FREE-SPIR­ITED CONIFERS

Whether you fa­vor blue un­der­tones, a tidy round mound, or a cas­cad­ing form, there is an un­usual conifer (or sev­eral) that will stand out in your gar­den, es­tab­lish­ing form and tex­ture year-round.

Country Gardens - - Contents -

Conifers and ev­er­greens shape the land­scape year-round. Some of the more quirky va­ri­eties—as em­braced by this South Carolina col­lec­tor—add per­son­al­ity with their droop­ing or wind-swept forms or col­or­ful nee­dles.

“Iwant the funky, the weird, the dif­fer­ent,” Mary Alice Woodrum says. She and her hus­band, John (known as Bear), have stud­ded their Zone 7–8 South Carolina prop­erty with weep­ing bald cy­press, blue at­las cedar, and other off­beat conifers. To­gether they em­bark on plant-find­ing pil­grim­ages, stop­ping at every lit­tle nurs­ery and off-the-beaten-track gar­den cen­ter to look for some­thing new and bizarre. Then they haul the trees home and give them a try.

Mary Alice has been do­ing so for al­most 20 years, and their 5 acres now have an ex­otic ap­peal that draws gar­den tourists—who col­lect the cones scat­tered be­neath the conifers—and re­gional plant ex­perts. Aside from the conifers, which may num­ber 100, vis­i­tors will find fancy palm trees rif­fling in the wind, rosy clus­ters of pitcher plants, and com­munes of ferns as­sem­bled in the dap­pled shade. They’ll also find her eclec­tic art­work—per­haps a baobab tree, the African “Tree of Life,” made of rusted me­tal, or a curv­ing bor­der fash­ioned from in­verted wine bot­tles.

Weav­ing through­out are col­lec­tions of conifers. Many of the unique ev­er­greens orig­i­nate in Asia. “We can only project how they will do here,” Mary Alice says. “None of us re­ally know till we test-grow it.” Be­fore try­ing out a tree from Ja­pan or Korea, for ex­am­ple, she ad­vises gar­den­ers to do their re­search. Know the Zone rec­om­men­da­tions and un­der­stand how tall and full the tree will be­come at ma­tu­rity. Also, leave space for suf­fi­cient air­flow or nearby struc­tures can get mossy and the fo­liage will turn brown. “I hate to see un­happy plants that are not in the right spot,” she says. Mary Alice also rec­og­nizes that some­times gar­den­ers make mis­takes. When this hap­pens to her, she sim­ply re­lo­cates the mis­fit­ted plants to more ap­pro­pri­ate sites.

Work­ing the soil also helps cre­ate happy plants. “I came to live in this place where all the top soil had been graded away, leav­ing what looked like beach sand—so bright it was blind­ing—un­til I could coax some things to grow. Wa­ter just pilled up and ran off and if it man­aged to soak in, it just kept go­ing!” says Mary Alice. Luck­ily, Mary Alice and Bear live on a ridge with forests of long-nee­dle pine, which sup­ply an abun­dant source of com­post made with chips from a lo­cal tree cut­ter mixed with pa­per and leaves that peo­ple set out along the street, “very nicely bagged, too!” Mary Alice uses the pine nee­dles as mulch in her gar­den and gives them away for birth­day and hol­i­day gifts to friends and fam­ily. “The ground looks so nice when it’s frosted with pine straw,” she says.

De­spite her best soil-build­ing ef­forts, the weather of­ten de­cides the fate of Mary Alice’s trees. Some North­ern conifers fail dur­ing pro­longed months of heat or drought. And sev­eral years ago, an ice storm brought down sev­eral of her trees. Mary Alice and her hus­band sat out­side and lis­tened to the branches of the long-nee­dle pine trees break­ing un­der the weight of the ice and heavy snow. It was a heart­break­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a tree-lover but one that opened new pos­si­bil­i­ties. For a gar­dener who has planted “right up to the as­phalt,” any losses present fresh op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“There is al­ways a chal­lenge, some in­trigue, and a spark of in­ter­est to try some­thing new,” Mary Alice says. “Start in one corner and pick a plant fo­cus—you don’t have to do the whole yard in it.” Mary Alice ad­vises other gar­den­ers to start small, pick a few types of plants to ex­plore, and get to know them bet­ter. “It’s all trial and er­ror. It’s the flow of life.”

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