Masterpiece Landscaping Blog

September 29, 2011

The Trouble with Trees

Filed under: shrubs and trees,The Art of Landscaping — glenn @ 11:40 pm

What is a ‘tree’ to the general Minnesota  public?   

Most people would not think of defining it, answering something like “a woody perennial plant usually of fewer than five upright stems”. 

If asked, most people will answer, “an elm”…..or “a maple” or ‘oak’…..not thinking that a White Pine and Colorado Spruce are also trees.    So is a redbud and a pagoda dogwood, and even a winged euonymus, which is usually sold as a shrub at your local nursery.

The golden chamaecyparis, now becoming popular at the local Twin Cities nurseries are sold as shrubs, but in reality are trees.   The same is true of  global techny arborvitaes.   If you don’t believe me, never prune these ‘shrubs’ and discover their natural size  for yourself.

Most Oaks, Maples, even Ash and  the  Elm are huge trees in our state but become punier as  reliable annual rainfall declines.

Among the most common mistakes made when Minnesotans landscape their home grounds is the choice of tree  they select…..and forgetting that they might not need a huge shade tree to tower 50 feet or more  above any house in view.

Most trees on home properties  in the Twin Cities are weed trees, Siberian elms, mulberries, buckthorn, silver maple, green ash, box elders, even American elms.  

“I want color”, the homeowner demands.    Maples come to mind.   “I want a fast growing tree” and silver maple comes to mind, one of the most undesireable trees for any city  home lot and most lots beyond.  

The green ash is everywhere.   It is also fast growing and very weedy…..and cheap, very cheap from mass production thirty and forty years ago when folks hunted around for replacements for the American Elm.

Anything evergreen in trees is almost always called “pine” by our fellow northland natives.    Whether spruce, hemlock, arborvitae, fir or pine, they are called pine.   As mentioned earlier they are often not thought of as a ‘tree’, only as a pine or evergreen.

There is absolutely no difference between a White Oak, Sugar Maple, and a White or Scotch Pine in their natural growing habit.    If their lower branches are not removed, or die out due to lack of light, or are eaten,  they all   become shade trees…..big shade trees, at that……100 feet high shade trees whether your city neighbor wants shade or not.

Folks generally don’t like to cut down trees on their own premises.  It’s an emotional thing.   Some of the Colorado spruce around the Twin Cities are 80% dead and show every per cent of the  ugly deadness…..yet, no one cuts them out to make their home grounds more beautiful.

Most homeowners for that matter take their home grounds as it is without much thought of beauty.

I am not a fan of crab apples.    Unless our clients demand “crabs”  we prefer the redbud and the pagoda dogwood among the smaller class of trees usually sold as ornamentals.   

A far more beautiful tree than any crab apple, in my view, of course, is a new one for our horticultural zone market and not yet readily available……the Paperbark Maple, Acer griseum. 

No, it does not possess colorful flowers.  

It is a neat, very precisely shaped tree in  form and leaf, midsized, with the most beautiful colored bark to see back lit in sun.    Place it on the South aspect and be captivated by its radiant rich reddish to caramel brown peeling trunk all day long when sunlit.  You won’t get much work done, but you sure will be inspired by the scene.

Its fall color  depends upon the length of autumn before snowfall.   In its native states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the tree displays as beautiful a fall color of foliage of any tree.

Think carefully before buying any tree to be planted  on your home grounds.   Consider its mature size and its expected size in ten years.   If you live in one of those suburbs where all of the grounds’ top soil was removed, you might be lucky to grow a Box Elder.    There is always the Siberian Elm…..which would probably grow well in Hades.   You won’t be able to buy it at your local nursery.   So, snooker up to  a friend living in Minneapolis or in one of its inner suburbs and collect a few of the millions of seeds or simply transplant one of the Siberian Elm already a weed.    You won’t mind the tree  if you believe that halitosis is better than no breath at all.

Consider how much of your homegrounds  you want covered with shade.    Lawns grow poorly in shade……think weeds, because they will.   Fewer shrubs and perennials grow well in deep shade.    Worst of all if your grounds are covered with shade, you cannot see the beauty displayed by  the sunlit shadows, character  and colors of  components which make  the landscape a gardened one.

Plant your trees and shrubs according to  the path of sunlight across your homegrounds.    Remember that the sun without clouds is nature’s spotlight constantly moving across the stage.   While the deep shade of the garden may be cooler in summer by twenty degrees, its shade if everywhere will deny the drama of  what is specially lit for a few minutes and then slips out of the picture into shade.

The landscape garden’s best friend is the sun.   Its  second is shade, and third is water.

Beware of planting the big trees.    The trouble with these trees is their shade, despite its pleasure….and their roots.    Too many big trees on the homegrounds  is what makes hostas  so popular.

September 9, 2011

A Listing of Ten Terrific Conifers for the Twin City Landscape Garden

Filed under: shrubs and trees — glenn @ 12:22 am

The most important woody plants for any Minnesota  landscape garden are  the  conifer evergreens. 

If you were to ask most Minnesotans, the garden aware or not, what the longest landscape season in  Minnesota might be, they would be confused, hesitant, unsure how to answer, rather than think first and reveal the answer everyone knows….WINTER!

In fact our Minnesota winter is equal to all of its  other landscape seasons, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, combined.    Here in the Twin Cities it used to last from November 1st to May 1st  on the average for the first 30 years of my life…..gradually warming to a more tolerable November 15 to April 15 with an  earlier Spring to show up every once in awhile as in the Spring of 2010.

Last November it was the 13th of the month when Winter exploded all in one Saturday and Winter never relented for the rest of the season.    Dare we remember?

So, figure it out.   If  Winter lasts here as a landscape season as long as the other seasons combined, it doesn’t take much thinking to conclude what I concluded still playing “landscaping” in my sandbox nearly 70 years ago.   A Minnesota winter is very harsh and bleak without them.

So, the most important plants in the Minnesota landscape are evergreen conifers.   They stand as the core to any and all landscape gardens in our Northland.  Their form and colors dominate from  the first of November till about the 15th of May when the big sized deciduous trees begin to color up the neighborhoods with their cover of green lace which lasts only about a week.   Usually, by May 20,  the tree and shrub line of our landscapes is overwhelmed with green……masses of green……chlorophyll doing its thing most efficiently, with the conifers no longer dominant, but blending into the mass often even in form.

A landscape garden rich in conifer evergreens well placed,  is a noticeably  attractive  landscape garden twelve months of every years…….and is most beautiful when the artist’s eye makes the effort to set the scene beautifully rather than planting them all in lines.

Over the past twenty years no grouping of plants can match the number of truly useful, hardy,   and beautiful  plants introduced to  our northern world than the evergreen conifers.

They grow from ground creepers, such as Motherlode or Icee Blue Junipers  to the behemoths, the Eastern White Pine and Norway Spruce….100 or more feet tall…….and so much beautiful stuff in between.

I have  been asked to list some of my favorite evergreen conifers for our Minnesota landscape gardens……I shall limit myself to ten.

However, before I begin the top ten of my today’s ranking (tomorrow I might be in a different mood),  I have to remind you, dear reader, as a genus, Thuja, the Arborvitaes are by far the most needed, versatile, easiest to grow, with the widest range of variety for most of Minnesota where there is ample winter cover and growing season moisture.  

1…Of the major sized trees of any kind, deciduous or conifer, my favorite shade tree  is the Eastern White Pine.

The Minnesota nursery industry is cruel and always has been cruel to this magnificent piece of all year beauty.    For these misfits  tend to prune all young conifers to look like Christmas trees.

The most beautiful trees in Minnesota are the Eastern White Pine.    Take a trip to Hackensack, Bemidji, or the Lake Itasca region, or look in some of the older communities of the Twin Cities if you have any doubts.

And they are shade trees ever bit as much as the Sugar Maple or Green Ash.    And they drop no acorns on your bean as do the bur oaks and the white pine’s major competitor for beauty, the mature White Oak.

Spruce are not shade trees.   Tree forms are conical by nature.  It’s their habit.   They can’t help it.   As beautiful as the Blue Colorado Spruce used to be, it is no more as a mature specimen.   Too many diseases and too much shade have come to destroy its magnificence.  

2…However, my garden has to have a Hillside Spruce somewhere in its character….so I have three… about a foot tall, on its way to 25 feet, another six feet on its way to 25 feet, and another nearly ten feet tall of the same statistics, except that on my grounds with my great soil, all will probably reach 35 feet or more.  It is a Norway Spruce cultivar which looks like candelabrum when young…..very stiffly branched…..very proud of itself….and very green, dark green.

There are many, many dwarf and dwarfish Norway Spruce now available for planting in our Minnesota landscape gardens….But one has to shop around  for some of the best of them.

3.   I admit that I am stuck on the DeGroot’s Arborvitae.   The most beautiful I have ever seen are growing on  a property on Riviera Road north of St. Cloud,  in sand with an automatic watering system…and regularly fertilized.   The last time I saw them, perhaps five years ago, they had reached 20 feet in height, and narrow as a needle with dense foliage.   

DeGroots is a semi-dwarf pyramidal arborvitae.   It is a beautiful specimen as a needle upright and as a needle upright enframes anything and everything as you  approach  it. 

4.   Another arborvitae….this time a shrub….Rheingold Arborvitae, and it must be grown in full sun from dawn to three o’clock anyway to bring out its burnt orange tints……the only conifer shrub of such talents.   I think I have six or seven of these to show off, but only two are in full morning sun, yet I like them all.

Despite all of the complaints about junipers being prickly, this genus, Juniperus, is almost as rich in its offerings as Thuja.  The Eastern Red Cedar can become a spectacular tree of greatest character, but I am no going to include it among my favorites here.   Instead I am going to select a ground creeper:   5…Icee Blue Juniper…….a shiny bluish beauty which glows in full sun.   It rises only a few inches above the ground and can creep for many feet.  It is expecially impressive creeping over retaining walls.

6….Hetz Juniper….an upright usually pruned to look pyramidal, but more naturally grows broader.  It has darker green, prickly foliage, but it carries two beautiful colors of fruit…juniper ‘berries’, as they say.    One set, the present year’s set of ‘berries’ is light blue which usually adds to countless sets of  purplish blue ‘berries’ from last year’s production.   Now, imagine healthy dark green foliage with bright lighter green young shoots cluttered with both light blue and purplish blue produce of ‘berries’ all at the same time….now, that is a beautifully colored  plant.

It can get very tall.

7.  Sunkist (or Yellow Ribbon) Arborvitae is an absolute must for any Minnesota home grounds with good soil, ample moisture, and a space in full sun….at least for 7 hours of the day….eastern exposure.   My gardens always include this beauty some way or another worked into a spot along with DeGroot’s arborvitae.  

Don’t believe the labels regarding this beauty’s height (eight feet)…..I have three Sunkists all of which are surpassing  20 feet.   I don’t mind.   I’d give them their space no matter what.

8.  Swiss Stone Pine……Neat, precise, confident and superior in attitude, as if it is too beautiful to ever be found in  just any old garden……for it’s immediate presence impacts the scene.   This is a must for any smaller space for it is a slow grower and does not reach out in all directions as it ages as does the much larger Eastern White Pine.

9,  Gentsch Hemlock…, is this beautiful….ever so graceful with its younger branchings.  which tend to be whitish as they ‘pop’ out in late spring and in shade, likely to be showing off all summer.

There are many cultivars of Hemlock (Tsuga), many I have not mentioned of the arborvitaes and junipers all of which could be listed among the best 50 conifers, or 100 conifers to select for use from ground covers to major trees.   Very old Scots Pines are unforgettable in their beauty, almost always for  unique and unpredictable reasons but almost always showing off their striking bright orange bark.     Some of the best dwarf pines are Scots Pines….a very good one being, Pinus sylvestris ‘pumila’.   

10….Chamaecyparis pisifera   aurea  filifera…..In late spring  of 1974 our good friend and devoted gardener Allie Simonds gave my wife and me  two of these Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea  as house warming plants.   I had heard of a Boulevard Chamaecyparis before.   I knew the Boulevard  Chamaecyparis was hardy, because  a Mr. Maynard was growing a beauty in the front grounds of his home in DULUTH, and the home was not along Lake Superior’s  Park Point……(the warmest horicultural zone in the state of Minnesota, by the way….a legitimate zone 5 even forty years ago).

In 1974 the two  gifts were a bit larger than my two fists, that is, a gift per fist.

I was nervous for I felt  the pressure was on me to make the gifts happy.   Were they hardy?    Allie had bought them from White Flower Farms in Connecticut.   There was no internet to zoom to for a Connecticut view of the matter….for it did say zone 5 on a tiny label… I thought it needed protection.  

How does one protect an evergreen so small?   I decided to place them both lined up along my walkway to the back garden where I would have to see their progress every day of their lives, which to tell you the  truth, I suspected would be short.

How did I know in 1974 our horticultural zone in the Twin Cities would leave zone 4 and close in on zone 5?   I was all for it and am even more so today.   Why should anyone prefer killing weather for six months of the year when it can happen for only 4 or so?

I thought these  newbies were going to be shrubby as the picture on the tiny label suggested….with a bit of an upright look to them.   Eventually by the 1990s Sungold and later King’s Gold Chamaecyparis showed up on the local market….as shrubs.

They are still sold as shrubs….but these pisifera chamaecyparis are really trees masquerading as shrubs….sold a shrubs because nurserymen can sell 20 shrubs to every tree of a species.

One of the  most beautiful understory conifer  trees on my grounds are these two Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea filifera  now over twenty feet tall.   They look beautifully Japanesie in natural form.   They had been growing under a mature but struggling oak tree for more than thirty years,  which was removed a year ago this past November.  Neither Chamaecyparis  had ever shown anything ‘aurea’….for decades bearing  only a green green until this summer.  

Both are now brilliant yellow in folliage….and that is a real attraction to go with their natural Japanesie character…..lightly peeling bark carrying slightly weeping branchings.

Note:  For all of you who have bought King’s Gold or Sungold Chamaecyparis as a shrub…..I have some new for you……yes, they too are  TREES by nature…..if you allow them to become trees.   My tallest Sungold, growing without prunind,  thus far is ten feet tall…..and it carries its yellow foliage unchanged throughout the winter.

How do you like that color and  snow combination?

September 1, 2011

Fall is a Good Time to Plant

Filed under: perennials,shrubs and trees,The Art of Landscaping — glenn @ 9:04 am

Yes, Autumn is a good time to plant…..especially in September.  I admit I prefer Spring as the best time for planting most of the more permanent garden material.   One can better view when something is going wrong with spring planted material.

I usually don’t recommend landscape gardeners go hunting for bargains when  looking for  principal plants, the most important trees and shrubs of your landcape picture.    Yet, let’s admit it, most of us who are “taken” by plants are often “taken” by plants even if we know  nothing about them……at any lower price or accept freebies from friends or ‘enemies’ for that matter…….Enemies  being  persons who offer to sell you or give you Aegopodium….the perennial ‘Snow on the Mountain’ for your gardened grounds.

Not all plants are equal.

I am trying to think of any groupings or individual plants that should not be planted in Fall.   None come to mind and I don’t have any vibes that I am forgetting any.

Some plants are better transplanted this time of year.   September is the best time to transplant Peonies, for instance.    As a rule fleshy rooted perennials are better transplanted in Fall, and skinny  rooted ones in the Spring.

Of  course I am hooked on buying expensive plants this time of the year  for my own landscape grounds, if I see a bargain for a plant I am particularly curious about and is on sale…….or any time of the growing season for that matter.   I confess I am  a plantaholic…..I buy with self interest and pleasure whether I need the plant fix and have  the money for it or not.

For the uninitiated to this dilemma, plantaholism is a major disease among landscape gardeners and others who play in their home grounds soil.

Some folks are fat because they eat too much or eat the wrong foods.   Some gardens are fat because their caretakers buy too much or buy the wrong plants.