’t enough to help in some cases. The worst casualty was a section of a bed of juniper (Juniperus c. ‘Blue Pacific‘) that endured the baking sun from sunrise to sunset.

Since I did not want to subject more junipers to this less than ideal location in the garden, I looked around for something else to fill the hot and dry bare spots. Sedum! Of course! Most sedums love the sun and will tolerate our coastal exposure. There are about 400 different species of sedum out there to choose from but I was attracted to Sedum ‘Gold Mound’ with its bright green needle-like foliage. It’s a low growing spreading sedum that will fill spaces around rocks or garden objects with soft mounds.

Gold Mound grows to about 8-10 inches tall and is relatively pest and disease free. This summer it spread gracefully around rocks, mingled beautifully with tuffs of grasses and has integrated with the surviving juniper creating contrasting shades of green. By the end of the summer, the sedum had snuggled into almost every crevice and was a focal point in this little garden. Garden objects and large rocks brought from other borders around the yard found their way to these bright green mounds, the happiest of whom is Peter who stands tall over the sedum welcoming visitors to the garden.


Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

Eastern Redcedar

Good climbing tree...

I spent my elementary years in Newport News living just off a lane named for the cedar tree. I thought it was an awesome cedar-lined road with trees that seemed tall and majestic to my little self. My bike was parked beneath many of the cedars that had a foothold or low enough limb that I could reach by standing on the seat of my bike. High up in the trees, limbs seemed comfortable, a perfect saddle for a youngster to idle away a summer afternoon watching cars, bikers and walkers pass beneath me, unaware of the small monkey clinging to the rough branches high in the tree enjoying the sights and the the pungent aroma of the needles and cones.

So it’s natural that I would have a fondness for these common native trees in the Virginia landscape. You will see them on the horizon, growing in fields, against fences, on the waterfront, and in the middle of your flower bed. It is a rugged tree and a true survivor. The seeds of the female are spread far and wide by birds. Often it’s the first plant to sprout out of cleared land and one that I must continually weed from my borders. Not really a cedar at all, the Eastern redcedar or red cedar (juniperus virginiana) is a juniper, growing from Maine southward in the east and areas in the midwest. It’s a tree that is regularly cleared from sites as an undesirable.

Eastern Redcedar

Eastern Redcedar

But the tree is very desirable to birds. Walking past one of our tall redcedars during our last big snow two weeks ago, I startled at least 20 little brown birds that had been hunkered down in the shelter of the tight foliage. Not only does the tree provide great protection in wintry weather, the redcedar provides food for birds, squirrels, and other animals. The female produces delightful miniature frosted blue cone clusters on the evergreen branches that are used often in flower arrangements in our garden club.  Cedar closets, cedar drawers, and cedar blocks to repel moths in closets and drawers come from the aromatic red wood of the red cedar. Finally, here’s a little fact about junipers: the word gin is an English shortening of the Dutch word Genever, meaning juniper, the cone of a which is a main flavoring in the drink.

Add in a number of medicinal uses of the redcedar throughout history and this juniper tree has earned its place in the environment. So when mister gardener complains that one majestic redcedar is shading his vegetables too much, I say to him, “Move the garden.” This old tree will be here for hundreds of years!

Too much shade for mister gardener?

It’s been almost a year that I followed a live online chat at the Daily Press with Kathy Van Mullekom, Garden Editor, and Phillip Merritt, landscape architect and native plant expert. Kathy asked her guests to name 5 native plants they would choose to plant in their landscape and she answered first. I was delighted that she picked the Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)as one of her choices as a windbreak and to provide privacy from neighboring yards.  It’s a common native tree dear to my heart. This former tree climber thanks you, Kathy!

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester