Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Evergreens everywhere

A Japanese inspired garden with evergreens. I love the little opening in the hedge, which shows the lake below but hides the house behind.

It is quite amusing to think about one of the most common wishes by the customers when I was doing garden consulting and design in Sweden. "Ingen barr! Jag hatar barrväxter! "No conifers! I hate them!" was often expressed with such a feeling, that I felt there was no point of starting to argue for them and their good qualities in the Swedish climate with a growing season of about 5 months and a long and relatively cold winter.

A sea of needles... genuine stuff from the 1960s in Clyde Hill near Seattle.

A well-kept garden from 1960s near Stockholm, in Sweden - soon to become a rarity? (Picture taken in winter).
This "allergy" for conifers is probably a reaction against many gardens made in Sweden in the 70's, full of Thujas and Junipers and now overgrown beyond any recognition of the original design. Of course, these gardens can (or could, as they are disappearing in fast pace as the new owners rip them rapidly out) be quite monotonous and static, with little to show the changing seasons. And they quite seldom can be described as romantic or sensuous, which is something that many of us expect from their gardens. But for the ease of management and year-around interest, there is few plants in the Northern climates that can beat these stalwarts of the winter garden.

A front border with conifers, Ericas, Rhubarb (!), ferns and grasses. A modern composition with good structure and year-around interest.

The nickname of Washington state, where Seattle is located, is "the Evergreen State", which is quite becoming when looking at the local gardens. Many of my previous customers would wince at the thought of square meter after square meter (or square feet...) of conifers, interspersed with other evergreens, as Rhododendrons (the state flower is Pink Rhododendron, Rhododendron macrophyllum), Pieris, Callunas and Ericas. The soil in Seattle is mostly acidic, which gives these plants excellent growing conditions.

Huge pine trees surrounded by native Salals and Rhododendrons.

Here as well as in Sweden, the garden styles have evolved since the 60's and 70's, from flowing, borders filled with evergreens. These gardens seem often been influenced by the Japanese (and maybe Chinese) gardens, which I found very appealing, as it complements the houses from this era quite well. In the best cases, the contemporary styles combine conifers with hardy perennials and grasses for an elegant and graceful effect. In the worst cases, rows of Thujas are used as impenetrable barriers for privacy or to stand in line by the driveway as unhappy soldiers. Just by doing a small round in the neighbourhood yesterday, I found several gardens with interesting use of evergreens and conifers. Some of these (as shown above) could probably be used as inspiration by gardeners in Scandinavia, some might just be a little bit too freakish for anything else than providing a little smile...

An example of cloud pruning? looks more like a bunch of green balloons...

These poor Junipers would clearly need a break - I wonder what kind of a family lives behind these tightly clipped conifers?


Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

Hi, Thank you for your comment on my diary. Yes, Australia has got something in its make up that keeps a hold on you; "I still call Australia home!"
It is interesting to see those Conifers in the gardens; and people are so against them. I remember our gardens in Switzerland had carefully placed Conifers which added Interest for the whole year. I personally love gardens which are induvidually designed and also with some input of the owner if he loves his garden. I love a plantsman- or plantswoman garden!

Anonymous said...

I too always wonder what kind of people live behind the most manicured gardens... and as they walk by my wild tangle, they probably shudder too! :)
- Karen (fellow Seattle gardener)

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Now, a very intersting post. It hits me in two ways. Firstly, I am one of those whingy anti-conifer persons, and for me the reasons are different. I don't have the 60's villa garden experience at all, but I'm sure you are right, it would be the case for many. Perhaps it's a Northern people thing? I have to give that an indepth analysis and come back on that! Then oddly, although I loathe topiary like the 'balloons' and other weird shapes (don't you just hate a shrub cut as an animal?). But recently, I have come to really love topiary pruned to simple balls. And I must admit I found those 'floaters' on your last pic being quite intriguing. They are strict, yet playfully informal. They make me look twice. Are they moving? Will they be there the next time I look? It's like you can't be sure. Perhaps they are more art than plants, but I believe (perhaps it's just the graphic designer in me taking the upper hand here) they are a well needed contrast to the freely protruding branches of the tree (in particular) and the other shrubs.
All the best,

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

What is happening - why can't I see my own comments here...? Have to check this out.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

It seems that my previous comment has disappeared totally, which is strange. But, I was writing about the Nordic people and the conifers. Earlier, I thought that this loathing of conifers was partly a reaction against the 60's and 70's excessive planting of them, and partly because conifers are too "common" in that part of the country. But here, the situation has been pretty similar and nature is full or everything with needles... So I'm not sure. Maybe, for the Nordic people, the love for everything leafy and flowering is an expression for their great love of the summertime?

Otherwise, I do enjoy topiary. In fact, I have several Buxus balls in my garden in Sweden. The oldest and first of them is an original, 75-year old beautiful "mother ball", about 2 m hight, that needed babies beside it. And even topiary animals can be funb, just thinking of the "peacocks" at Great Dixter or the giant hens at Sven-Ingvar Andersson's Marnas hus in Skåne. I don't like plants looking tortured, too hardly handled, but otherwise, yes, topiary and pruning can add an interesting contrast to wilder things in a garden.

nilla|utanpunkt said...

I know too little about conifers and how much they can be pruned – I definitely trust you on that. I only have balls of box and made one out of a truly gone wild all over the place box-leaved lonicera (and I checked both with the RHS here in england before putting the shears in their branches). Still can't stand animal-shapes though, sorry.
Do you know how to start a box ball by the way, I mean from just a small plant with it's natural shape. I can't find any info on that. Would appreciate any tips!

Anonymous said...

We have snow cover for 6 months of the year, so without conifers, it is a barren wasteland of twigs and houses for half of the year. I love driving down the street in winter and seeing the tall conifers with their branches covered in snow. In summer, my conifers fade into a green backdrop for other plants, but in winter they come into their own.