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Welcome to My Garden

Brooke Henninger's small urban Tudor house is surrounded by over 150 conifer cultivars.
Brooke Henninger’s small urban Tudor house is surrounded by over 150 conifer cultivars.

Photo by Elmer Dustman


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.

What Aunt Carole called “My Hinokis” are species chamaecyparis which create a hedge between my neighbor’s driveway and my backyard. Only my neighbor’s dormer can get a peek into my secret garden.

Photo by Elmer Dustman

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.

My brother Seth replaced the slate patio with quarried stone that blends with similar pavers that wend through the garden. The pavers pick up the color of the boulders we brought in.
My brother Seth replaced the slate patio with quarried stone that blends with similar pavers that wend through the garden. The pavers pick up the color of the boulders we brought in.

Photo by Brooke Henninger

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.

10 comments to “Welcome to My Garden

  1. Sean Callahan commented

    Thanks, Brooke. You’ve done a splendid job here. I imagine that Aunt Carole would be proud to see how you’ve reinvented the garden and made it your own.

    Aside from the late, lamented Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea,’ we don’t see too many yellow or variegated cultivars. Is that a deliberate choice to keep your palette skewed towards the blue-green conifer spectrum?

    If there are some splashy conifers that you like, what might we see when we visit in September?

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  2. Brooke Henninger commented

    I do have some more variegated and yellow conifers that are not in the pictures. Two of my favorites are Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kerdalo,’ and Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph.’ I’m still in mourning over the Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea;’ it was so unusual, and when I saw its needles start to drop, I got all choked up.

    There aren’t any new conifers in particular that I’m seeking out. My purchases are becoming more conservative in that I buy what looks cool, and what I think will actually survive in Rochester. Moreover, I try to keep the overall appearance of my garden in mind. I want it to flow, and not just be a mish-mash of cultivars.

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  3. Brent Markus commented

    Brooke. First off, BEAUTIFUL garden.

    What is the conifer just to the right of, in front of the Picea glauca ‘Pendula’? I can’t quite tell from the photo.

    Regarding the Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’
    Did it die in the summer/fall or the spring? If the spring, then it was likely a hardiness issue. If the summer/fall it was likely due to the rootstock it was grafted onto. Most producers of firs are located in Oregon and they used to use Abies balsamea and Abies nordmanniana as understocks (also…some still do). Those rootstocks are prone to Phytoptera and dying due to poorly drained soils. We have found that Abies bornmuelleriana (Turkish fir) is not as prone to Phytoptera and can therefore handle wet sites and humidity better than the others. For areas further south, I recommend the Turkish fir grafts as well, but for very warm areas and where summer temperatures consistently exceed 100F, Abies firma is the way to go.

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  4. Tom Cox commented

    I agree with Brent. The first question I always pose is what was the rootstock which I suspect the owner rarely knows. For sure it is grafted. I have seen A. pinsapo in the wild in Spain and it is considerably warmer there than Rochester, NY. This could be a factor. Other thoughts/questions are how long was the plant in the ground, drainage, etc.

    As a side note, we have grown the species quite well for 4+ yrs on nordmann rootstock, which has come as a complete surprise. My advice is to keep on experimenting — we all lose plants.

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  5. Bob Fincham commented

    Balsam fir should do just fine in Rochester. It is grown south of there for Christmas trees. It could be any of a number of things. More information is needed. Just a few: planted too deep, poorly draining soil, if container grown it could have circled roots, too much loving attention, sun scald, failure of the graft union for no apparent reason, planting hole not properly prepared. The list could go on a bit longer yet.

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  6. Brooke Henninger commented

    Hi Everyone,
    Thanks so much for your responses. It may take me a bit to reply sometimes — my day job, which funds my plant habit, can keep me pretty busy — but I will get back to you.

    Brent: Are you referring to the conical shaped plant? That’s P. glauca ‘Daisy White,’ and I love it. The pinsapo fir died in the fall. It survived a hot summer beautifully, and one day, when I was taking the trash out, I noticed the color looked off. I tapped it and the needles tumbled sadly to the ground. I’d planted it about two years prior. I do seem to have luck with Abies koreana, and I have an Abies nordmanniana ‘Golden Spreader’ that seems to be healthy (knock on wood).

    Tom: You’re right. I’m not sure about the rootstock. Fellow Coneheads have mentioned this issue to me at meetings when I’m crying the blues about my fir deaths. Maybe I’ll try that cultivar again; it’s so unique and I loved having it. I think I heard someone say at the Michigan national meeting “Kill and learn. If you haven’t planted something three times, you haven’t tried.”

    Bob: Circled roots could indeed be a problem. I learned how deadly those are at a talk I attended at the Mt. Kisco meeting. I planted it when I was still quite a gardening neophyte, so my planting depth could also have been off. Chris Law told me to err on the side of shallow when I’m digging holes. “Too deep equals death,” he said. And wait a minute, is there such a thing as too much loving attention?

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  7. Janice LeCocq commented

    What a lovely garden! I would love to see it “in person”! And a great story. Thank you!

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  8. Jerry Kral commented

    Brent & Brooke,

    I checked my photos and I believe (after zooming it to infinity in photoshop from Karen’s original raw photo) that Brent is referring to the conifer with long filaments and it looks like ‘Whipcord’ to me.

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  9. Brooke Henninger commented

    Hi Jerry and Brent,

    Sorry for the delay. Yes, that’s my ‘Whipcord.’ My mother would love to have one at her place in Canandaigua, NY, but I imagine the deer would eat it.

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