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GardenSMART Episode

Show #51/5412. Conifers

Summary of Show

Collecting Conifers
Let's first talk about conifers. Please tell us about your collection and then basically your vision for collecting conifers. Tom thinks to best understand he should start at the beginning. They started COLLECTING CONIFERS just for evergreen interest. He, initially, didn't think about the subtlety of it being a conifer. It was more of a plant that was green in the winter. They started collecting hollies, rhododendrons and conifers, yet conifers were just one of the mix. Then over time he began to study them and become fascinated with this group. They're ancient plants, they were around long before modern flowering plants ever came on earth.
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The Role Of Conifers In The Garden
Eric would like to talk about the ROLE OF CONIFERS IN THE GARDEN and the way home gardeners should look at that whole category of plants and all the many amazing uses for conifers in the garden. Not everybody has the land they have here. Behind Tom is an example of some dwarf conifers that people could use with smaller landscapes. Conifers have many uses. Here they use them for screening, for tall screening, they use them as weeping accent plants, even use them in the house. People don't realize but conifers make great houseplants. They're far more durable than many other groups of plants. Here you'll see various colors.
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Upright, Narrow Plants
Another area Tom hasn't yet mentioned is the UPRIGHT, NARROW PLANTS. They, too, can fit a little niche. Plants like junipers, for example - Juniper often gets a bad name, they're over utilized, and they may not be the best forms. Here they have a real tall weeping juniper from the Himalaya's.
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Some Of Tom's Favorites
Eric asks - There are so many wonderful conifers in your collection, but over the years are there are certain ones that you've really grown a deep attachment to and perhaps have emerged as FAVORITES. What are some of the ones that you might identify that way? There are a couple that Tom would like to point out. The first one is from what was formerly Soviet Georgia. It's oriental spruce, Picea orientalis, picea being spruce. The one we're looking at is very tall, very stately, a nice dark green color. When Tom thinks about favorites the first thing he thinks about is adaptability.
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Several Rare And Endangered Species In The Collection
Eric comments that a meaningful part of Tom's collection are the super RARE AND ENDANGERED SPECIES. Part of the purpose of the arboretum is to preserve these genetics for future generations because plants are becoming endangered at an alarming rate. A lot of the effort put into the Cox Arboretum is finding these plants where there are only very few of them that remain and bringing them back here and nurturing them so that future generations may be able to enjoy them. Eric would like for Tom to talk about a few of the ones that are particularly special, plants that he has had a hand in bringing back.
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Unusual Forms
Of course there are rare and unusual plants here but Eric would also like to focus on all the UNUSUAL FORMS. These are typically cultivars so it would be a certain seedling that was selected for specific traits that make it particularly interesting for the home gardener. Tom talk us through some of those that you think are particularly special. They've collected a lot of plants here that are just genetic mutations, weeping and all kind of contorted forms.
For More Information Click here

Selecting The Plants That Are Most Likely To Succeed
Before we leave Eric would like for Tom to talk a little bit about what the home gardener should keep in mind from the standpoint of making the right selection and making sure that we do what we can to select PLANTS THAT ARE GOING TO BE MOST SUCCESSFUL. Tom thinks it's easier today than it was for him in the beginning because of the internet. Finding information was more difficult back then and that was the incentive for Tom to write the book "Landscaping With Conifers and Gingko."
For More Information Click here

Everything Starts with The Soil
Tom would say everything should START WITH YOUR SOIL. Good preparation of the soil is basic gardening whether you're doing conifers or red redbuds or what have you. Secondly is mulch. Mulch, mulch, mulch and then more mulch. There are a lot of reasons but particularly with conifers you're keeping the soil cool, you're avoiding the soil splash coming up from the ground causing environmental issues for the plants.
For More Information Click here

Maintenance
Eric would like to talk a little bit about MAINTENANCE. This is a really, really broad category, but what are some general guidelines in the realm of pruning, nutrition, and then management of disease and insects when it comes to conifers?
For More Information Click here

Brent Markus - Selecting The Right Plant
Brent appreciates the opportunity to help educate about conifers. Brent is an expert in conifers. Ornamental conifers are all across the U.S. yet we tend to think of New England and the west coast as being places they proliferate. But they can be grown everywhere, but there are certain considerations that we need to keep in mind when thinking about what is THE RIGHT FIR, SPRUCE, PINE, ETC. for our garden. Eric wonders what suggestions Brent might provide regarding conifers? That's an excellent question. They ship plant material throughout the United States, we're standing in front of a beautiful assortment that includes pine, spruce, fir, some False cypress, juniper and some yews.
For More Information Click here

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Show #51/5412. Conifers

Transcript of Show

In this episode GardenSMART visits one of the most diverse arboretums in the world and discusses with an acknowledged expert what we need to know to grow and care for conifers.

The Cox Arboretum and gardens is a private estate located in Canton, Georgia in the foothills of the Piedmont Range. Numbering over four thousand living specimens, the plantings display one of the largest private collections of temperate forest in the U.S. With an elevation of 1,200 feet and containing several lakes and streams, they're able to grow a wide variety of plants. The property is also bounded by several large wetland habitats where many migratory and native fowl make their home. It's situated on 13 acres in the middle of old growth southern hardwood forest.

Tom Cox started his arboretum as a blank slate and simply began hand clearing the site and installing plants that excited him. With no clear design nor vision for what it was to become, he was simply guided by his passion for unusual plants. In this Episode we'll walk the grounds of Cox Arboretum and learn from Tom what it takes to have success with conifers in our gardens at home.

Eric welcomes Tom. Thanks so much for joining GardenSMART. Tom in turn thanks GardenSMART for visiting Cox Arboretum, they're delighted to be a part of GardenSMART. Cox Arboretum is a beautiful place. It is a snapshot of Tom's vision and passion for plants. In this Episode we'll primarily be talking about conifers and Tom has one of the most impressive collections of species of conifers in the world. Eric knows that's something Tom has been very passionate about along with other things like woody ornamentals and shrubs, etc.

Let's first talk about conifers. Please tell us about your collection and then basically your vision for collecting conifers. Tom thinks to best understand he should start at the beginning. They started COLLECTING CONIFERS just for evergreen interest. He, initially, didn't think about the subtlety of it being a conifer. It was more of a plant that was green in the winter. They started collecting hollies, rhododendrons and conifers, yet conifers were just one of the mix. Then over time he began to study them and become fascinated with this group. They're ancient plants, they were around long before modern flowering plants ever came on earth. So their lineage was very, very exciting and interesting to him. Over time, he began to plant them. The dogma in the beginning was conifers won't live in the south. Conifers are the domain of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Maine and Michigan, etc. We were told you couldn't grow conifers down here. They were the first private garden in the south to embrace conifers. There are only two other places in the south besides Cox Arboretum that were doing anything - J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh and Ron Determann with the Atlanta Botanical Garden. So Tom started playing with them, they failed a lot, but as they say, when you fall on your face you're moving forward. And they learned a lot. Subsequently it led to a book "Landscaping With Conifers And Ginko For The Southeast." There had never been a writer from the southeast write about conifers before. Today, over time they have amassed what now is considered by the experts out there, to be the largest species collection of conifers anywhere in North America. It is an amazing collection from places like Vietnam, Mexico all over Europe and a lot from China. If one were to look latitudinally from where we sit here in Atlanta versus areas like Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan and Taiwan, they're right at home here. And that's what makes a site like this ideal for this massive conifer collection. By illustration Tom suggests we look over his left shoulder, there you'll see a large, mature conifer collection. It just happened, they loved them, thus started planting conifers. Over time they've learned conifers love slopes because they love drainage. And they provide great winter interest with the colors, forms and textures. One can't achieve that with any other plant group. Eric agrees, it's a beautiful collection but knows Tom has lot of plants to show us. Let's take a look at the rest of the garden.

But before Tom dives into a discussion of the many cultivars in this garden, Eric would like to talk about the ROLE OF CONIFERS IN THE GARDEN and the way home gardeners should look at that whole category of plants and all the many amazing uses for conifers in the garden. Not everybody has the land they have here. Behind Tom is an example of some dwarf conifers that people could use with smaller landscapes. Conifers have many uses. Here they use them for screening, for tall screening, they use them as weeping accent plants, even use them in the house. People don't realize but conifers make great houseplants. They're far more durable than many other groups of plants. Here you'll see various colors. Again, for winter interest, there's no plant group that will give you the same colors, texture and form that conifers can provide. As mentioned, they use them in containers, they're a great container plant and a great filler plant around water and rocks. There is something about rocks and conifers that just go together. The way that we experience conifers in the wild, in most cases, they are these really, really large trees but the reality of the matter is there are so many forms, almost any form you could image. And they can be used in almost any application in the garden. There are dwarf varieties, dense varieties, ones that are creeping, ones that are weeping. It is true that even if one just had a small patio and only had space for a few containers, but even for smaller gardens, there are hundreds and hundreds of selections. One just needs to seek them out. In many cases they're not going to be available everywhere. But if you seek them out, especially from specialty nurseries, there's a world of opportunity out there. Especially with rare mail order nurseries who do a great job with these little dwarfs. They are not mass market plants, but they're great for filler.

Another area Tom hasn't yet mentioned is the UPRIGHT, NARROW PLANTS. They, too, can fit a little niche. Plants like junipers, for example - Juniper often gets a bad name, they're over utilized, and they may not be the best forms. Here they have a real tall weeping juniper from the Himalaya's. Wherever you go in the garden there are plants for shade, there are plants for full sun, plants for wet. They're just so versatile. Eric agrees they're very versatile plants. They're beautiful and they also add structure and definition to the garden.

Eric asks - There are so many wonderful conifers in your collection, but over the years are there are certain ones that you've really grown a deep attachment to and perhaps have emerged as FAVORITES. What are some of the ones that you might identify that way? There are a couple that Tom would like to point out. The first one is from what was formerly Soviet Georgia. It's oriental spruce, Picea orientalis, picea being spruce. The one we're looking at is very tall, very stately, a nice dark green color. When Tom thinks about favorites the first thing he thinks about is adaptability. It can't be a favorite if it doesn't perform here. The next one is a special plant to Tom, it came from the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania, from the University of Pennsylvania. It's called a Taiwan cedar, or a Taiwan Coffin Tree. They use it for coffins for the very rich in Taiwan. It has very pendulous needles. They glisten in the sun, a much different color than the dark green of the oriental spruce. Tom likes the height to width ratio of it and likes the story behind it. Another was wild collected on Mt. Morrison the highest mountain in Taiwan. Others that have long needle form are Cephalotaxus lanceolata, it has very long, wispy needles, almost like a palm that would be from China. Another would be a Mexican pine, Pinus patula it comes from the high elevation mountains in Mexico where it snows a lot. And you'll notice how reflex the needles are on this pine. That's for snow load, it's adapted to the high elevation. The next one would be a golden form of the oriental spruce, one from Soviet Georgia, or formerly Soviet Georgia, it's called Skylands. It was actually found in Skylands Park in New Jersey. So those would be a sampling of Tom's favorites. If we had the time he could talk about many more, but that's a good start.

Eric comments that a meaningful part of Tom's collection are the super RARE AND ENDANGERED SPECIES. Part of the purpose of the arboretum is to preserve these genetics for future generations because plants are becoming endangered at an alarming rate. A lot of the effort put into the Cox Arboretum is finding these plants where there are only very few of them that remain and bringing them back here and nurturing them so that future generations may be able to enjoy them. Eric would like for Tom to talk about a few of the ones that are particularly special, plants that he has had a hand in bringing back. One particular fir really has quite a story to it. There are only three left in the wild on one mountain in China. Tom knew of the plant, it's the rarest conifer on earth, beshahanzuensis. They acquired this plant actually from cuttings that were supplied by an overseas benefactor. They brought the plant back and sent the cuttings to Conifer Kingdom and a gentleman by the name of Brett Markus was kind enough to graft these. They're proud to have two of these plants in the collection. It's quite a nice plant that Tom believes has got a future here. The next plant is a plant that Tom feels confident in saying that they have the only copy of the plant anywhere in North America. It's called Abies fanjingshanensis. It's a mouthful, Fanjingshanensis is a plant that the Chinese in the beginning, Tom believes, didn't want out of the country because it's so rare. It just has not appeared anywhere in North America. The next plant is a plant from China called Torreya jackii. Tom has only seen this plant in one other place - in Hungry at an institute there. Torreya jackii has a very long needle for the genus. One just really doesn't see it. The next one is Glyptostrobus, one of the five deciduous conifers. Glyptostrobus, again, comes from China, probably Vietnam, in that sector. Eric thinks it's such a rare treat to see these unusual plants, they're plants that a horticulturist, like himself, would have no other opportunity to see. So it's really, really special that they've been preserved here and it really underscores the important work that Tom is doing at Cox Arboretum.

Of course there are rare and unusual plants here but Eric would also like to focus on all the UNUSUAL FORMS. These are typically cultivars so it would be a certain seedling that was selected for specific traits that make it particularly interesting for the home gardener. Tom talk us through some of those that you think are particularly special. They've collected a lot of plants here that are just genetic mutations, weeping and all kind of contorted forms. The first we'll talk about is a plant from the Himalaya's. It's a Himalayan pine, pinus wallichiana. The cultivar is called Zebrina, as in zebra. So named because it has banding on each of the needles. Tom first saw this plant in the JC Raulston Arboretum and was blown away by it. The next plant is from Connecticut and was seedling of a witches' broom named Shaggy Dog which he thought was a pretty cool name and it looks like a shaggy dog. It's about four feet tall and wide, kind of just a low growing mutated plant. A lot of dwarf plants especially in the world of conifers are the result of witches' brooms which is kind of an unusual mutation or structure if you will on a full sized tree that looks like a little basketball or witches' broom of foliage. Unlike mistletoe, which it resembles in some ways, if one thinks mistletoe, mistletoe is a parasite that's attached to the plant yet it's not part of the plant. A witches' broom actually is a mutation of that plant caused by insects, maybe some virus that caused it to form this globulus ball in mini forms. Plant collectors love those of course. Perhaps Tom's very favorite of the unusual conifers is a pine that's native to the Appalachian Mountains called Pinus pungens, or table mountain pine. It would typically just come into north Georgia. But in the winter this plant mutates into a school bus yellow color. We could stand 50 yards away and this plant will just glow. It's quite a plant. So those are some of the plants Tom particularly likes although he could spend all day talking about other plants as well.

Before we leave Eric would like for Tom to talk a little bit about what the home gardener should keep in mind from the standpoint of making the right selection and making sure that we do what we can to select PLANTS THAT ARE GOING TO BE MOST SUCCESSFUL. Tom thinks it's easier today than it was for him in the beginning because of the internet. Finding information was more difficult back then and that was the incentive for Tom to write the book "Landscaping With Conifers and Gingko" because he didn't have any reference. Today he thinks some of the more useful questions or comments would be - How large are the plants going to get, what colors do you want to achieve, what's going to contrast well, what's not going to contrast so well, what's going to compete, do I want something narrow, do I want something globus, do I want something that's gonna spread low? There are a lot of considerations when putting a garden in. It's very important to look at - Is this plant going to perform here, do I have the wrong plant for the wrong location, do I have the right sun exposure? Again, with a little research, a gardener can find those things out today pretty easily. It's also important to consider - Does it want water, does it want drainage?

Tom would say everything should START WITH YOUR SOIL. Good preparation of the soil is basic gardening whether you're doing conifers or red redbuds or what have you. Secondly is mulch. Mulch, mulch, mulch and then more mulch. There are a lot of reasons but particularly with conifers you're keeping the soil cool, you're avoiding the soil splash coming up from the ground causing environmental issues for the plants. They also have a mentality here that everything is on skates. He says that from the context of, if a plant gets too large they can always move it. And they move things around a lot. It's not atypical in a winter for him to move plants. But think about size. They surprise you. Plants don't read books. And when it comes to size they really don't. So if the book that says four feet, that will be dependent on where that is. We talk about zones, but zone 7 in Birmingham, Alabama is not the same zone 7 in Portland, Oregon. A lot of it is trial and error. Don't be afraid to try things. Don't be afraid to lose plants. You are not going to grow as a gardener unless you make mistakes, you're just not gonna grow.

Eric would like to talk a little bit about MAINTENANCE. This is a really, really broad category, but what are some general guidelines in the realm of pruning, nutrition, and then management of disease and insects when it comes to conifers? The Russians have an old saying that too soon old, too late smart. One of the things Tom has learned, particularly with things like ginkgo, is lime. Ginkgos really need a lot of lime. And most of the conifers coming out of Asia need a lot of lime. Lime in the fall. They fertilize in the spring. And from an insect standpoint they don't use a lot of insecticide. They do prune a lot. It's much different than it is pruning an azalea or a rhododendron or something like those plants. There's a very specific way you prune conifers. Master gardeners will frequently ask, how big is this going to get? Well how big do you want it to get? You can keep it any size you want.

Eric thanks Tom, it's been a pleasure spending the day and sharing his passion and knowledge. This is such a special, wonderful place. Thank you so much for being with us. Tom in turn thanks Eric. But would like to point out on a closing note that with conifers you can look at the forest around here and see how lifeless it seems right now. Then draw your eyes into the arboretum and you can see conifers abound. And how alive it is. So for those wanting to create a four season garden and to feel enlivened by the colors of winter, conifers are a way to do that. Eric agrees. Absolutely! Thank you.

Brent Markus has made a name for himself in the world of conifers and maples. He started a rare tree nursery in 2007 at the age of 24 in Silverton, Oregon. There he grows roughly 700 varieties of dwarf conifers plus an assortment of Japanese maples which he sells through his rare tree nursery Conifer Kingdom. Brent shares his knowledge and passion for plants with us as we continue our discussion on growing conifers.

Eric welcomes Brent and thanks him for joining GardenSMART. Brent appreciates the opportunity to help educate about conifers. Brent is an expert in conifers. Ornamental conifers are all across the U.S. yet we tend to think of New England and the west coast as being places they proliferate. But they can be grown everywhere, but there are certain considerations that we need to keep in mind when thinking about what is THE RIGHT FIR, SPRUCE, PINE, ETC. for our garden. Eric wonders what suggestions Brent might provide regarding conifers? That's an excellent question. They ship plant material throughout the United States, we're standing in front of a beautiful assortment that includes pine, spruce, fir, some False cypress, juniper and some yews. Most of these plants would be as much at home in the midwest or New England as they are in the southeast. For gardens in the southeast there are a number of considerations. The first step in selecting any conifer for your garden would be to look at the hardiness. If your plant is not hardy for your particular zone you can cross it off right off the bat. Then you would want to look at native range and where plants generally thrive. Look at your local botanic gardens or universities as well as arboreta they will have excellent lists of plants and varieties. Here, we're looking at, for example, an eastern white pine, shaggy dog, that has a beautiful range of hardiness from zone 3 through 7. Above this plant is a nice glistening blue, a variety of a Japanese white pine. Then also we have a Japanese red pine, a low, green dwarf. These perform well in Atlanta and Eric is guessing nearly all of them do well in the west coast? Yes. The Pacific northwest is certainly a hotbed and that's why the nursery's located in the northwest just because they can grow them so beautifully with their mild climate. But for people further up north, the first thing would be to consider hardiness. What hardiness zone are you? One can just look that up using almost dozens of different sources online. That will then provide a general guideline for plant material that one can select. After that, how hot or humid is the area you are in? Some conifers thrive in those environments others, of course, struggle. Eric would like to talk about soil conditions because he knows that's very important for conifers. Some like to be grown on the edge of a mountain where there's great drainage but others are wonderful in bogs or even nearly submerged. Some of the conifers that prefer wet sites would be bald cypress or dawn redwood. In addition, some pines like wet sites. Pinus virginiana really likes a moist site. Other species like firs in general, detest being wet. What one needs to do is make sure that your soil is loose enough so that the roots can penetrate. If you're in heavy, clay soil you really have to modify your soil for any of the conifers to thrive. It's very important to look at what the soil conditions are, if needed add a bunch of mulch or compost and then a layer of mulch over the top too, just to lock the moisture in and also to make sure there's plenty of air for the roots.

Eric thanks Brent, those are great tips. Thank you for sharing with us. In this episode we spent the day with Tom Cox and Brent Markus exploring the amazing world of growing and caring for conifers. A different topic for us but one that we trust will be helpful for many home gardeners.

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