Horridculture – Spruce Up

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Even Charlie Brown would reject this little blue spruce.

No one wants to cut down this little blue spruce. What is worse is that no one wants anyone else to cut it down either. We all know it is ugly. We all know that it can not be salvaged. We all know that it really should relinquish its space to the healthy and well structured coast live oak next to it, in the lower left of the picture. Yet, it remains.

It was planted amongst a herd of gold junipers in about 1980 or 1981, shortly after the construction of the adjacent buildings. An abandoned irrigation system indicates that it was likely irrigated for some time afterward, although it is impossible to know for how long. Otherwise, it and the junipers were completely ignored for the last four decades.

When the vegetable garden was installed nearby, brambles, weeds and trash that had been accumulating for forty years was removed from the area. A few of the most decrepit junipers that were not worth salvaging were removed too. The young and feral coast live oak that grew next to the spruce should have been removed as well, but is actually in very good condition.

Furthermore, the coast live oak is a better tree for the particular application. It is native, so does not mind neglect. The spruce was never really happy there, which is why it is so puny and disfigured now, with the lower two thirds of the trunk bare of limbs and foliage. Obviously, the spruce should be removed so that the oak can continue to develop as it should.

We just like the spruce too much to remove it directly. Even though it would look silly if the bare trunk were exposed by the removal of the oak, the bit of foliage on top is so pretty and blue and familiar. I mean, it looks like we have a spruce in the yard; and everyone likes a spruce!

The plan is to subordinate it to the oak. As the oak grows upward and outward, the lower limbs of the spruce will be pruned away to maintain clearance. Eventually, the spruce will look so silly that the landscape would look better without it, and we will not mind cutting it down so much. It will be unpleasant, but it will be better than interfering with the development of the oak.

Lineup

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The usual suspects.

There is significant traffic right outside. It is one of the three busiest roads around. No one here really minds, because we are mostly too busy with something else while we are here. We are accustomed to it as part of the ‘scenery’. The noise sometimes makes it necessary to shout to each other, or take a telephone call somewhere else, but is not too much of a bother otherwise.

However, the scenery that those in the traffic see from the road might be slightly less than appealing. Industrial buildings surrounded by pavement, building materials, work vehicles and all sorts of associated items are all that are in here. Next door, there is a herd of dumpsters! It is a view worth obscuring. Bay trees and box elders that used to screen the view are too tall now.

I should have planted these five Arizona cypress in a row along the road last autumn. If I were to plant them now, I will need to water them occasionally until next autumn, not that I would mind. After their first winter, they would be happy on their own. They would start to obscure the view within only a few years, and unlike box elders, would stay evergreen through winter.

They really should have been planted a long time ago. They have been in the same cans for so long that the medium within has decomposed and collapsed. Without staking, their lean trunks became disfigured in confinement. They really would not have needed to be staked if they had been planted sooner and been able to grow more vigorously. Fortunately, they should recover.

A Monterey cypress will be planted at the low end of the row next Saturday, even if these Arizona cypress are not planted until autumn. I will explain later.

Evergreen Trees Have Their Place

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Evergreens are sometimes the best choice.

Deciduous trees that were bare all winter are now foliating and making shade. They sure will be appreciated when the weather gets warmer through summer. They will defoliate next autumn, in time to let warming sunlight through while winter is cool. Their lifestyles are naturally compatible with those of the people who live with them. They really have the system down.

Evergreen trees are good at what they do as well. They obscure unwanted views and provide privacy all year. If given adequate space and located far enough away from the home and neighboring homes, their shade should not be a problem. Like any other feature in the landscape, properly selected and strategically placed evergreens are quite functional.

There are certainly more to evergreen trees than the coniferous (cone-bearing) evergreens like pine, spruce, cypress, cedar and juniper. Any tree that retains foliage throughout the year is evergreen, including camphor, Southern magnolia, carob, California pepper, coast live oak, fern pine, all palms and all eucalypti, just to name a few. There are really too many to list.

Larger modern homes on smaller parcels are a bit more challenging to evergreen trees than more traditional homes that have more space around them. Average fences do not maintain privacy for upstairs windows that are too close to neighboring homes. However, there is less space and sunlight for trees, and additional shade can be a bother for lower windows.

It seems that smaller trees are often the best fit for bigger homes. Sometimes, a large evergreen shrub, like one of the various pittosporums, can do the job of an evergreen tree, but fits better where space is limited. As silly and passe as they seem to be, Italian cypress are narrow enough to fit into tight spots, at least until they get too big.

Contrary to popular belief, most evergreen trees are messier than most deciduous trees. They drop only minor volumes of foliage, but they do so throughout the year. Deciduous plants drop most or all of their foliage within a limited time about autumn. Only those that drop flowers, fruit or both in spring and summer are messier than evergreens.

Not All Evergreens Are Conifers

41217thumb‘Conifer’ and ‘evergreen’ are almost synonymous. Of the two, ‘evergreen’ is the more familiar term. Some people do not know what a ‘conifer’ is. Simply speaking, an evergreen is a plant that retains foliage throughout the year, even while deciduous plants defoliate through winter. A conifer is a plant that produces seeds in cones, such as pine cones, although many are not easy to recognize as such. Actually though, not all evergreens are conifers; and not all conifers are evergreens.

Southern magnolia, glossy privet, lily of the Nile, all sorts of eucalyptus and all sorts of palms retain their foliage through winter, but none are conifers. Larch, dawn redwood and bald cypress are conifers, but are also deciduous. This can be quite a surprise for anyone expecting them to be evergreen. The foliage turns brown enough to resemble death before defoliation, although larch can get quite colorful in autumn where winters are cooler.

Now that flowers for cutting are scarce, evergreen foliage is popularly cut and brought into the home instead. Here in California, not many of us have fir or spruce out in the garden. Redwood, pine, cypress and cedar (deodar and Atlas) are more common. Leyland cypress, Western red cedar, incense cedar and the various chamaecyparis are not as common, but are just as effective. Incense cedar as well as some of the junipers (unshorn) are particularly aromatic.

Since the various hollies are uncommon here, Californians prefer other evergreens with berries, such as firethorn (pyracantha), contoneaster and toyon. Incidentally, toyon had been so recognized as a substitute for holly that it had historically been known as California holly, and is the origin of the name of Hollywood. Magnolia grenades (fruiting structures) can function like weird pine cones. Southern magnolia has big and glossy leaves with rusty orange undersides. They can provide bold color and texture, even if they have dried to a rich brown.

There are of course no rules for cut foliage. Anything that is still foliated and appealing in the garden may work nicely in the home. Ferns are an obvious choice, although some drop spores that stain fabric. Various pittosporums, podocarpus, eucalyptus, New Zealand flax and even the leaves of bird of paradise are all worth a try.

Blue Spruce

91225For a tree that is native to the upper elevations of the Rocky Mountains, blue spruce, Picea pungens, does surprisingly well here. It only wants to be watered a bit through summer to compensate for the lack of rain and humidity in chaparral climates. It does not seem to miss a more pronounced chill through winter. Disease and insect infestation are uncommonly noticeable or damaging.

Garden varieties are impressively variable. Some are like big shrubbery that stays below downstairs eaves. The biggest do not get much taller than thirty feet, and take many years to get so tall. Most but not all are stoutly conical. Color is variable as well, ranging from grayish green to silvery bluish green. The evergreen foliage is very dense. Individual needles are only about an inch long.

Blue spruce demands patience, planning and room to grow. Pruning for containment compromises their naturally appealing conical form. Therefore, even compact cultivars that do not need much space will need enough to mature completely. However, because they grow somewhat slowly, blue spruce may take a few years to actually occupy much of their space, and function as intended.

Evergreens From Our Home Gardens

91225thumbEvergreens are popular for home décor through winter because there is not much blooming so late in most other American climates. The tradition endures, even though cut flowers of all sorts can easily be purchased from common supermarkets nowadays. Here on the West Coast, where several varieties of flowers can bloom through winter, evergreen foliage is as popular as it ever was.

Christmas trees are the most substantial form of traditional seasonal evergreens. The biggest wreaths occupy less space, and are mostly confined to walls rather than floors. Garlands can be big too, but their less defined form fits more neatly into limited space. For many of us, neatness is not a priority. Displays of evergreens and all the associated ornamentation can get quite elaborate.

Not many of us grow our own Christmas trees. It is more practical to purchase them as if they are very large cut flowers. Most but not all of us who hang garland likewise procure it already made. Some purchase prefabricated wreathes too. However, it is possible that more of us create our own. Other bits and pieces of evergreens are unlikely purchased. Most are from our home gardens.

Most of the pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, yew, arborvitae, and various genera known collectively as cedar, that are traditional evergreens in other regions are scarce here. A few other exotic species of pine, as well as natives, are more common in some landscapes. There are also different cedar and arborvitae. Blue spruce can sometimes be found. Douglas fir is native to nearby mountains.

Other regions lack the abundance of various cypress and juniper that are common here, as well as coastal redwood. (Redwood foliage is perishable once cut.)

There are no rules about cut evergreens anyway. Within reason, we can cut and bring in whatever we happen to find to be appealing in our gardens. We should cut the foliage properly though, as if pruning. Also, we should not cut too much from any particular spot, but instead harvest evenly over a large area. It helps to take pieces that are out of view, or that need to be pruned out anyway.

Spruced Up

P91214KSpruce happen to very compatible with the landscape style here. They fit in nicely with surrounding redwoods, but are more proportionate to sunny spots of some of the refined landscapes. We intend to add a few into some of the landscapes as they get renovated. They will stay branched to the ground, like big dense shrubbery, with the personality of distinguished forest trees.

Several dwarf Alberta spruce, which is a very compact cultivar of white spruce, have been incorporated into landscapes that were renovated during the past few years. They really are dinky though, and stay smaller than most shrubbery. Some of the very compact cultivars of blue spruce that we would like to add next will eventually get significantly bigger, but do not grow fast.

A few spruce that grow more like tree rather than shrubbery would be really excellent. The taller blue spruce with more open branch structure are no longer available from local nurseries, but could be ordered. I particularly want to try any of the white, black, red, Engelmann or Sitka spruce that are endemic to North America, although I know some might not be happy here.

Sitka spruce just happened to become available. A colleague brought these eight seedlings back from the coast up near the Oregon border, and will probably get a few more. They are prolific there, and get pulled like many other weeds. At the rate they are growing, they could get planted into a landscape even before we get any blue spruce! I am already very pleased with them.

For a while, I grew each of the six North American spruce, but only in cans. Since these Sitka spruce arrived, I have been wanting to get the other five. White spruce is ‘sort of’ here. Blue spruce will arrive soon enough.

Hollywood Juniper

91120Ah, something vintage! Remember Hollywood juniper, Juniperus chinensis ‘Kaizuka’ (or ‘Torulosa’) flanking big two-car garage doors of mid century modern homes? Those that are still around after half a century are big and strikingly sculptural, like miniature Monterey cypress for home gardens. They get about fifteen feet tall and ten feet wide, but have potential to get significantly larger.

Hollywood juniper is an old classic that is still reasonably available in some nurseries. Their densely foliated stems twist and turn picturesquely upward, typically leaning one way or another toward sunlight or away from prevailing wind. Some say they look like frozen green flames. Their gnarly trunks and flaking bark can be exposed as they grow tall enough for low growth to be pruned away.

Because of their very irregular branch structure, Hollywood juniper is more adaptable to free-formed pruning than the presently trendy junipers with strictly upright or conical form. They must never be shorn, but do not mind if obtrusive limbs get pruned back to the main trunks. Therefore, they are actually more adaptable to smaller modern gardens than some modern cultivars of juniper are.

Leyland Cypress

91113The ‘X’ preceding its Latin name ‘X Cupressocyparis leylanii‘ designates Leyland cypress as a hybrid of two distinct genera, namely Monterey cypress and Nootka cypress. (Those who consider the parents to be two species of the same genus know Leyland cypress as Cupressus X leylandii.) The many cultivars combine desirable qualities of both parents, but also innate weaknesses.

Rows of Leyland cypress grow fast to become densely evergreen windbreaks or informal screens within only a few years. However, they are very susceptible to cypress canker, and are likely to succumb within twenty five years or so. Farther inland, they may not last half as long. That may be quite acceptable for temporary windbreaks in front of slower but more permanent shrubby trees.

Common Leyland cypress develops a distinctly plump but conical form, with slightly grayish foliage. Most other cultivars are more columnar. Foliar color ranges from bluish green to gold. The tiny scale leaves are densely set in flat sprays. Healthy trees can get nearly thirty feet tall in ten years. Most stay lower where exposed. Crowded trees that live long enough exceed a hundred feet tall.

Weeping White Spruce

41029As the colorful deciduous trees go bare, the evergreen trees get more attention. A weeping white spruce, Picea glauca ‘Pendula’, really stands out. It grows slowly to only about fifteen feet tall and maybe five feet wide, so does not need as much space as a typical spruce tree. What makes it so distinctive is the weirdly pendulous stems that hang limply from a strictly vertical trunk. It is hard to believe that it is only a different variety of the same species as the dwarf Alberta spruce, which is very short, dense and symmetrically conical, with stout little stems. The foliage of weeping white spruce is lighter green than that of most other spruces, but is not as blue as that of blue spruce. The short and stiff needles are rather prickly to handle.

The narrow and weirdly sculptural form of the weeping white spruce is no good as a shade tree, but is an excellent trophy tree for a prominent spot. Full sun is best. A bit of shade can cause the main trunk to lean toward sunlight. Young trees should only be staked if they need it, since they can become dependent on stakes. The lowest limbs can be allowed to creep over the ground.