A topiary tale

"If I dry, I die."

It was Christmas time, about a decade ago. I considered the handwritten sign propped in front of some dwarf alberta spruces for sale at a local nursery. I was searching for some greenery to place on each end of the fireplace mantel in my living room. These Christmas tree shaped plants, each about a foot tall, seemed just right. I visualized how they would look in gold pots. I studied the tag. Acid soil, sun, zones 3 to 8. That's pushing it. I am zone 7b, but I usually look for plants that will go to zone 9, to make sure they will make it through our hot summers. However, I reasoned that although the alberta spruces might not like our heat, with enough water they could survive.This dwarf alberta spruce is a recent purchase. The originals were smaller, but looked like this.

I purchased two of them and took them home to their gold pots.

The living room fireplace doesn't get much sun, so the plan was to keep the plants on the mantel through the Christmas season, then transplant them to larger outdoor pots. I would put them on the patio in a sunny spot near the water hydrant, so I could keep them watered easily. That was the plan.

The dwarf alberta spruces were perfect for the fireplace mantel. They were the perfect size, and they were the perfect accent to the oil painting that hung between them. I postponed moving them. I thought about getting some artificial ones to take their place, but I don't like fake plants. No plastic or silk for me. No way.

Six months later the dwarf alberta spruces were still in my living room. I was watering them one day when I was horrified to find brown needles throughout the center of each plant. I get emotionally attached to my plants, and these little guys had stuck to a spot right close to my heart. I felt guilty. I had kept them inside way, way too long. I took them outside to examine them in the bright light. It was bad. If I cut off all the dead branches, the spruces would look terrible.

Or maybe not.

As I studied the plants, I had an idea. I got my pruners. Snip, snip, snip. Snip, snip, snip. Voila! I now had two matched topiary trees, each with a large ball at the bottom and a smaller ball at the top. Why, people pay money for things that look like that. I smiled as I repotted them and put them in their permanent location.

I maintained the double ball look until recently. By now the dwarf alberta spruces had outgrown their pots, and the lower balls were looking scruffy, so in November I transplanted them to larger pots and completely trimmed off the lower balls. I planted pansies at the base of each plant, and I am happy with the new grown-up look.

This is what the dwarf alberta spruces look like now.

By the way, I eventually bought two small artificial Christmas trees to go on the mantel for the holidays. They look fine, and I don't have to water them at all.

You might also like "We are survivors" and How Not to Kill a Dwarf Alberta Spruce.


Choosing Plants for Year Round Appeal

"Another dreary day. And I have got to drive in this."

I was about to leave for Atlanta to visit my son Mark when I poked my head out the door yesterday morning and sighed. Predictions were for fog and rain all day. Then a yellow color against the gray mist caught my eye.

The yellowing foliage belongs to a sweet bay magnolia in the front garden.I blinked, the world shifted, and in that moment I was transported to a dreamland. I stepped outside with my camera, and for the next thirty minutes I wandered around in the drizzle. They say mist is good for a lady's complexion. I'm sure I was absolutely dewy when I came inside.An overview of the front garden. Our zoysia grass is still green! Not sure why - my neighbors' lawns are brown.Everything here will lose its leaves, except for the evergreen white pine.

I thought about why my garden looks like this, in the middle of December. I choose plants for several reasons:

1. The plant will grow well in my yard. Native plants, such as yaupon holly, are great because I know they are adapted to my climate. While I also choose many plants that aren't natives, all permanent plantings must survive our sweltering summers, as well as occasional hard frost. They have to be able to endure torrential rain, as well as draught. They have to be tough. 

Nandina domestic 'Fire Power' grows in front of dwarf yaupon hollies.

2. The plant will provide interest through more than one season. I always consider the plant's form and color.  The plant should complement what is already there. I repeat groupings of plants throughout the garden to provide cohesion, but I'm likely to throw something different in to add punch. I like quirky, odd plants. As for color, I look at foliage. There are many shades of green, there are yellow leaves, purple leaves, variegated leaves, gray and blue leaves. If a shrub or tree has flowers, that's a great bonus. As for flowers, these are my garden's accessories to the trees and shrubs, which provide the main interest throughout the year. And smell. Viburnum, roses, gardenia -and so many more. Fragrance makes me pause and inhale the beauty of it all.

Azalea, rosemary, and blue juniper (front row) are colorful year round. Behind is Spirea 'Anthony Waterer.' Its deciduous leaves have beautiful fall color.

Spreading cotoneaster grows below a weeping blue cedar.

The beautiful branch structure of japanese maple and other trees are highlighted during the winter.

Camellia japonica will soon be blooming. Hydrangea 'limelight' seed heads provide interest.
Raindrops on a branch shine against the gray sky.Seed heads of a crepe myrtle treeA few leaves still cling to this japanese maple.3. I also consider what the plant offers to wildlife. I get great joy watching the many different birds, the squirrels, the rabbits, and even the occasional fox who visit my garden. I love lizards, butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, and bees. I feel good that so many creatures choose to live in my garden.Dwarf burford holly provides shelter and food for wildlife. Camellia japonica is behind, on the other side of a path.

4. I plant some things because of emotional reasons. 'Annabelle' hydrangeas are planted in honor of my mother, whose name was that. A weeping Japanese maple is planted over the grave of my beloved black lab, Jasmine. Some plants were given to me by dear friends. I have a ginger lily passed through the generations from my great grandmother. I love my garden because it is full of memories.

The yellow foliage belongs to a mock orange, given to me long ago by my friend Nancy.

5. Sometimes I choose a plant just because I love it. It may not meet some other criteria, but I just gotta have it. I love lavender. It never lives long, but I keep hoping. I have one, lavendula 'provence', in a small southeast facing raised bed. It is one year old and still living. I am optimistic. If it makes it through the winter, I will plant more in that area.

After I put away my camera yesterday, I drove to Atlanta, and the dreamy atmosphere of my garden stayed with me. The fog continued all the way. I listened to Christmas music on the stereo. It was beautiful, and I was content.

Peace - Deborah

You might also like "With the voice of Thanksgiving" or "A magic morning in Helena".