Friday, October 11, 2013

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

I am exhilarated to walk through my gardens, but there is a problematic element to them too. Plants have grown to impressive sizes, but that can be their downfall, meaning literally with the chainsaw. Most gardens have received major surgery over the years, with hundreds of trees being edited from my landscapes. In some cases we can dig and make some money from the trees, but other times they are just too big or there is no tractor access. On a future rainy day we will schedule the removal of many old friends, which is sad, but once they're gone I have the opportunity to plant something new. If I wasn't here to manage this process, I despair to think what the gardens would look like, for I've seen abandoned or overgrown gardens far too many times.

Acer palmatum 'Bihou'

Our first and largest Acer palmatum 'Bihou', which is 11 feet tall by 8 feet wide, must go, and it was sold five minutes after going on the sales list. It was guilty of being placed in an inappropriate location, but I'm the one who did the placing. We'll dig it at the end of winter, so we can enjoy one more season of exceptional bark. This 'Bihou' is beginning to turn autumn color which is a vibrant straw yellow, while it was pale green throughout spring and summer.

Ginkgo biloba 'Jade Butterflies'

Ginkgo fruit from a "male" tree

Our first specimen of Ginkgo biloba 'Jade Butterflies' will also be dug and sold. It's humorous that one nursery's description of 'Jade Butterflies' claims that this New Zealand cultivar is a "delightful miniature." Far from it, for our specimen at seventeen years of age is sixteen feet tall. Another nursery claims that the leaves are much larger than on a normal Ginkgo. But this was a customer who typically bought one gallon containers from us that were pushed in a greenhouse with lots of water and fertilizer; so no, and in fact I would say that the leaves are slightly smaller than on a typical Ginkgo. 'Jade Butterflies' is presumed to be a male cultivar, or at least it is advertised as such, but who really knows? Maybe in time it will develop fruit, just as the "male" cultivars 'Autumn Gold' and 'Princeton Sentry' have done. Ginkgoes are trending modern, where anything/everything goes I guess. I love the fact that the absolutes of horticulture can change teams, so to speak, where a male can reveal female characteristics. True, the smell of the female fruit is obnoxious, but if you've ever eaten roasted Ginkgo nuts it seems like a worthy tradeoff. It's common knowledge in China and Japan that ingesting a few nuts will sharpen your mental acumen, but that eating too many will cause you to go crazy. Personally, they don't sharpen me one whit.

Parrotia persica 'Pendula' from England

Parrotia persica 'Pendula' American form

Parrotia persica 'Pendula' American form

I received scions of Parrotia persica 'Pendula' from the Arnold Arboretum in the 1980's, and now I have only one left. It is 14' tall by 16' wide and it threatens surrounding trees and shrubs. I don't have the manpower to keep pruning the massive beast, so one final prune job at its base is the solution. We don't grow this clone anymore, mainly because, as small trees, very little "weeping" is evident. I don't know the source of the Arnold's tree, but I've seen Parrotia persica 'Pendula' in England in various gardens, and it was always a low, neat mound, and not something that I would ever need to remove. My tree can stay through the fall and give me one final bittersweet extravaganza, then the old "Ironwood" will go.

Acer palmatum 'Tsuma gaki'

Acer palmatum 'Tsuma gaki'

Flora Wonder Arboretum

One plant that will not be removed is Acer palmatum 'Tsuma gaki', although it is almost twice the size as when the Flora Wonder theme photo was taken (with the 'Tsuma gaki' on the right side). We still produce 'Tsuma gaki', and what a wonderful cultivar it is. They don't sell like they used to though, and I imagine that is because by mid-summer they can look terrible if not planted in a choice location. Our old tree is a whopping 18' tall by 24' wide, but there must be one (or more) larger elsewhere, but I've never seen one.

Cedrus libani 'Green Prince'

Taxodium distichum 'Peve Minaret'

Taxodium distichum 'Peve Minaret'

Our shrinking road

At the Pond House I have a huge Cedrus libani 'Green Prince' which is planted close to the road. It is also the largest I have ever seen, at 18' tall. We even diverted the road by a couple of feet so trucks could get past. Everyone admires the 'Green Prince', but many are surprised to find out that it is a 'Green Prince' ("I didn't know they could ever get that big," they say). It's nearly forty years old and it continues to grow. Foolishly – across the road – I planted one of the very first Taxodium distichum 'Peve Minarets' in America, or maybe it actually was the first. It exceeded my expectations by far, so now I have these choice two conifers across from each other and the road shrinks with each year. In other words, one has to go, one must be cut down. Which tree, then? Would you like to vote?

Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula'

Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost'

We used to have two "Weeping Alaskan Cedars," Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula' in the Display Garden, but one was removed a couple of years ago, because at thirty years of age it really got enormous. The cedar thug was challenging my original Acer palmatum 'Purple Ghost', so it was a no-brainer to remove it. I read in Horticulture magazine years ago an article by the (then) editor, extolling the virtues of Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula'. The author referred to it as a "nymph," a "charming nymph," or something like that; and that it was a far better garden choice than the ubiquitous and huge-growing cultivars of Picea pungens. Ha! I used to have the same-aged Picea pungens 'Bakeri' and 'Thompsen' in the same garden, and the nootkatensis had out-gained the spruces considerably. Some nymph!

Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata'

I'm considering to remove a large Cryptomeria japonica 'Cristata', as it is a tree we no longer propagate, and it too is in a tight spot. Another problem is that 'Cristata' is a dirty tree; the branches and fasciations are brittle, and therefore dead wood can get caught up in the foliage or litter the ground. I never imagined that it would grow to 50' in just thirty years. 'Cristata' is like a number of other trees mentioned above that would be better suited in a larger arboretum with adequate spacing, not in my little postage-stamp collection, or perhaps in a Japanese garden where they could be meticulously tended.

Abies marocana
Abies kawakamii

Abies cilicica

Abies nebrodensis
Abies homolepis

I must remove my oldest specimen of Abies marocana, and I knew a few years ago that the day would eventually come. Marocana is a handsome fir with a close resemblance to Abies pinsapo, and some dendrologists consider it a subspecies of pinsapo. While they come from different continents, Europe and Africa, geographically they are near to each other. There are quite a number of pinsapo cultivars, but I know of none for marocana. Times have certainly changed since I began my nursery thirty three years ago. At the beginning I produced a large number of species Abies like marocana, homolepis, cilicica, kawakamii, nebrodensis and many others, and various customers would buy a few of each every year. These sales would be to plantsmen, not to good businessmen, for the idea of having an obscure species that was not readily available elsewhere...seemed like good fun. But all of that has dried up in the past decade. We still sell a considerable amount of Abies, but it is restricted to the choice cultivars, especially the dwarfs.

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata'

Picea orientalis 'Lemon Drop'

A magnificent specimen of Picea orientalis 'Aureospicata' will get the axe from the Display Garden, as it is just too close to the path. It is over thirty years old, and beautiful, but at least I have another of the same age close by. Both trees cone heavily, and random seedlings sprout nearby, and some feature the butter-yellow new growth, the same as the parent. One delightful dwarf was hiding under the mother tree, but I had never noticed it, even though I had walked past it a thousand times, for I assumed it was just a low branch of the 'Aureospicata'. Don Howse (from Porterhowse) was visiting a few years ago, and he discovered the little seedling immediately. We have since limbed up the mother tree to give junior more exposure. It appears to be much more dwarf than its parent, but time will tell since we propagate by grafting onto vigorous Picea abies, the "Norway Spruce." By the way, Don, if you're reading this, come by and get a start of your discovery – we have named it 'Lemon Drop'.

Berberis thunbergii 'Helmond Pillar'

I'm growing tired of Berberis thunbergii 'Helmond Pillar'. The cultivar looks great when small, and presents itself as a tight purple-red pillar. The problem is that as it ages, it begins to flop, so it has to be tied up (in Oregon) to remain pillarized. Also it travels, so to speak, for sprouts come up from the roots and you eventually get a colony. When you dig a 'Helmond Pillar', you can't get rid of it because the root suckers spring back up. I imagine the same occurs with the many new golden cultivars. Ten years ago I was given a back-road tour by Nelis Kools of Deurne, The Netherlands. We drove past the little village of Helmond, and I wondered if that had anything to do with the barberry. Nelis replied that that was where it was discovered, I think at a plant research station. Many thousands of 'Helmond Pillar' have been produced, and they're not uncommon at the nefarious box stores, so maybe millions; but the discoverer in Helmond town didn't patent it, so he receives nary a cent.

Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Royal Star'

Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Royal Star'

Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Jane Platt'

Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Jane Platt'

A wonderful sight to behold in spring is the flowering of Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Royal Star' near our office. The white cloud of thousands of blossoms on the thirty eight year old tree lasts for a few weeks before it changes to a boring green tree. A former employee was lobbying to cut down the "Star Magnolia" because it "took up too much room," and besides he "wasn't into flowers" anyway. I held my ground and kept the tree and removed him instead. We don't produce 'Royal Star' anymore because it is easy to propagate and yes, even the box stores offer them now. We do continue to grow Magnolia kobus var. stellata 'Jane Platt' and can still get a good price for them. 'Jane Platt' has a beautiful pink flower, and I wonder why it is so scarce. It originated in the famous Portland garden of Jane Platt, and was introduced and named by Roger Gossler of Gossler Farms in Oregon. Back to 'Royal Star', we'll have to narrow the crown's circumference, which shouldn't bother the tree at all. So it stays.

Athrotaxis cupressoides

Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Glaucum'

I'll discuss one final tree that will also stay, Athrotaxis cupressoides. It does look something like a "Cypress," or Cupressus as the species name implies. This Tasmanian native is commonly called the "Pencil Pine," although it is obviously not a member of the Pinus genus, for it is in the Cupressaceae family. I once read that Athrotaxis is "similar" to Sequoiadendron, so I tested the theory and grafted a few onto the "Giant Redwood" rootstock. The grafts took, but I sold the trees two years later, so I don't know how compatible they really are. Individuals of the species can live to one thousand years old, but mine will never make it to that age because it is being swallowed up by the nearby Sequoiadendron giganteum 'Glaucum', and even though 'Glaucum' is known for its narrow form, the redwood is shrugging off the Athrotaxis as a minor nuisance. So we'll see how it plays out. I think there is misinformation about the winter hardiness of Athrotaxis, suggesting that it is tender, but mine has survived 0 degrees F, and the minor foliage burn as a result of chilling winds recovered by the next year.

I made a number of visits to the J.D. Vertrees (author of Japanese Maples) garden, and even once after he had passed away. His world-class collection of hundreds of maple cultivars was squeezed into an area of less than an acre, which even included a large Acer macrophyllum. The last visit was fifteen years ago and I wonder about the garden's condition. Even when Vertrees was alive, the collection had become a non-collection. While you walked the paths under the trees you couldn't tell what any one cultivar looked like. It was one solid canopy of tops growing into each other. In my opinion, the collection per se should have been abandoned on such a small plot, and 90% of the cultivars removed so the few remaining could prosper. Ah, but which of your children would you eliminate to save the few?


  1. That was excellent - thank you for sharing! I'm going through a year of having to prune some larger specimens and it's a painful decision!

  2. I have just discovered your blog and I am carefully reading every post. Like so many, I have been editing the garden this fall as well. I'm also moving towards more conifers, trying to stick with miniatures and dwarfs as much as possible. I have been growing conifers for years but never to the extent that I'm now planning. Spacing is a huge concern for me but at age 64, I feel that I may be able to place plants a bit closer than if I were 25. My biggest problem is that I am addicted to all sorts of plants and have about 50 magnolias on my two acres... they will eventually create an awful lot of shade I'm afraid, not to mention my European beeches. At any rate,,, I am now a follower and devoted reader as I ingest all the advice and info you provide. Larry

  3. Hello,
    I just discovered your blog and wondered if I could publish some of your photos on my web site. You would receive acknowledgement for each photo that was published.
    You can reach me at
    Congratulations on those great pictures,
    Joshua Siskin

  4. Ogni volta che finisco nel tuo blog mi perdo tra le immagini, soprattutto quelle delle conifere! Bellissime!

    Un saluto e tanti complimenti :)