Catch “Coniferitis”

A broad spectrum of year-round color captivates local conifer gardeners.

Photograph by Daylight Photography

It takes a certain kind of person to lovingly protect an heirloom rose through a harsh winter, or amend the soil for a temperamental rhododendron, all for the reward of few sweet weeks of seeing the plant in bloom.

Those aren’t conifer people.

No, conifer people will tell you they’re not interested in waiting for a three-day window to run out to the garden and see their precious plants looking nice. For them, it’s all about year-round color.

“Perennials are really colorful, but after a week or two the leaves turn brown and they look ugly,” says Bernie Bolte, a conifer gardener from Florence. “I have color that doesn’t fade in two or three weeks.”

For those of us who think that “color” means green, green, and green—or who think that evergreens are the “invisible” part of the landscape, growing there on their own or left behind by the last homeowner—we’re about to get an education. Bolte’s 50-by-150-foot mobile home lot hosts about 60 different conifers. The variety in color and textures is nothing short of astounding—from the legal-pad-yellow Juniperus horizontalis ‘Mother Lode’ that spreads like a living mulch low to the ground, to the white-tinged Pinus parviflora ‘Tani-mano-uki’, to the Kelly-green Picea abies ‘Pusch’ with its ruby-colored cones.

Of course, conifer gardeners get the temporary payoff, too—many conifers have a special season where they show off a new outfit of sorts. Pinus sylvestris ‘Gold Coin’ turns golden yellow in the winter. The new spring growth of ‘Tani-mano-uki’ comes out pink. Also in spring, the blue spruce cultivar Picea pungens ‘Downey’s Golden’ looks like it has been painted with yellow polka dots. But then they still retain their primary colors to enjoy the rest of the year. Except for a few deciduous conifers that lose their needles in the fall, nothing withers and turns brown.

Conifers aren’t fussy or needy like roses or rhododendrons, either. There’s no weekly maintenance schedule for these plants—heck, there’s barely even an annual one. If you select the right ones for your climate and plant them correctly, they pretty much take care of themselves. You might have to check for pests or trim an occasional branch to keep the walkway clear, but that’s about it.

So, with no sprinkling of Epsom salts to do, and no need to run out in the middle of a spring snowstorm to cover a tender specimen, that leaves plenty of time for the real business of conifer gardening: collecting new conifers.

It’s not unusual for Ron and Judy Regenhold to travel 1,000 miles over a weekend to track down a cultivar they located at a nursery in Michigan, or Pennsylvania, or New York. It may or may not fit easily into the trunk of the car. “Who needs luggage?” the gardeners joke. They suffer from a common affliction, know to conifer collectors as “Addicted Conifer Syndrome” or “Coniferitis.”

For the most part, conifer collectors are after dwarf and miniature varieties. Frankly, there’s something sort of enchanting about the little guys. “Some are just plain cute—you can’t help but say that,” notes Chris Daeger, horticulturist and manager of the Rowe Arboretum, as well as Central Regional vice president and a member of the National Board of Directors of the American Conifer Society.

But primarily, it’s a practicality issue—dwarf and miniature conifers are easiest to manage if you’re gardening on a typical suburban lot. Conifers are classified by growth rate. Miniatures grow an inch or less per year; dwarfs grow 1-6 inches per year; intermediates, 6-12 inches per year; and large conifers grow a foot or more per year.

“People always ask ‘How big does it get?’” Daeger says. “That’s the wrong question. You should be asking, ‘How fast does it grow?’” That tells you how long you’ll get to enjoy the plant before you have to deal with its size. If you leave it there long enough, a dwarf can still get big. A dwarf tree that grows 5 inches a year will be more than 12 feet tall in 30 years. “People think that it reaches a certain height and stops growing,” Daeger adds. “If it stops growing, it’s dead.”

And, in 30 years, there’s a big difference between a dwarf conifer that grows 2 inches a year and a dwarf that grows 6 inches a year. Buying a dwarf without checking the growth rate is a typical rookie mistake. Bolte once had to move three oriental spruce trees that grew 7 feet in 10 years. “I couldn’t see the front of my house anymore,” he recalls.

Now Bolte is an experienced conifer gardener. On his small lot, he limits his collection to tall skinny trees or very slow-growing ones. “I’ve made use of all the space I have,” he says. “I’m to the point now where if I see another plant I want, I have to get rid of one first. It’s just constantly changing. Every time I see a new catalog and see something I want, I have to figure out how I’m going to squeeze it in.”

“Something that we have always been guilty of is buying plants for which we have no space,” the Regenholds say. “We rationalize that because bad winters and summers have a way of thinning our collection, we must always be ready with a replacement, or two, or 10.” And, removing plants to make room for new ones is what conifer gardeners refer to as making an “upgrade.” You’ll never see a conifer connoisseur wasting space with, say, a hedge of eight identical arborvitae.

The thrill of the chase stems from the fact that very few of the thousands of conifer cultivars can be found in an average garden store. Conifer enthusiasts say only one local garden store—Lakeview Garden Center in Fairfield—carries an impressive selection.

According to owner Jim Montague, that’s because for years Cincinnati gardeners not afflicted with Coniferitis had been slow to see the value in dwarfs and miniatures. They can be expensive, he notes, and some consumers would rather pay less for a bigger tree. “But people realized that you can get something that lasts 10 years [before it has to be removed] or get something that lasts 50 years,” Montague says. “I like to say they never outgrow their usefulness because of the rate at which they grow.”

Eventually, avid conifer collectors usually start to grow their own new plants. “It is a natural evolution,” notes Dr. Clark D. West, a conifer gardener in Harrison. “Most everyone who gets into conifers after a while has a desire to propagate them.”

The most interesting cuttings to propagate come from finding what’s known as a “witch’s broom.” Occasionally, conifers develop a small section of abnormal growth, kind of like a tree tumor. The name apparently originated in medieval times, when they thought these anomalies actually were witches’ brooms left behind after a night of flying around. If caused by a genetic mutation (rather than a disease), the witch’s broom can be propagated by grafting and shared with other gardeners.

Brand-new cultivars come from growing conifers from seeds. West, who focuses on growing arborvitae from seed, loves the ritual of walking the yard, inspecting the transplanted seedlings and seeing what they’re evolving into.

“Every little while, I find one that really is attractive that I haven’t seen before,” West says. “That’s where the fun is.”

Intrigued? The Regenholds say searching the internet is a great first step. “If only it were this easy when we got started!” they lament. Try the American Conifer Society’s website, conifersociety.org. If you join the American Conifer Society, you’ll get connected with gardeners all over the country who will be more than happy to show you their gardens.

“Be careful,” West warns. “You might get a hobby.

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