The most important woody plants for any Minnesota  landscape garden are  the  conifer evergreens. 

If you were to ask most Minnesotans, the garden aware or not, what the longest landscape season in  Minnesota might be, they would be confused, hesitant, unsure how to answer, rather than think first and reveal the answer everyone knows….WINTER!

In fact our Minnesota winter is equal to all of its  other landscape seasons, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, combined.    Here in the Twin Cities it used to last from November 1st to May 1st  on the average for the first 30 years of my life…..gradually warming to a more tolerable November 15 to April 15 with an  earlier Spring to show up every once in awhile as in the Spring of 2010.

Last November it was the 13th of the month when Winter exploded all in one Saturday and Winter never relented for the rest of the season.    Dare we remember?

So, figure it out.   If  Winter lasts here as a landscape season as long as the other seasons combined, it doesn’t take much thinking to conclude what I concluded still playing “landscaping” in my sandbox nearly 70 years ago.   A Minnesota winter is very harsh and bleak without them.

So, the most important plants in the Minnesota landscape are evergreen conifers.   They stand as the core to any and all landscape gardens in our Northland.  Their form and colors dominate from  the first of November till about the 15th of May when the big sized deciduous trees begin to color up the neighborhoods with their cover of green lace which lasts only about a week.   Usually, by May 20,  the tree and shrub line of our landscapes is overwhelmed with green……masses of green……chlorophyll doing its thing most efficiently, with the conifers no longer dominant, but blending into the mass often even in form.

A landscape garden rich in conifer evergreens well placed,  is a noticeably  attractive  landscape garden twelve months of every years…….and is most beautiful when the artist’s eye makes the effort to set the scene beautifully rather than planting them all in lines.

Over the past twenty years no grouping of plants can match the number of truly useful, hardy,   and beautiful  plants introduced to  our northern world than the evergreen conifers.

They grow from ground creepers, such as Motherlode or Icee Blue Junipers  to the behemoths, the Eastern White Pine and Norway Spruce….100 or more feet tall…….and so much beautiful stuff in between.

I have  been asked to list some of my favorite evergreen conifers for our Minnesota landscape gardens……I shall limit myself to ten.

However, before I begin the top ten of my today’s ranking (tomorrow I might be in a different mood),  I have to remind you, dear reader, as a genus, Thuja, the Arborvitaes are by far the most needed, versatile, easiest to grow, with the widest range of variety for most of Minnesota where there is ample winter cover and growing season moisture.  

1…Of the major sized trees of any kind, deciduous or conifer, my favorite shade tree  is the Eastern White Pine.

The Minnesota nursery industry is cruel and always has been cruel to this magnificent piece of all year beauty.    For these misfits  tend to prune all young conifers to look like Christmas trees.

The most beautiful trees in Minnesota are the Eastern White Pine.    Take a trip to Hackensack, Bemidji, or the Lake Itasca region, or look in some of the older communities of the Twin Cities if you have any doubts.

And they are shade trees ever bit as much as the Sugar Maple or Green Ash.    And they drop no acorns on your bean as do the bur oaks and the white pine’s major competitor for beauty, the mature White Oak.

Spruce are not shade trees.   Tree forms are conical by nature.  It’s their habit.   They can’t help it.   As beautiful as the Blue Colorado Spruce used to be, it is no more as a mature specimen.   Too many diseases and too much shade have come to destroy its magnificence.  

2…However, my garden has to have a Hillside Spruce somewhere in its character….so I have three… about a foot tall, on its way to 25 feet, another six feet on its way to 25 feet, and another nearly ten feet tall of the same statistics, except that on my grounds with my great soil, all will probably reach 35 feet or more.  It is a Norway Spruce cultivar which looks like candelabrum when young…..very stiffly branched…..very proud of itself….and very green, dark green.

There are many, many dwarf and dwarfish Norway Spruce now available for planting in our Minnesota landscape gardens….But one has to shop around  for some of the best of them.

3.   I admit that I am stuck on the DeGroot’s Arborvitae.   The most beautiful I have ever seen are growing on  a property on Riviera Road north of St. Cloud,  in sand with an automatic watering system…and regularly fertilized.   The last time I saw them, perhaps five years ago, they had reached 20 feet in height, and narrow as a needle with dense foliage.   

DeGroots is a semi-dwarf pyramidal arborvitae.   It is a beautiful specimen as a needle upright and as a needle upright enframes anything and everything as you  approach  it. 

4.   Another arborvitae….this time a shrub….Rheingold Arborvitae, and it must be grown in full sun from dawn to three o’clock anyway to bring out its burnt orange tints……the only conifer shrub of such talents.   I think I have six or seven of these to show off, but only two are in full morning sun, yet I like them all.

Despite all of the complaints about junipers being prickly, this genus, Juniperus, is almost as rich in its offerings as Thuja.  The Eastern Red Cedar can become a spectacular tree of greatest character, but I am no going to include it among my favorites here.   Instead I am going to select a ground creeper:   5…Icee Blue Juniper…….a shiny bluish beauty which glows in full sun.   It rises only a few inches above the ground and can creep for many feet.  It is expecially impressive creeping over retaining walls.

6….Hetz Juniper….an upright usually pruned to look pyramidal, but more naturally grows broader.  It has darker green, prickly foliage, but it carries two beautiful colors of fruit…juniper ‘berries’, as they say.    One set, the present year’s set of ‘berries’ is light blue which usually adds to countless sets of  purplish blue ‘berries’ from last year’s production.   Now, imagine healthy dark green foliage with bright lighter green young shoots cluttered with both light blue and purplish blue produce of ‘berries’ all at the same time….now, that is a beautifully colored  plant.

It can get very tall.

7.  Sunkist (or Yellow Ribbon) Arborvitae is an absolute must for any Minnesota home grounds with good soil, ample moisture, and a space in full sun….at least for 7 hours of the day….eastern exposure.   My gardens always include this beauty some way or another worked into a spot along with DeGroot’s arborvitae.  

Don’t believe the labels regarding this beauty’s height (eight feet)…..I have three Sunkists all of which are surpassing  20 feet.   I don’t mind.   I’d give them their space no matter what.

8.  Swiss Stone Pine……Neat, precise, confident and superior in attitude, as if it is too beautiful to ever be found in  just any old garden……for it’s immediate presence impacts the scene.   This is a must for any smaller space for it is a slow grower and does not reach out in all directions as it ages as does the much larger Eastern White Pine.

9,  Gentsch Hemlock…, is this beautiful….ever so graceful with its younger branchings.  which tend to be whitish as they ‘pop’ out in late spring and in shade, likely to be showing off all summer.

There are many cultivars of Hemlock (Tsuga), many I have not mentioned of the arborvitaes and junipers all of which could be listed among the best 50 conifers, or 100 conifers to select for use from ground covers to major trees.   Very old Scots Pines are unforgettable in their beauty, almost always for  unique and unpredictable reasons but almost always showing off their striking bright orange bark.     Some of the best dwarf pines are Scots Pines….a very good one being, Pinus sylvestris ‘pumila’.   

10….Chamaecyparis pisifera   aurea  filifera…..In late spring  of 1974 our good friend and devoted gardener Allie Simonds gave my wife and me  two of these Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea  as house warming plants.   I had heard of a Boulevard Chamaecyparis before.   I knew the Boulevard  Chamaecyparis was hardy, because  a Mr. Maynard was growing a beauty in the front grounds of his home in DULUTH, and the home was not along Lake Superior’s  Park Point……(the warmest horicultural zone in the state of Minnesota, by the way….a legitimate zone 5 even forty years ago).

In 1974 the two  gifts were a bit larger than my two fists, that is, a gift per fist.

I was nervous for I felt  the pressure was on me to make the gifts happy.   Were they hardy?    Allie had bought them from White Flower Farms in Connecticut.   There was no internet to zoom to for a Connecticut view of the matter….for it did say zone 5 on a tiny label… I thought it needed protection.  

How does one protect an evergreen so small?   I decided to place them both lined up along my walkway to the back garden where I would have to see their progress every day of their lives, which to tell you the  truth, I suspected would be short.

How did I know in 1974 our horticultural zone in the Twin Cities would leave zone 4 and close in on zone 5?   I was all for it and am even more so today.   Why should anyone prefer killing weather for six months of the year when it can happen for only 4 or so?

I thought these  newbies were going to be shrubby as the picture on the tiny label suggested….with a bit of an upright look to them.   Eventually by the 1990s Sungold and later King’s Gold Chamaecyparis showed up on the local market….as shrubs.

They are still sold as shrubs….but these pisifera chamaecyparis are really trees masquerading as shrubs….sold a shrubs because nurserymen can sell 20 shrubs to every tree of a species.

One of the  most beautiful understory conifer  trees on my grounds are these two Chamaecyparis pisifera aurea filifera  now over twenty feet tall.   They look beautifully Japanesie in natural form.   They had been growing under a mature but struggling oak tree for more than thirty years,  which was removed a year ago this past November.  Neither Chamaecyparis  had ever shown anything ‘aurea’….for decades bearing  only a green green until this summer.  

Both are now brilliant yellow in folliage….and that is a real attraction to go with their natural Japanesie character…..lightly peeling bark carrying slightly weeping branchings.

Note:  For all of you who have bought King’s Gold or Sungold Chamaecyparis as a shrub…..I have some new for you……yes, they too are  TREES by nature…..if you allow them to become trees.   My tallest Sungold, growing without prunind,  thus far is ten feet tall…..and it carries its yellow foliage unchanged throughout the winter.

How do you like that color and  snow combination?