Tree Talk: Embracing the Winter Blues

Tree Talk: Embracing the Winter Blues

Tree Talk: Embracing the Winter Blues

November is here. Days from now through the end of January are as short as summer days are long. The sun comes up and creeps low across the horizon. The sky is often overcast, and drizzle seems the norm. For many, this ushers in the Winter Blues.

Need an antidote? Embrace the Winter Blues — in this case, with a wonderful palette of conifers that can enliven a winter garden and make you happy to look out your window or putter outdoors in their cultivation. These conifers, backed by our silverly gray skies, bejeweled by raindrops and artistically placed in the garden, can make the monochromatic nature of our winter landscape come to life.
Three genera of conifers offer the best blues: false Cypress (Chamaecyparis), junipers (Juniperus) and spruce (Picea). All three have cultivated varieties that fit into the three categories of use in the garden: spillers (low growers or ground covers), fillers (the plants that grow between 3 and 6 feet, providing anchors for mixed borders) and pillars (the tall conifers that serve as backgrounds and privacy screens). The trick is to pair them with other plants for contrast that make the blue pop.
The selection of blue conifers is vast. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’re in the epicenter of it all. The Portland area alone boasts 14 nurseries that specialize in conifers. November is optimum planting time. Cool, moist overcast days are perfect for getting plants in the ground and established, ready to surge into growth with spring.

The Spillers

Among the multitude of choices, several come to mind that are particularly dazzling. Blue Star Juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’) and J. scopulorum “Blue Creeper” are tight and compact, perfect for rock gardens or to cascade over a retaining wall. For a heftier look, try the low growing, spreading spruce, Picea pungens “Glauca Prostrata.” This spruce will sprawl out in a gleaming, irregular mat in the front of a border or next to a patio where it will be a living sculpture without blocking the view to the garden beyond.  
Jane Platt, whose famous garden in Portland, Ore., was featured in the Rosemary Verey book “The American Woman’s Garden,” had an enormous prostrate blue juniper. Under and through this mass of intricate branches covered with stiff needles, she had planted prostrate Scotch broom Genista pilosa “Vancouver Gold.” The shoots of the broom made their way up and through the near-turquoise spruce, contrasting their small, roundish bright green leaves with the blue conifer needles. In spring, the plant bloomed profusely with sulfur yellow flowers. It was, to use a Rosemary Verey word, “rhapsodic.” In winter, the broom defoliated, and its unobtrusive naked branches were hardly noticeable.


The Fillers

The Chamaecyparis lawsoniana “Blue Surprise” in the photograph shimmers against that red brick wall, turning the garden gate into a striking entry. For a hotter, drier location, you might try a juniper that is similar looking put more prickly to the touch: Juniperus “Wichita Blue.” Again, the choices are many. When planted in front of a large deciduous tree, the conifer is complemented by the leaves, and perhaps flowers, in spring and summer. It helps the autumn color vibrate with its contrast and draws the eye to the winter filigree of branches behind it. With a red or yellow twigged dogwood in front of the planting, the whole ensemble is enough to send Monet, Renoir or even Van Gogh scrambling for their brushes and canvas.   

The Pillars

Likely the most-well known among these is the Colorado Blue Spruce: Picea pungens glauca with a number of selections (“Fat Albert,” “Hoopsii,” “Koster” and even a weeping form, “Pendula”). The trick to getting the right blue spruce is to buy it after seeing it and confirming the blue for yourself. They can vary in hue from grower to grower. Any of them will need a spot with full sun exposure to really blue-up, but treated properly it can be bright light blue, headed to silver. It is said that one can increase the blue color of the plant by adding aluminum sulfate to the soil, pounding rusty nails into the ground around the tree’s base or watering with Epsom salts — techniques worthy of consideration, albeit all untested by this gardener.

Chamaecyparis pisifera “Boulevard” is a much-loved Japanese native. It is a silvery blue conifer that was widely planted around the urban Pacific Northwest in the 1950s and ’60s. Most books say that this tree reaches 8 feet. Here, it grows to 20 or more in time. Tucked in among our dark green natives or paired with a golden needled conifer, these trees will play off the tarnished silver of our winter sky to produce a soothing, meditative vignette. The limbs coming off the main trunk can be selectively pruned to give the tree an open, airy look.    
Bought now, any of these conifers can be slipped into a decorative container to hide the nursery can it came in, enlivening a deck or entry way and the festivities ahead in the coming months. Blue conifers are especially showy embellished with silver ornaments.
Don’t allow our seasonal gloom to get you down. Give yourself and your garden a holiday present. Select a blue conifer or two. Planted in the right place with the right companions, you’ll have a winter focal point to catch your eye for a lifetime. You’ll be unaffected when the sun takes its annual sabbatical each November. Instead, you’ll be singing the praises of these remarkable plants through all your winters to come. Your gardening will be singing, too — singin’ the blues.