Welcome to the Kral Garden

By Jerry Kral in Mulch

Ten years ago when the ACS visited my garden it was on two thirds of an acre. In 2008, however, I acquired an adjacent lot of about 14,000 square feet so attendees to September's NER Annual Meeting will be visiting a considerably different site. My original gardens were mostly under the high deciduous shade of a black locust grove (Robinia pseudoacacia) and a large London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia). The new lot is in full sun. At last, I could revel in the joy of collecting and growing the sun-loving conifers always denied me.

Red and black pumice rock garden displaying miniature and dwarf conifers
Red and black pumice rock garden displaying miniature and dwarf conifers

Since the last ACS visit my list of conifer cultivars has expanded from about 250 to almost 360. A meandering quarter mile pathway of Pennsylvania bluestone connecting dozens of small raised beds defined the 2004 garden. Additional paths have since been added leading to special areas of interest or comfy sitting nooks. Pathway construction continued into the new lot.

The new pathways interconnect several styles of rock gardens. Red and black pumice gardens were carefully designed to suggest actual lava flows and “thrusts” including small “caldera”. Miniature Cryptomeria, Picea, Chamaecyparis, Pinus, Tsuga, Abies, and Juniperus are all artfully tucked into the designed nooks and crannies of the pumice rockeries.

Other rock garden styles include container, tabletop, and mixed constructs using several types of rock. The various designs allow the aesthetic display of dozens of miniature and micro-mini conifers, some having growth rates as little as 1/8 inch per year. A tufa (freshwater limestone) crevice garden was constructed using four pallets of tufa from British Columbia.

Not expecting success, I planted some miniature conifers into this high pH rock garden. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that they thrived! Thus far my list of conifers that do well in tufa include Picea abies, Pinus banksiana, Thuja communis, Chamaecyparis obtusa, Chamaecyparis pisifera and Abies lasiocarpa. I plan to test other genera as I add to my conifer collection.

Surrounding three sides of the new lot is the “Great Wall of Kral”. This massive construction project took 1,500 hours spread over a year and a half to build. Ranging 3-8 feet in height and 3-4 feet in width, the wall required 175, two-ton pallets of Pennsylvania moss rock and 30 yards of gravel.

In summary, the new garden is a 14,000-foot walk-through a rock garden where one can get up close and personal with dozens of choice miniature and micro-mini conifers.

I believe all gardens need good sitting areas. In 2004 I had added five wooden benches, two concrete benches and a pair of bright red wooden rocking chairs. I discovered one of the rocking chairs had collapsed after a visit by a garden club. One by one, the benches reached the danger point and were retired. They needed yearly maintenance and were expensive to keep replacing.

A couple years ago I discovered “Polywood Furniture”. Constructed by our local Amish community, it is “lumber” formed from recycled plastic. The colors are brilliant, run through the material and are scratch and fade resistant. Water doesn't soak in (no rot or moss) and the Amish offer top quality workmanship using stainless steel hardware. These chairs seem indestructible and the variety of styles being offered is growing every year. Visitors to the 2014 garden will find dozens of colorful seats, glider benches and rockers. I expect to see a lot more of you sitting around, rocking, dozing or soaking up the views.

No garden seems complete without statuary or ornamental displays. A few years ago I fell in love with hand-blown, orange mushroom-shaped glass lights. I may have had five or six in 2004. Now I have dozens. The manufacturer tells me that, based on my orders, I may have the largest collection of these low voltage mushroom lights in the country. The lights are part of an elaborate low voltage system requiring nine 600-watt transformers but I enjoy deploying them because they are bright and colorful even during the day.

New statuary has been added. In 2004 I had two sets of giant hypertufa mushrooms made by a local artist; I have added five more sets since, two of which reside in the new garden. There are new fairy, dragon and bird statues. Part of my design philosophy is to provide some appeal to young people; they will be our future gardeners, after all. My 8-year-old niece who lives next door loves to romp through the garden visiting each fairy, dragon or giant mushroom. To be honest, I’ve even seen some adults do the same.

Tufa crevice garden featuring Pinus banksiana ‘Schoodic.’
Tufa crevice garden featuring Pinus banksiana ‘Schoodic.’

The “Secret Garden,” which was installed in 1996, was very popular during the 2004 visit but it required a complete reconstruction. The original retaining walls were not properly built and started collapsing or slumping. The plant selection was not well thought out either. The circular row of arborvitae had grown so tall that it felt like you were sitting in the bottom of a silo!

The outer perimeter was redone in the fall of 2012 using correct dry wall construction techniques. The inner wall, a more elaborate construct, required an engineered retaining wall using pegged block. An ornamental veneer of local fieldstone was attached and ledges were installed to display potted plants and/or garden ornaments. A more diverse and better selection of plants should soon fill it in and once again make the garden “secret.”

Instead of a circle of tall arborvitae I added fastigiate and pendulous yews. Intermixed are some select cultivars of Acer palmatum, Picea orientalis, Tsuga canadensis and Styrax japonicum ‘Pendula’. The lesson learned here is to do it right in the first place and you will only need to do it once.

The gardens entered their first “10 year horizon” in 2004. The second will occur in this year. Trees have been removed. Many conifers do not do well in heavy snow and ice loads, especially arborvitae with multiple leaders. One tires of trying to keep them from breaking and splaying apart. Others have disease or pest issues such as red spider mite on Picea glauca and tip blight on some junipers. Some just grow too large.

Fortunately the palette of conifers that are not as prone to these conditions has increased dramatically over the past 20 years. I’ve learned that pruning can sometimes turn “problem” trees into unique specimens. Cloud pruning an overgrown Juiperus communis has not only kept it in bounds but also added structural strength and an attractive wind-swept appearance.

Another lesson learned is to give some thought before removing an overgrown, but otherwise healthy and vigorous tree. The same tree in a large pot at a nursery may be worth several hundred dollars. Pruning the lower branches may be all that’s needed to get rid of the overgrowth problem. This opens up the trunk to light and you now have a new area to tuck in smaller conifers or grasses. There may even be a “tree within your tree” just waiting to be discovered.

A Picea abies ‘Pygmaea’ (dwarf Norway spruce) sporting a large witches broom was seriously crowding its neighbors. I thought removal of the tree was the only solution. I began pruning out the lower branches of the Pygmaea. This amounted to removal of over half the tree. As I began to cut branches from the broom it dawned on me that I had an unnamed broom, 30 inches across, perched on a slightly curved, 6-inch caliper trunk. This was one unique specimen! The broom even looks healthier now that it is getting all the water, air and nutrients once used by the more vigorous Pygmaea.

The 2004 garden featured cultivars of the usual shade tolerant conifers; white pine, hemlock, Norway spruce and yews. Many of us enjoy pushing our planting zones. I enjoyed pushing shade tolerance. I learned that the palette of shade tolerant conifers is larger and more diverse than usually thought. Thujopsis dolobrata ‘Nana’ and ‘Variegata’, Sciadopitys verticillata ‘Joe Kozey’, Picea orientalis ‘Gowdy’, ‘Shadow’s Broom’, and ‘Skylands’ and Picea omorika ‘Nana’ and ‘Pendula’ are just a few not usually considered shade tolerant.

The 2008 land acquisition allowed me to plant some of these same plants in full sun situations. Many surprises ensued. Some shade grown plants had a softer more open growth habit. Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Snow’ adopts a pyramidal growth habit in shade and a more globe-like habit with multiple leaders in full sun. Its white variegation becomes subtler in shade giving the tree a frosted tinge rather than full sun, bright white.

Picea orientalis looks great in shade with its clean, glossy needles. P. orientalis ‘Skylands’ has a subtle golden glow in shade and “screams” yellow in full sun. I also learned that dwarfs and miniatures often succeed in shade where their full size cultivars fail. They seem to get light just at the right time to support their tiny growth rate and then “relax” as they harden-off in the shade. The miniature Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘White Pygmy’ does almost as well in shade as in sun. The habit is a bit more open and the color a bit creamier in shade but the plant is otherwise healthy and vigorous.

Two sets of giant hypertufa mushrooms tucked into the conifer landscape
Two sets of giant hypertufa mushrooms tucked into the conifer landscape

These are just a few examples of what visitors can expect to see as they stroll through the gardens this fall. Almost everything will be labeled with additional labels for plants with a story. There are several “the only example of" conifer seedlings, perennials and some deciduous trees. The hundreds of conifers add strong structure, color, and exciting contrasts in texture and form. They give the gardens an exotic look not usually found in gardens limited to herbaceous borders.

Editor's Note: Jerry's outstanding garden has been featured in earlier newsletters and in CQ. He is the 'star' of many of the videos on our home page, is a Master Gardener, president of the local garden club in Rochester and a longstanding ACS member who chairs our NER plant auction. If you attend our meeting in September you'll find him willing to answer your questions. Just look for the tall guy with with the bandana and cut-offs (weather permitting.)

This is the fourth in our ‘Welcome to My Garden’ series that offers a preview of upcoming conifer garden tours for members. Visit Mert Bohonos’s garden and Brooke Henninger's garden that will also be part of the NER annual meeting in September and Jody and Kimberly Karlin’s garden at the National Meeting in June.

— Suzanne Mahoney, Editor, Coniferous Contemplations.