Aunt Carole loved two things: gardening and cooking. But she hated flowers. My house in Rochester, NY, is a tiny urban Tudor on less than an acre of land that used to belong to her. In the far backyard she planted a small but unique Japanese-style garden, hidden from cursory view by a rectangular row of trimmed yews, but still visible from her large kitchen window. She made the BEST stuffed shells and tomato sauce in that kitchen.
Her secret garden had a sculpted Pinus thunbergiana as the focal point. A rhododendron — the one flowering plant she could abide — and a few common conifers completed the secret garden. To form a border between the backyard and the neighbor’s driveway, she planted three Chamaecyparis species, which everyone remembers her calling “My Hinokis.”
The house fell into neglect after her death in 2003; waist-high weeds took over the secret garden, pachysandra encroached on the grass, her pine died and became a rotted trunk. I purchased the house in 2009 and set out to restore her work.
First, I took a pitchfork to the pachysandra and a handsaw to that border of yews. For weeks when I closed my eyes at night, I saw tangled pachysandra roots ensnared with candy wrappers and my muscles ached from digging out yew stumps. However, I think her Hinokis instilled in me a love of conifers.
When I went looking for a new black pine, I discovered the conifer house at Oriental Garden Supply, my favorite local nursery. The silvery foliage on a Thujopsis dolobrata ‘Hondai’ fascinated me. “Um, you know that wants to be a huge plant, right?” asked Chris Law, the nursery manager.
Chris is also a talented landscaper. He noticed my hodge-podge purchases over a few months and finally asked if I’d like some ideas for a landscape focused on conifers Now, three years later, I have over 150 species of conifers anchored by 50,000 pounds of boulders and a just few slips of grass that seem to get smaller every year.
The transformation began in the front yard. I purchased several pallets of mossy boulders, which Chris rolled into place with a PVC pipe and a digging bar, often sliding in the mud during the rainy fall weather. When I planted a Picea abies ‘Pendula’ as a focal point by the front walkway, my ACS, (addicted conifer syndrome) became full blown. Out came the shabby river birch to make room for Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Wintergreen.’ The yews were sacrificed for Pinus thunbergiana ‘Thunderhead.’ The pachysandra disappeared to make beds of boulders and a mix of unusual dwarf conifers.
My front steps, previously used by just the postal carrier and the occasional guest, became my favorite spot to sit in the evening and watch the evolution. “Grass is a waste of space,” I thought, as my backside slowly became numb in the chilly fall nights. “I could do this in the backyard, too.” The backyard then was just a patch of grass and — you guessed it — more pachysandra.
As soon as the snow melted in the spring, I removed them both, clump by tedious clump. My discipline and blisters were rewarded when I heard Sensenig’s semi truck roar up my narrow street.
I swear that my heart stopped in excitement when I saw my recent purchases: five more pallets of boulders, eight yards of topsoil and a rented mini-excavator. Chris, armed with the Bobcat instead of a digging bar, removed a languishing dogwood with one deft tug, and replaced it with a majestic Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira.’ We designed in the dirt over the next few weeks using A. saccharum ‘Monumentale,’ Picea glauca ‘Pendula’ and Abies alba ‘Spiralis’ as anchor plants, then surrounding them with rocks and more unique conifers. All I needed now was a place to sit and enjoy the space.
The following spring, my oldest brother Seth replaced the slate patio with natural stone that matches the boulders. His patio is the take-off for a stone path that leads through the living menagerie into the secret garden — Carole’s sanctuary, now faithfully tended by me.
It’s uncanny the way I share Carole’s love of cooking and disinterest in flowers. Flowers are ephemeral. Conifers, well… they’re just as beautiful with tender spring growth as they are dusted with snow. But my garden isn’t just a collection of conifers. It’s a refuge to share with people I love. It’s solace after a hard days’ work in the pathology lab. It’s a lesson in respect for nature. It’s how I coped with a divorce. Sometimes, when I look out on the backyard as I bake, or simply catch a glimpse of the Hinokis pruned to a 7-foot hedge pulling out of my driveway, the beauty makes me catch my breath. I think it would have the same effect on Aunt Carole.
If you are attending the NER Annual Meeting in September I would hope that it would have the same effect on you; I look forward to your visit. If you can’t make it, I’d be pleased to answer any questions you may have in the Comments below.
Ed. Note: A version of this article first appeared in the NER newsletter, Coniferous Contemplations. This is the third in our ‘Welcome to My Garden’ series which offers a preview of upcoming conifer garden tours for members. If you missed it, visit Mert Bohonos’s garden which will also be part of the NER annual meeting in September and Jody and Kimberly Karlin’s garden at the National Meeting in June.